(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“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...

(The entire section is 837 words.)