The narrator, Jack, is a middle aged man recollecting for the reader about a time he and his wife Fran were invited to dinner at a colleague's house. The event proved a catalyst for changes that Jack and Fran made in their lives, changes that did not ultimately make them any happier. This sense is clear from the very beginning, as the narrator is speaking of the past.
He begins with his colleague Bud's invitation for dinner. Neither of the men knows the other's wife and they've never socialized outside of work, but they're friendly at work. Jack also knew that Bud and his wife Olla had a baby who, at the time of the invitation, was eight months old. He recalls how, when Bud first had the baby, he brought cigars to work and Jack took one, even though he didn't like cigars. The memory leads him to wonder where the time has gone since this event he is recollecting, giving the reader the first glimpse into the emotional weight of the story he means to tell.
Though Jack had never met Olla, he had heard her voice once, over the phone. Bored at home, he thought to check out what Bud was up to, but when Olla picked up the phone, he blanked on her name and hung up. He never mentioned it to Bud.
Bud tells Jack to come over around seven since the baby would be asleep, and then he draws a map to his house, which is far out in the country. The paper is profuse with lines, with an X marking their home.
Fran isn't too excited about the prospect of dinner with strangers, and is mildly stressed over what they should bring – she ultimately settles on bread. As they discuss it, Jack shares his affection for his wife, "a big tall drink of water" with long, gorgeous blond hair, a hassle she threatens to cut but never would because she knows he admires it so much. They seem to get along well as Jack tells it, connected by his love of her baking, their low-key lifestyle with each other, and with their shared desire not to have children.
On the night of the dinner, they drive out twenty miles from town to where Bud and Olla live. They have never been out in the country during their three years living in town. Jack admires the pastoral landscape but Fran is committed to studying the map and says nothing other than calling it "the sticks." Bud's yard has the same rugged quality as the countryside – corn higher than their car, gravel driveway, huge plants Jack can't identify. They also notice a baby's swing-set and toys. Jack can tell Fran is anxious through her unpleasant comments and tries to calm her down.
They hear a loud squeal and then a peacock lands on their car. They recognize it but are stunned by its fantastical qualities – its height, its harsh cry, its wild eyes, and most of all the multi-colored feathers that make up its expansive tail. Fran, so far characterized her distant coldness, reaches out and touches Jack's leg.
Bud comes out from the house, seemingly have just come from the shower, and yells at the peacock – named "Joey" – to leave them alone. Jack is surprised to see Bud dressed casually, as he dressed at work, since Jack had dressed up. Bud greets them and is introduced to Fran, who gives him the loaf of bread. When they head into the house, Joey tries to force his way in, and Bud complains affably how Olla lets it into the house. Fran surprises Jack by commenting on how nice the place is.
They meet Olla inside. She is a plump woman with red cheeks, and a bit awkward. After taking the bread, she asks them to get drinks and sit in the living room while she finishes dinner. When Jack wants to smoke, Bud gives him a swan-shaped ashtray, which he finds strange. They watch the TV on mute as it shows a car race. They decide to turn it off until Bud tells them about a serious pile-up from earlier, at which point Fran asks to keep it on, playing with her hair and now transfixed. Jack and Bud agree they'll drink beer while Fran asks for whiskey, and Bud fetches the drinks.
While he's gone, Fran draws Jack's attention to a bizarre sight atop the TV: "a plaster-of-Paris cast of the most crooked, jaggedy teeth in the world." Bud and Olla return, and Bud notices them looking at the teeth. He explains that this cast details what Olla's teeth were like before braces straightened them out. Olla offers that she hangs on to them despite their grotesque nature because they remind her of what she owes Bud – her first husband hadn't cared how she looked, since he was only interested in drinking, but when she met Bud, he made a point of getting the teeth fixed right away. Olla then shows off her improved smile, and Bud is quite tender with her as they tell more details about how bad her teeth were before. Jack and Fran have little to say, though he knows she will have to much to say on the subject later.
Jack suddenly confesses to Olla about the time he called and hung up. She doesn't remember. The couples fall into an awkward silence broken by the baby crying. Olla heads back to calm him and Fran asks to see the infant, but Olla doesn't want him to get excited and says they can sneak in later.
