Sherwood Anderson published his third short story collection, The Triumph of the Egg, which contains “The Egg,” in 1921. Narrated retrospectively by the nameless son, now an adult, the story of his father contains in its first paragraph the seeds of the unhappy tale that follows: His father, says the narrator, was perfectly happy with his life as a farmhand until he learned ambition. Quite logically, the son suggests that the father probably learned this American trait when he married, late in life, the taciturn schoolteacher who induced her new husband to start a chicken farm. From this point on, the narrator uses eggs and chickens to chronicle the unhappy and downward-spiraling movement of his family’s life in and near Bidwell, Ohio.
Anderson’s narrative strategy in this story is to reverse the traditional, life-affirming symbol of the egg in parallel with his reversal of the traditional American myth that hard work yields success, a rise in fortunes, and happiness. Eggs, traditionally a symbol of new life, are associated in Christian cultures with Easter and the resurrection of Christ; in other cultures they have the same meaning, associated with spring and rebirth. Yet the narrator seems not to see that his own birth—from an egg—also plays a role in the failure of his parents’ farm and, after the move to town, of their restaurant. He tells us that his mother wanted nothing for herself but, once her son was born, had great ambition for her husband and son. The narrator surmises that she probably had read of Abraham Lincoln’s and James Garfield’s mythic rise from impoverishment to the presidency and may have wished the same success for her own son. Indeed, in later life he knows that she had hoped he could leave the farm and the small town and rise in the world.
In any event, in his recollection of his youth on the chicken farm, the offspring of the eggs bring nothing but worry, disease, and death; the young son has brooding and somber memories of his childhood and at one point speaks directly to the readers, warning that whatever we do, we should never put our trust in chickens. Any alternative is better: prospecting for gold in Alaska, trusting a politician, or believing that goodwill eradicates evil.
For a time, because they work hard, the mother and father’s business realizes a small profit. Foolishly, however, the father decides that he will achieve even more success if he can entertain his customers. He tries to force a customer to look at the grotesque freak chickens—those born with two heads or five legs— that he keeps in a jar of alcohol behind the restaurant counter. The man is, predictably, sickened by the sight. When this endeavor fails, the nervous but determined father attempts two silly egg tricks in front of the reluctant customer, who tries to ignore him. When the tricks fail, the final blow occurs, literally, when the frustrated father throws an egg at the customer, who barely makes his escape. The pathetic father breaks down completely; the narrator son still remembers joining his father in an outpouring of wailing and grief. Apparently the sadness continues into the narrator’s adulthood, for, as he contemplates the reason for the cycle of chicken-egg-chicken, he notes that, even all these long years later, he is his father’s son. The pessimism of those early years, along with its sense of defeat, remains in the narrator’s tone: The American Dream remains unattainable for those who are not Lincoln or Garfield.
Anderson, Sherwood. The Triumph of the Egg: A Book of Impressions of American Life in Tales and Poems. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1921.
Crowley, John W., ed. New Essays on Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.