The Egg Themes
"The Egg" by Sherwood Anderson appears in the story collection The Triumph of the Egg.
The story can be summarized thusly: the narrator's parents set their sights on the pursuit of "getting up in the world" shortly after the narrator's birth. Previously two humble, rural people, the narrator's father and mother embark on a series of endeavors to improve their station in life. The narrator discusses their failed chicken farm and their ill-planned venture into the restaurant business, using chickens as a sort of metaphor for the futile struggles of life. The most prominent thematic ideas with which the text deals are death, life, and respect.
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.
The Futility and Cyclicality of Life
The second 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.
The Quest for Respect
Finally, the text addresses the thematic idea of respect. The reason the narrator's father snaps at Joe Kane when he visits the restaurant is because 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.
Themes and Meanings
Given its title and the narrator’s statement that his tale “if correctly told will centre on the egg,” the egg is unquestionably crucial to Sherwood Anderson’s story. As an image, the egg promotes the possibility for new life, as well as the simultaneous fragility and resilience of that life. For the narrator, however, the egg’s special power is to condemn the young possibility, the passionate promise of life, to a relentless round of decay and death. He sees this power of the egg operative in his father, whose “new impulse in life”—to leave the farm and make his fortune in the urban world—is ruined by the egg. Ironically, though, at his moment of crisis, the father preserves rather than destroys the egg. Despite his failure, he values the life in the egg just as he values the “poor little things” that he saves in the jars as a source of wonder.
(The entire section is 833 words.)