Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Death as a Constant

The narrator introduces the thematic idea of death early in the story when he discusses the problems with his parents' chicken farm. According to the narrator, the single constant with chickens is how easily and often they die before they reach adulthood. This causes the narrator to develop a melancholy attitude about how short and useless life can be. He delves into the various ways chickens can die, such as disease or as a result of being one of the “grotesques” that are malformed and promptly killed. Even the chickens that make it into adulthood or past disease are not out of the woods—these chickens, after “arousing” expectations, will walk in front of a wagon wheel and are killed in that way. The narrator is no stranger to the presence of death in this regard. He is not disillusioned or overly attached to the fluffy chicks that will soon be dead. If anyone is bothered by the role of death and the chickens, it appears to be the narrator’s father.

The Futility and Cyclicality of Life

One thematic idea is about the nature of life itself. The narrator's father is fascinated with the deformed specimens he keeps preserved in jars, because he believes they should have been able to live despite their flaws. In a way, one could argue that the father identifies with the deformed chicks because he himself struggles to fit in with the world around him. At the end of the story, the narrator ponders why hens grow inside eggs only to lay them and let the cycle repeat itself. The narrator is really ruminating over the endless, seemingly pointless, nature of life itself—which seems like a perpetual wheel of nothing. Especially since this family has been dealt a rather difficult hand, life’s cyclicality can seem mocking. As the narrator mentions, he and his parents have grown quite accustomed to their efforts being thwarted. Though the mother reads the poultry papers and purchases the miracle disease cures, nothing can slow the steady pace of these chickens toward death. When in the restaurant, the family attempts to adopt an attitude of cheerfulness. Unfortunately, this is a thin veneer upon a disappointing and cyclical lived experience. 

The Quest for Respect

Toward the end of the story, the text addresses the thematic idea of respect. The reason the narrator's father snaps at Joe Kane when he visits the restaurant is that the visitor is wholly unimpressed with the father's genuine attempts at entertaining a guest. The father tries—and fails—to earn the interest and respect of this visitor by performing tricks with eggs. When Joe Kane laughs at him, this wounds the father's ego, who only wants to be respected in the world. Therefore, the father's quest for respect is much like the cycle of life and death of the egg itself: continuous and futile. Both parents want their child to have more than he does, and want to be seen as respectable. There is a suggestion in the story that to be respected, one needs to be entertaining and successful. It seems to not be enough to merely exist or struggle for riches. In other words, basic respect must be earned rather than given out of decency. Ultimately, a lack of respect and resulting positive self-image is what drives the narrator’s father to tears.

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