The Egg as a Symbol
———Analysis of Sherwood Anderson’s The Egg
A naive narrator in Sherwood Anderson’s The Egg leads the reader to witness the
various experiences of his family related with eggs. The egg is a dominant theme in heir living and an inseparable part of their family. The egg means something that he t
could only feel directly as a naive boy.
The author, Sherwood Anderson, lived in Midwestern America at the end of the nineteenth century and belonged to one of those who had watched how people pursued their American Dream and got disappointed before the First World War. He realized the illusion of it and tried to display its illusion before people so as to awaken them. Taking these into consideration, what the author conveys in the story and what we get from the story should be something deep.
We are so ready to dig the deep meanings of a story that we often neglect some
information that can be got more easily and as a result we often fail to understand it completely. Likewise, we tend to notice the deep meaning of this short story and neglect something that we think to be superficial. And this paper is to analyze the symbolic meanings of the egg from two perspectives: the naive boy’s surface
understanding and the author or the reader’s deep understanding.
1. The Egg’s Symbolic Meanings to the Boy
In the story, the boy’s life was haunted by the egg and gradually his own opinions
of the egg were shaped; he had a complicated feeling towards the egg. 1.1 The Egg: The Parasite
When his parents were raising chickens, he sighed that those chickens ate “quantities of corn and meal bought by the sweat of your father's brow”, and most of
the money that his father had earned by working as a laborer on neighboring farms during their ten years had been spent for remedies to cure chicken diseases, advertised products for raising chickens and various purposes to raise chickens. The egg and the chickens had eaten out what his parents earned. But to the boy’s disappointment, the
chickens gave nothing in return. Some of them just became sick and died. Only a few of hens survived and another dreadful cycle began. The boy showed his sympathy to
his father, for what he had earned had been wasted by eggs and chickens. Those eggs and chickens seemed like parasites, which always take but seldom give. 1.2 The Egg: The Robber
According to the boy’s introduction, he could feel that the egg had robbed both
his naive childhood and his father’s cheerful nature.
His first impressions of life were dyed with disasters and the darker side of life and he attributed it to the fact that he had spent his boyhood on the chicken farm. Those impressions were so deeply engraved on him that unconsciously he was often reminded of those disasters and the darker side of life. When he was in his gay mood, they would loom before him and drove his gay mood away; they would make him feel guilty for his stealing happiness; they would disable him of feeling happy. Or, they had robbed his right to be happy.
Boyhood should be a naive one but the boy did not enjoy it. His boyhood was
troubled by many philosophic thoughts. He realized the dreadful cycle, in which “the
hens lay eggs out of which come other chickens”; when he was gazing upon the bald
path on his father’s head, he would associate it with the road that Caesar had taken to lead his legions out of Rome; and when he looked at the egg on the table, he “wondered why eggs had to be and why from the egg came the hen who again laid the
egg.” These philosophic thoughts should not have been related to a naive boy. It’s the
egg that had driven the boy’s premature growth.
Besides these, he could also feel that the egg had committed a robbery to his father. His father was once a cheerful and kindly man by nature but “from long
association with mother and the chickens he had become habitually silent and discouraged.” The boy could vaguely tell that it was because of his mother and the
chickens or the egg that his father changed. And since his mother was obsessed with
raising chickens and chickens came from eggs, the root of all the unhappiness should
be the egg. It is the egg that had robbed his father’s joyful nature and his own naive
1.3 The Egg: His Father & The Boy Himself
We are told that the boy’s mother was incurably ambitious for his father and
himself. Too much hope was loaded on them as well as on the egg. “Grotesques are
born out of eggs as out of people”, however. Both his father and he himself became
grotesques. His father became a grotesque in his insane crazy about those grotesque chickens and his abnormal behaviors to attract customers. And the boy was turned into a grotesque in his disabling to be happy and to behave as a boy should.