While Olla tends to the baby, the men talk about work at the kitchen table while Fran politely feigns interest. Olla returns and serves dinner, a huge meal of ham, gravy, several vegetables, salad, and Fran's bread displayed prominently. After a grace quietly spoken by Bud, they all set into the meal, not talking much except to compliment the food, with Olla granting special praise to the bread. The baby cries occasionally, and Fran again expresses interest in seeing him. She tells them how her sister in Denver has a baby she's never met.
They're all full but agree to have a bit of Olla's rhubarb pie. It's a politeness on Jack and Fran's part, since they hate rhubarb pie. Suddenly, they hear a commotion on the roof – it's the peacock, which stomps around crying its cry. Olla says Joey is whining because he wants to come in, but Bud refuses to inconvenience his guests: "That dirty bird and your old pair of teeth! What're people going to think?" Everyone laughs, moreso when Bud talks about the trouble the peacock causes. Fran asks why they got a peacock, and Olla explains it's another kindness Bud did for her – she'd always wanted a "bird of paradise" and he found one he could buy for her. He threatens he'll one day put Joey in a pot, "feathers and all," but it's all in good fun. The baby cries more, and they decide to bring him out.
Both Fran and Jack are affected by the peacock's wails, but Fran seems most interested in seeing the baby. But when Olla brings Harold (the baby) out, Fran lets loose an exclamation. They don't want to say aloud how ugly the baby is, so Bud lets them off the hook by admitting it himself, but suggesting that he's got time to improve his looks. Jack is blown over by how absolutely ugly he thinks Harold is.
Jack thinks of how many babies he had to deal with when younger, because of his older sisters. While feeding the baby, Olla asks again that Joey be let in, which Bud refuses to do unless his guests give permission. Jack can tell Fran wants him to speak, so he gives their assent. When the peacock comes in, staying apprehensively near the entrance to the room, Fran asks to hold the baby, which she does awkwardly but affectionately. While Olla tells them how her father once tried to read the entire encyclopedia, Joey walks over to Fran, who whispers something into Harold's ear. The peacock runs its neck and beak over the baby, which amazes Fran. Jack reflects on how Bud and Olla don’t seem fazed by the baby's ugliness, and that they are able to wait for "another stage" where things can possibly be different.
Jack shifts back to his present day, reflecting back at how he "felt good about almost everything in [his] life" that night, and how he wished he'd "never forget or otherwise let go" of its memory. He confesses he was granted that wish, though it proved "bad luck."
When Jack and Fran get home that night, she asks him to impregnate her, which he does happily. Back in the present tense, Jack reveals what life was like after that night. Fran thinks of that night as "the change," though he believes the change came later, after they had their child. Fran no longer works, has cut her hair, and has gotten fat. He and Bud are still friendly at work, though they never got together outside of work again and speak more cautiously than they ever had before. Jack is "careful with what [he says] to him." He tells Jack his family is "fine" but it's not so – his kid has a "conniving streak" and he and Fran don't talk much, either about problems or anything. He remembers fondly but painfully that night, when before they left, Olla gave Fran some peacock feathers and how Fran kept her hand on his leg during their drive home.
This story masterfully illustrates one of Raymond Carver's great gifts – the ability to suggest profundity not through what is said, but through what is unsaid. Like many of his narrators, Jack speaks of a moment full of meaning and import, one that he continues to return to in his memory in hopes of understanding it. Tragically, Jack lacks the vocabulary to not only understand what happened to them on the night at Bud at Olla's, but even to communicate it. He is a typical Carver protagonist in that he has minimal education, is lower or lower-middle class, and lives a life of what Thoreau might call "quiet desperation."
Indeed, silence is very much at the forefront in "Feathers," not uncommon for stories in this collection, but perhaps more so here than usual. A quick skim of the story will show how oft repeated is the phrase "Nobody said anything" or some derivation thereof. Carver's talent lies not in painstakingly analyzing the symptoms and effects of desperation, but rather in creating the experience of desperation without ever entirely pinning it down. This motif of silence suggests that, more often than not, words are our way of escaping meaning, whereas the truth lies in the mystery of silence, the impossibility of true communication. Certainly Jack wishes for a happier life, but he cannot grasp exactly what that means, and while he intuits that the answer might lie in understanding what transpired on the night of the dinner, all he confronts are moments linked by this inexorable silence. He asks himself what happened – "where has the time gone?" - but gets nothing back in return.
