"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...
(The entire section contains 1567 words.)
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