Summary

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Last Updated on October 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706

The story begins with background information about the narrator’s parents. The narrator describes his father, a farmhand, as living an unambitious life before marrying his mother, a teacher. The inciting incident of the story seems to be the narrator’s birth. After he is born, his parents become ambitious for the first time in their lives. The narrator attributes this to his mother being a teacher, and therefore a reader. He holds the belief that because his mother was well-read and knew what the world could offer, she wanted more for her family. 

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The rising action continues with the narrator discussing his parents’ first attempts at success, which turns out to be a ten-year failure on a chicken farm. In this section, the narrator takes some time setting up the symbolic significance of eggs by explaining how being raised on a chicken farm led to his early disillusion with the world. He writes, “From the beginning they were impressions of disaster and if, in my turn, I am a gloomy man inclined to see the darker side of life, I attribute it to the fact that what should have been for me the happy joyous days of childhood were spent on a chicken farm.” Since the narrator’s family was not successful, he drew parallels between the futile lives of chickens and his own family’s failed attempts to thrive economically.

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The rising action continues with the narrator’s parents opening a restaurant. In this section, the author describes the “grotesques,” or chickens born with freakish characteristics that do not survive long, which his father preserved in alcohol and put on display. The narrator’s father seemed to believe the grotesques would have brought him fame had they lived, and he keeps them as entertainment for customers, believing that visitors would be interested in these “strange and wonderful things.” This gimmick turns out to be another representation of his parent's failures, and becomes important later on in the story. The narrator's father believes the oddities will fascinate customers, but he is wrong.

One night, a man named Joe Kane from Bidwell visits the Pickleville restaurant during the narrator’s father’s night shift. He becomes a victim of futile attempts to entertain. While the narrator's father is working the night shift, he invents a scheme to find more success by entertaining the young men and women from Birdwell, and so Joe Kane's visit is his first opportunity to entertain. Unfortunately, the narrator’s father is not a born extrovert; his attempts at conversation about Christopher Columbus make Joe believe he has real anger towards the historic figure, and his attempts to entertain make the customer think he is "mildly insane but harmless." The first trick attempted is to make an egg stand up on a table. The venture takes so long that Joe loses interest by the time the narrator's father finally achieves the remarkable feat. This is where the grotesques come in: the narrator’s father takes the grotesques down from the shelf to show the visitor, which prompts Joe to become ill and attempt to leave despite the rain. Successfully convincing Joe to stay, his father attempts one final trick, to put an egg in a bottle. As if he is a novelty shop, he promises Joe he can have the impressive egg in a bottle once he has put it inside and shown it to everyone. He probably believes Joe having it to show off will draw more customers to the restaurant. The climax of the story occurs when the narrator’s father attempts to put the vinegar-softened egg into a bottle. The egg breaks and Joe laughs at him. This angers the father, and he chucks an egg at Joe’s head as he leaves the restaurant. 

Joe just isn't as interested in eggs and chickens as the narrator's father thinks he should be. The story resolves with his father crying in front of the narrator and his mother, and then closing the restaurant early to go to sleep. The egg becomes a symbol of the family’s failure to find success in the American dream but is triumphant because it still holds a fascination for the narrator and his father.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837

“The Egg” tells the story of a childhood memory that has in a profound way shaped its narrator’s moral outlook. The tale centers on the narrator’s father, a man “intended by nature to be . . . cheerful [and] kindly,” who, through acquiring the “American passion for getting up in the world,” loses his happiness. The father’s loss engenders in the son a sense of tragedy and irresolution and a conviction that “the egg”—the source and symbol of that loss—completely and utterly triumphs over life.

The narrator begins his story by describing his father’s life as a farmhand in the rural Midwest. The older man is content in this position; he enjoys his work and the easy camaraderie of the other farmhands, who gather at a local saloon on Saturday nights. Dissatisfaction does not strike him until, at age thirty-five, he marries. His wife, “a tall silent woman with a long nose and troubled grey eyes,” initiates a change in his life. While wanting nothing for herself, she is nevertheless “incurably ambitious” for her husband and for the son born to them—the narrator. At her prompting, the man leaves the farm and, with his new family, moves closer to town to take up chicken raising.

From the chicken farm, the young narrator gains his initial impressions of life. There he sees at first hand the inescapable tragedy of the chicken:It is born out of an egg, lives for a few weeks as a tiny fluffy thing such as you will see pictured on Easter cards, then becomes hideously naked, eats quantities of corn and meal bought by the sweat of your father’s brow, gets diseases . . . stands looking with stupid eyes at the sun, becomes sick and dies.

The miserable cycle of chickenkind comes to be, for the narrator, a paradigm for human life; the chickens are so much like people that, in his mind, “they mix one up in one’s judgments of life.” The narrator’s primary problem, however, is not with “the hen,” the mature bird already locked in its mortal coils, but with “the egg,” the source of potential new life.

Against such odds as the narrator describes, chicken raising proves to be a futile struggle. Selling the chicken farm, the family loads a small wagon with their possessions and begins the slow journey to a railroad way station, where they plan to open a restaurant. Along the way, the boy-narrator, noticing his father’s balding head, imagines the bare swath of skin as a path going to “a far beautiful place where life was a happy eggless affair.” The father, however, carries with him a memento of the chicken days—a collection of “grotesques . . . born out of eggs,” alcohol-preserved specimens of two-headed or six-legged chicks hatched over the years on his farm. These he keeps in the simple belief that people like “to look at strange and wonderful things.”

After some time in the restaurant trade, the father decides that his lack of success in business derives from his failure to be pleasant enough; he resolves, therefore, to “adopt a cheerful outlook on life.” The central event of the story comes of this decision. One night while the father is tending the restaurant, a young man comes in to pass the time. Convinced that this is the moment to put into action his new cheerfulness, the father begins to imagine ways to entertain the customer. His nervousness, however, strikes the young man as odd; the customer believes the proprietor wants him to leave. Before he can do so, the father begins to perform a trick with an egg. When the trick fails to capture the young man’s attention, the father brings down from the shelf his collection of pickled grotesques. When this, too, fails to interest the customer, he tries another trick—heating an egg in vinegar so that it can be pushed inside a bottle. He promises to give the customer the egg-in-the-bottle, but again his trick proves difficult. In a final, desperate effort to force the egg into the narrow container, the father breaks the egg and spatters it on his clothes. Already leaving, the customer turns for a moment and laughs.

The father, consumed with anger, fires an egg at the retreating customer. Then, grasping another egg, he runs upstairs to the bedroom where his wife and son are no longer sleeping. The narrator, remembering his thoughts at the moment, imagines that his father “had some idea of destroying it, of destroying all eggs,” but instead he lays the egg gently down and drops to his knees, crying. The mother quietly strokes her husband’s balding head. The son, troubled by this scene of his father’s grief, weeps too. Into the night, the boy ponders the question of the egg—“why eggs had to be and why from the egg came the hen who again laid the egg”—a question that gets into his blood and remains with him unresolved into adulthood.

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