Much of the success lies in the first-person perspective. Jack's language is relatively plain (usual for a Carver story), which creates a lonely irony considering the profundity of the questions he confronts about his life. What's more, the use of past tense for much of the tale establishes a dramatic irony throughout – we know from the beginning that the bizarre, exciting experience of Bud's house spell disaster even if Jack and Fran do not at the time. By focusing the investigation around a man of presumably low education and ambitions, Carver leaves it to the reader to try and piece together what has happened in these silences.
And indeed, there is much for the reader to discover, since Jack observed far more than he realizes. The overarching theme in this story is isolation. In many ways Jack paints a picture of a world where people are inexorably separated from one another. In his recollection, he and Fran lived a life relatively free of anyone else, and seemed to somewhat relish separation. When he suggests they take up Bud's invitation, he reads her response as saying, "Why do we need other people?" Their difficulty deciding what to bring to the dinner – a normal expectation for dinner guests – suggests that such invitations are rare for them. One could argue that Bud and Olla's relationship has a similar isolation, since they live so far away, though their marriage (as glimpsed) speaks of a closeness that Jack and Fran lack. Their conversations are rife with these silences. On the other hand, Bud is far more playful and verbose with Olla. He makes fun of her several times through the meal – about the peacock, about keeping her teeth, etc. – but the moments are always followed by general laughter and small affections, like when Bud "winks" at her.
This contrast between the couples suggests the story's overarching conflict as well: complacency vs. adventure. Jack and Fran seem to lack not only ambition but also interest in anything outside of their immediate sphere. When Jack describes their life, he says that most of their time was spent in front of the TV ("some nights [they] went to a movie"), wishing for things they didn't have. But they never make any attempts to get those things. It's implicit that, in the early part of their marriage before the night of the dinner, this life seemed sufficient for them, though of course in the midst of such complacency, elements might seep in that are found in other stories in the collection: infidelity, boredom, unhappiness, or resentment. All this being said, it's clear that Jack was very fond of his wife in the early stage, an affection manifested through a fondness for her height and her flowing hair.
In direct contrast, Bud and Olla's life is like a carnival. The map is an early symbol of how distinct their life will be from Jack's. Filled with complicated lines and marked with an X, it calls to mind a treasure map. And indeed, their trip suggests how strange this landscape is for Jack and Fran. Firstly, they've never even bothered to go out into the country, and both respond to the overgrown land's pastoral quality. And then, of course, the central image of the story that suggests the adventure of Bud's house is Joey the peacock. It's not that everything in their life is beautiful, but it's unique. The grotesqueness of the plastered, crooked teeth, the ugly baby, the grandfather who memorized the encyclopedia… Bud and Olla live a life where there's "never a dull moment," and where they are always looking forward to "another stage."
This uniqueness affects the guests right away, even if Fran is slow to accept it. As soon as the peacock lands on their car, she reaches over and puts her hand on Jack's knee. The knee becomes a motif through two more uses: first, when Fran has the baby on her knee and the peacocks plays with them, and secondly when Jack mentions her hand on his knee when they drove home. This show of intimacy from an otherwise distant wife is nothing compared to how the trip changes their mind about children. Fran grows more and more interested in the baby, even being more interested in seeing Harold than Joey later in the story. And once they're home, she immediately asks him to "fill [her] up with [his] seed!" Something has changed – and Jack tells this story to try and figure out exactly what that was.
The final two pages show an honesty in Jack that is heartbreaking. It can be argued that he wanted so much for Fran to be the change in his life – after all, the motif of height, something he ascribes to Fran, is repeated both in the height of the corn in his friend's landscape and with the peacock itself. But that wasn't to be. Whereas he felt about Bud's house that there was something "wild and dangerous" and was excited by that, bringing that into his own life only led to sadness and disappointment. How desperately would Jack like there to be a moral to this story, an idea of where he went wrong, but there is no such easy truth, only the silence. They brought home the "feathers" – the titular symbol of adventure in change – but they are who they are and time is what it is. Fran has cut her hair and gotten fat, but who's to say that wouldn't have happened anyway? The real tragedy isn't that that Bud and Olla's house ruined them – it's instead that the glimpse of these feathers suggested to Jack the potential that something could be different, which makes the fact that they never reach "another stage" doubly heartbreaking. It'd be easier if he was oblivious to longing for something more, but that's never to be. He has to now be "careful" around his friend at work, since he knows that challenging his life of isolation can only lead to disappointment.