Consciously or unconsciously, he found that his parents’ obsession with the egg
originated from his birth. And when he lay beside his mother--in the days of her lying-in--she may have dreamed that he “would someday rule men and cities”. When
he was older, his parents moved to a town to embark in the restaurant business. And there was another motive in it. That is his mother was ambitious for him. She wanted him “to rise in the world, to get into a town school and become a man of the towns”.
Since his father failed to realize his mother’s ambition, he became the last egg that
was loaded with hopes.
From the boy’s point of view, we find the boy could never love the egg or hate
the egg, for it had been an inseparable part of his life. How could one abandon a part of his life? What he could do is to accept it and continue his life. And this helps us to understand why Sherwood Anderson chose the boy as the narrator of the story. The author wanted to tell us the boy was more influenced and suffered from the egg. Instead of commenting on the whole thing himself, he chose the boy as the narrator in order to make the reader think deeply and to find the root.
2. The Egg’s Symbolic Meanings to the Author & Reader
Adults’ thoughts are different from a naive boy’s. We have watched the whole
development of the story and we have some information about that period of time when this story was created. With these, we can explore the deep symbolic meanings of the egg in the story.
2.1 The Egg: Beautiful But Fragile American Dream
This story is from Sherwood Anderson's "The Triumph of the Egg," which was published in 1920s, when, with the rapid economic development, America was
emerging as an industrial giant. At that time, optimism was prevailing and people believed in their American Dream. Material pursuit became crazy while moral corruption, spiritual degradation and disillusionment arouse. Sherwood Anderson was one of those who kept sober and clear in mind and he saw the disillusionment of American Dream.
In The Egg, no matter how hard the couple worked, their eggs would fail to meet their expectation. They were given hopes by the egg and by the advertised literature that is written concerning the hen. To them the egg conveys hope, for the hen can be
hatched from it and the hen will lay eggs again. But they were not told that the egg
had a very thin shell and was easily broken. They were not told that only a very few could succeed. Since the egg was the road to success chosen by them and they were doomed to pay for their choice, which meant the disillusionment of their dream. And the boy’s parents just represented those Americans who were pursuing their American Dream. Maybe the road taken by them had nothing to do with eggs, but their beautiful dreams were as fragile as the egg, too.
2.2 The Egg: The Author’s Warning
In the story, when he later read the literature of fortunes to be made out of raising chickens, the author warned us “Do not be led astray by it. It was not written for you.”
If you believed in it, you will be like the father, who had been turned into a grotesque by his egg. Anyway, “Grotesques are born out of eggs as out of people”. If you
believed in it, your children will suffer the way the boy had suffered and an endless
dreadful cycle will be formed.
This recalls us of the old warning “Don’t count your eggs before they are
hatched.” The author seemed to warn us “Don’t touch the egg before it is yours”.
2.3 The Egg: The Old Unsolved Riddle
From the boy’s mouth, Sherwood Anderson raised the old unsolved riddle, “Why
eggs had to be and why from the egg came the hen who again laid the egg?” And
which one comes the first, the egg or the hen?
He was in fact looking into the root of the problems existed in his time. American Dream was born out from another one and cycled on. But who should take the responsibility of people’s infesting the dream? Can we find the pull the root out
and stop the dreadful cycle? These were Sherwood Anderson’s deep concerns.
Mentioning the symbolic meanings of the egg, we tend to view it from our angle, or the adult’s angle, but neglect its symbolic meanings from a child’s point of view.
However, Sherwood Anderson purposely adopted the boy’s point of view to make us
notice more. Childhood should be naive and happy, but this child could not feel any happiness after having witnessed so many deaths and grotesques. And he was deeply involved in the dreadful cycle. The “egg” was harmful to the next generation as well
as to adults. If we failed to abandon it, the dreadful cycle would be continuing from generation to generation. Only after we have detected both its superficial and deep symbolic meanings can we better understand Sherwood Anderson’s strong and sharp satire, his deep and wide concerns.