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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1155

"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...

(The entire section contains 1567 words.)

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"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 excerpt below shows the conclusion he comes to about his own failure to thrive and his scheme to change his future for the better:

Then an idea in regard to getting up in the world came into his head. The American spirit took hold of him. He also became ambitious. In the long nights when there was little to do father had time to think. That was his undoing. He decided that he had in the past been an unsuccessful man because he had not been cheerful enough and that in the future he would adopt a cheerful outlook on life.

This excerpt shows that 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.

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 his interest in 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.

"That was his undoing," the excerpt above says, because it 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 eccentric, abnormal behavior, which is a product of attempting to do what does not come naturally to him, ironically drives a customer to believe he is insane and, ultimately, repels business.

Symbolism also is important to this story's meaning. The narrator struggles himself 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 about primarily 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 quote 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:

I, however, digress. My tale does not primarily concern itself with the hen. If correctly told it will centre on the egg. For ten years my father and mother struggled to make our chicken farm pay and then they gave up that struggle and began another.

In this excerpt, the narrator reveals that, like 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:

The things do not live. They go quickly back to the hand of their maker that has for a moment trembled. The fact that the poor little things could not live was one of the tragedies of life to father. He had some sort of notion that if he could but bring into henhood or rooster-hood a five-legged hen or a two-headed rooster his fortune would be made. He dreamed of taking the wonder about to county fairs and of growing rich by exhibiting it to other farmhands.

The quote shows that 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 farmhands, but the father soon learns—by testing them on Joe Kane as entertainment—that the chicks are not viewed by successful society as unusual and interesting but as repellent and grotesque.

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 is own odd interests in a bout of superficial extrovertedness and 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.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

Much of the power of “The Egg” comes from the narrator’s ability to articulate the inner life of his father. This difference between father and son becomes indirectly the subject of a passage in which the narrator explains his father’s decision to become cheerful:It was father’s notion that a passion for the company of himself and mother would spring up in the breasts of the younger people of the town of Bidwell. . . . They would troop shouting with joy and laughter into our place. There would be joy and festivity. I do not mean to give the impression that father spoke so elaborately of the matter. He was as I have said an uncommunicative man. “They want some place to go. I tell you they want some place to go,” he said over and over. That was as far as he got. My own imagination has filled in the blanks.

The father’s repetitive statement reveals in a rough and untutored way his simple urge toward a better life. However, he is not more able to carry out this urge in action than he is able to express it in words. In fact, the urge itself, the ambition to rise in life, leads him out of his natural element—the rural and masculine life of a farmhand—and into the urban, feminine, and civilized town life that requires a greater complexity of mind, speech, and social savvy than he possesses.

In contrast, the son imagines in detail what his father could only minimally verbalize. This act of imagination joins the father and son, for in order for the narrator to relate his father’s inner life he must himself intimately experience that life. However, the imaginative act also advances the son beyond the father. The son, grown into an adult, understands what the father only felt. As a narrator conscious of telling a story to “you,” his reader, he achieves the ability to communicate that his father lacked. Furthermore, in seeing his father’s suffering, the narrator is led to speculate about the complexity of life. In doing so, he becomes a more complex man, a man who gives life in words to his father’s mute yearnings. In style, the narrator is true to his father’s inner vision, for his sophistication of mind is rendered in simple diction and sentences, in a voice that his father might have used had he been able to speak his heart.

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