What is the tone in Sherwood Anderson's "The Egg"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The tone of the "The Egg" is humorous and jaded. In fact, the tone might be summed up in the narrator's comments below as he bemoans, as if he is a philosopher himself, how eggs become chickens, have brief, disease-prone lives, then reproduce themselves and die:

It [a chicken] 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 called pip, cholera, and other names, stands looking with stupid eyes at the sun, becomes sick and dies. ... Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms. One hopes for so much from a chicken and is so dreadfully disillusioned.

This tone is sustained throughout because most of the story is an overview of the narrator's parents' lives, as understood by their son. It is his weary voice that dominates the text. Only near the end do we get to hear a few snippets of any voice other than the narrator's.

Near the end of the story, the family moves to the humorously named Pickleville to open a restaurant after their failure to thrive as chicken farmers. It is only when his father, a decidedly dour man in his son's eyes, decides the restaurant should be lively and entertaining, that we get to hear his less-than-entertaining speech:

"They want some place to go. I tell you they want some place to go," he said over and over.

Some time later, the narrator zooms in on a particular scene, in which his father, trying to be friendly and upbeat with a Joe Kane who comes in, begins to chat with him about Christopher Columbus, only to fail dramatically to bring a sense of joy and gaiety into his restaurant:

"Well," he began hesitatingly, "well, you have heard of Christopher Columbus, eh?" He seemed to be angry. "That Christopher Columbus was a cheat," he declared emphatically.

The humor comes from the juxtaposition of the narrator's high philosophizing about life in a dry, cynical way with the very ordinariness of his parent's largely failed existences as chicken farmers and restaurant owners.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the short story "The Egg" by Sherwood Anderson, the narrator tells of the struggles of his parents during his childhood. When his father meets his mother at age 35, he is a carefree farmhand, but after they marry, they both become ambitious. They start a chicken farm and attempt to make it work for 10 years, but eventually they are overcome by the difficulties of raising chickens. They then move to a town near a railway station where they open a restaurant. However, the restaurant has few customers, and they have to work very hard, keeping it open day and night. The father comes up with the idea of offering entertainment to the restaurant clientele, but his first effort involving playing tricks with an egg ends in disaster.

The tone of a work is the attitude that the writer takes towards the subject of the story. The subject of "The Egg" is the family, particularly the parents as seen through the eyes of the narrator reflecting back upon the days of his childhood.

The primary tone of the story is tragic. It demonstrates how sometimes ambitious hopes and dreams end in frustration and even despair. By the end of the story, the father has certainly reached a state of despair as he breaks down and weeps by the bed. He is overcome with grief by his inability to succeed.

The overall tragic tone of the story is also touched with an element of the grotesque. The narrator's father is obsessed with the deformed monstrosities with multiple heads or limbs born to the chickens. He treasures them as valuable items, preserving them in alcohol, keeping them beside him as they move, and placing them prominently behind the counter at the restaurant. As he tries to entertain the restaurant's customer he brings out these grotesque monstrosities, not realizing that most people would be repelled and sickened by them. His misunderstanding about these misshapen creatures is an example of his general bewilderment about how he and his wife could work so hard to succeed, but still fail so utterly.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The tone of "The Egg" is cynical, reflecting the narrator's father's unrealized ambitions to achieve "the American passion for getting up in the world."

Narrated by a man reflecting on his childhood days, the reader is allowed a glimpse into his father's failed grasp toward this dream. He describes his parents' first venture into chicken farming, the descriptors reflecting the tone toward this quest. These days laid "impressions of disaster" on his childhood, and he witnessed the "tragic things" that can happen to a chicken. He witnessed many chicken deaths and then the tragedy of the survivors walking directly under wagon wheels, to be "squashed" and sent back to their maker.

His parents abandon this dream in a desperate search for one with more success. They open a small diner, and his father clings to the preserved remains of chicks born with genetic abnormalities, storing them in his restaurant.

The desperation builds as the diner never grows into what his parents hope it will become, and his father decides to create a new persona for himself—one that smiles and entertains a crowd. Unfortunately, he doesn't have a showman's personality, and his one attempt comes across as contrived and tense as he desperately tries to perform an egg trick for an unimpressed customer. This causes a "roar of anger" to emerge from his father as he begins slinging eggs at the customer he's been so intent on impressing.

The cynical tone reflects the family's failed pursuit to improve their worldly success, and the ending suggests that perhaps rising above one's station in life is an impossible dream.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The tone of a piece of literature is the author’s attitude toward the subject of the story. In “The Egg” by Sherwood Anderson, the narrator describes a childhood memory of his parents and their pursuit of the American Dream. The tone of the story is dark and sad. The narrator even describes himself as “a gloomy man inclined to see the darker side of life.” Sherwood Anderson uses the life cycle of a chicken in the story to symbolize our journeys in life and how dangers and disappointment are everywhere. The narrator reveals his parents’ struggles and how chasing the American Dream eventually broke his father’s spirit. The author presents this piece of literature as a cautionary tale against chasing your dreams.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial