Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"The Egg" by Sherwood Anderson is a story about potential and failure. The plot is designed around a simple conflict: the narrator's father is ambitious and struggles against external and internal forces to become successful.
At the chicken farm, the father faces the external antagonist of chicken diseases which keep eggs from incubating and turns those eggs that do hatch into monstrous chicks that cannot survive. The conflict continues when the narrator's father opens a restaurant, and decides the best way to thrive as a restaurant is to become "public entertainment." The climax of this conflict comes when he fails to engage and entertain a young man from Bidwell named Joe Kane.
There is also internal conflict in the story. The father, who has started working the night shift at the restaurant, has too much time to think about his failures. The conclusion he comes to about his own failure to thrive and his scheme to change his future for the better is described as the “American spirit” taking hold of him. He decides that his lack of cheeriness has been his downfall: surely after adopting a positive outlook, things will begin looking up.
But in actuality, the father is his own worst enemy. He overthinks his failure, blaming the lack of customers on his and his wife's uncheerful demeanors. Thus, he invents a ridiculous scheme to draw in customers involving feigning cheerfulness and becoming a public entertainer, which is against his natural disposition and hardly makes sense with so few young customers seeking a show.
In the real world—even today—there are locations in small towns that attract tourists with oddities, like giant corn palaces or restaurants where unique collections decorate the walls. In the era in which this was written, fairs displaying interesting inventions were also common. So, the idea of a restaurant that also entertains in and of itself is not the issue. The problem is that the father is naturally serious and introverted by nature, and he has odd interests himself (such as cheap tricks that can be done with eggs and the deformed baby hens that he keeps preserved in alcohol and on display in the restaurant).
The father’s undoing, as the story says, was in making this pivotal decision to "adopt a cheerful outlook on life" and become an "entertainer" that the father becomes insincere and eccentric in his behavior towards customers. His peculiar, out-of-character behavior is a product of attempting to do what does not come naturally to him, and ironically drives a customer to believe he is insane. Ultimately, this repels business.
Symbolism also is important to this story's meaning. The narrator himself struggles with a positive outlook on life because of his father's failures to be successful. He comes to question the meaning of life as he watches the hens grow up on the chicken farm, and draws parallels to the lives of men, which he knows primarily about through observing his parents.
After describing all the "tragic" plights of chickens—from diseases to being run over to staring off into space meaninglessly until death comes—the narrator says:
Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms. One hopes for so much from a chicken and is so dreadfully disillusioned.
This excerpt shows that the narrator is aware of all the tragedies that can also befall men, as philosophers will observe the world and draw conclusions about the nature of human existence in general.
The narrator then continues by shifting attention away from the symbolism of the lives of chickens to the symbolism of the egg itself. The narrator reveals that, like...
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the philosophers he mentioned, he has read symbolism related to human existence in the unhatched egg. Being a child in the story, he has had a limited vision of the adult world, and so he draws parallels between the egg and his father's failures to succeed. Just as the eggs failed to incubate and hatch into healthy chicks on the chicken farm, so his father has failed to hatch something lucrative in business.
His chicken farm failed to thrive, and his restaurant also fails to become a lively business. Despite the egg becoming a symbol of unhatched potential, the father and son both remain enamored with the egg, a symbol of their obsession with unrealized potential and their desire to understand why success comes to some and tragedy to others.
This question of why success comes to some and failure to others may also be behind the father's interest in the deformed chicks. The father is similar to the deformed chicks in that he is a bit odd in his lack of social conditioning and morbid, farm-related interests. The narrator shows the significant symbolism of the deformed chicks where he notes that his father grieved their deaths. He wished that he could have saved the chicks, for then he would have something interesting to parade around. This, in turn, would bring him success.
The father believes the deformed chicks have value, and this is why he grieves them. Their value is never rewarded with a chance to live, just as the father's odd personality is never rewarded with a chance to be successful. He holds the belief that there are others who take an interest in the deformed chicks, such as other farmhands, but the father soon learns the chicks are not viewed by successful society as unusual and interesting. Instead, they are repellent and grotesque. He learns this lesson the hard way after testing them on Joe Kane as entertainment
The father breaks down and cries after his failure to entertain Joe Kane, not just because he has failed to secure a lifelong customer, but because he exposed his own odd interests in a bout of superficial extroversion and then ended up becoming a laughing stock. This is just another reason his attempts to successfully entertain are short-lived, because there is something warped and unnatural about them, just as there was something warped and unnatural about the "grotesques" that he collects.