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American poet and author Raymond Carver (1938 - 1988) is one of those rare writers who is known, like Alice Munro, primarily for his work in the short story form. Due to his economical use of language, Carver is often associated with a literary movement known as "minimalism," but he himself objected to the term. In a 1983 interview, he said, "There's something about 'minimalist' that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don't like."
"Feathers" is the opening story of Carver's 1983 collection, Cathedral, in which he began to move away from the minimalist style.
Plot of "Feathers"
SPOILER ALERT: If you don't want to know what happens in the story, don't read this section.
The narrator, Jack, and his wife, Fran, are invited to dinner at the home of Bud and Olla. Bud and Jack are friends from work, but no one else in the story has met before. Fran is not enthusiastic about going.
Bud and Olla live in the country and have a baby and a pet peacock. Jack, Fran, and Bud watch television while Olla prepares dinner and occasionally tends to the baby, who is fussing in another room. Fran notices a plaster cast of very crooked teeth sitting on top of the television. When Olla enters the room, she explains that Bud paid for her to have braces, so she keeps the cast to "remind me how much I owe Bud."
During dinner, the baby begins fussing again, so Olla brings him to the table. He is shockingly ugly, but Fran holds him and delights in him in spite of his appearance. The peacock is permitted inside the house and plays gently with the baby.
Later that night, Jack and Fran conceive a child even though they had not previously wanted children. As the years pass, their marriage sours and their child demonstrates "a conniving streak." Fran blames their problems on Bud and Olla even though she saw them only on that one night.
Wishes play a prominent role in the story.
Jack explains that he and Fran regularly wished "out loud for things we didn't have," like a new car or the chance to "spend a couple of weeks in Canada." They don't wish for children because they don't want children.
It is clear that the wishes aren't serious. Jack acknowledges as much when he describes approaching Bud and Olla's house:
"I said, 'I wish we had us a place out here.' It was just an idle thought, another wish that wouldn't amount to anything."
In contrast, Olla is a character who has actually made her wishes come true. Or rather, she and Bud together have made her wishes come true. She tells Jack and Fran:
"I always dreamed of having me a peacock. Since I was a girl and found a picture of one in a magazine."
The peacock is loud and exotic. Neither Jack nor Fran has ever seen one before, and it is much more dramatic than any of the idle wishes they've been making. Yet Olla, an unassuming woman with an ugly baby and teeth that needed straightening, has made it a part of her life.
Though Jack would place the date later, Fran believes their marriage began to deteriorate precisely on the night they had dinner at Bud and Olla's, and she blames Bud and Olla for it. Jack explains:
"'Goddamn those people and their ugly baby,' Fran will say, for no apparent reason, while we're watching TV late at night."
Carver never makes it clear exactly what Fran blames them for, nor does he make it clear exactly why the dinner gathering inspires Jack and Fran to have a baby.
Perhaps it's because Bud and Olla seem so happy with their strange, squawking-peacock, ugly-baby lives. Fran and Jack don't think they want the particulars - a child, a house in the country, and certainly not a peacock - yet perhaps they find they do want the contentedness that Bud and Olla seem to have.
And in some ways, Olla does give the impression that her happiness is a direct result of the particulars of her situation. Olla compliments Fran on her naturally straight teeth while she herself had required braces - and Bud's devotion - to fix her crooked smile. At one point, Olla says, "You wait until you get our own baby, Fran. You'll see." And as Fran and Jack are leaving, Olla even hands Fran some peacock feathers to take home.
But Fran seems to be missing one fundamental element that Olla has: gratitude.
When Olla explains how grateful she is to Bud for straightening her teeth (and, more generally, giving her a better life), Fran doesn't hear her because she is "picking through the can of nuts, helping herself to the cashews." The impression is that Fran is self-centered, so focused on her own needs that she can't even hear someone else's expression of gratitude.
Similarly, it seems symbolic that when Bud says grace, Olla is the only one who says amen.
Where Happiness Comes From
Jack does note one wish that came true:
"What I wished for was that I'd never forget or otherwise let go of that evening. That's one wish of mine that came true. And it was bad luck for me that it did."
The evening seemed very special to him, and it left him feeling "good about almost everything in my life." But he and Fran may have miscalculated where that good feeling was coming from, thinking it came from having things, like a baby, rather than feeling things, like love and appreciation.