The Egg by Sherwood Anderson
In The Egg by Sherwood Anderson we have the theme of ambition, sacrifice, failure and happiness. Taken from his The Triumph of the Egg collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator who is looking back at a period in his life when he was ten years old and from the beginning of the story (and throughout) the reader realises that Anderson may be exploring the theme of ambition. In the second paragraph of the story the narrator tells the reader that ‘Something happened to the two people (narrator’s parents). They became ambitious. The American passion for getting up in the world took possession of them.’ This line is important as it is through it that the reader realises that the narrator’s parents are chasing (or following) what is commonly referred to as the American Dream. The fact that the narrator’s father appears to fail in all his endeavours after he leaves his job as a farm hand on Thomas Butterworth’s farm may also be important as Anderson could also be suggesting that for the majority of people the American Dream remains just that, a dream and in reality this dream is unattainable for most people no matter how hard they strive to succeed.
Anderson also appears to be exploring the theme of happiness. Prior to getting married and setting up the chicken farm, the narrator’s father seems to have been a happy man. It is only after he (on his wife’s instigation) becomes ambitious (or chases the American Dream) that the narrator’s father begins to become unhappy. It is possible that Anderson is linking personal happiness and the American Dream together and by doing so may be suggesting that both are incompatible with each other. If anything the pursuit of the American Dream leaves the narrator’s father unhappy. It is also possible that Anderson is suggesting that there are sacrifices to be made in the pursuit of the American Dream and for the narrator’s father that sacrifice is personal happiness. At no stage in the story, apart from the opening paragraph, does the reader get a sense that the narrator’s father has achieved personal happiness. If anything, through his pursuit of the American Dream, his life has become unbearable. It is also interesting that the narrator tells the reader in the opening sentence of the story that ‘My father was, I am sure, intended by nature to be a cheerful, kindly man.’ This line is significant as it is possible that the narrator is suggesting that should his father not have chased the American Dream, he would have been a happier man.
Symbolically the eggs in the story are also important as Anderson may be likening the fragility of an egg to the fragility that comes with the pursuit of the American Dream. Just as an egg is easily broken, it is possible that Anderson is also suggesting that through the pursuit of the American Dream, a person can also be broken, as seems to be the case when it comes to the narrator’s father. It is also possible that the eggs symbolise the American Dream itself. The chicken farm that the narrator’s father runs may also be symbolically important. The narrator tells the reader that ‘I am a gloomy man inclined to see the darker side of life, I attribute it to the fact that what should have been for me the happy joyous days of childhood were spent on a chicken farm.’ Anderson may be suggesting that through his parent’s ambition or pursuit of the American Dream (by running the farm) the narrator has lost an innocence that usually is associated with youth.
The theme of failure is self-evident in the story. The narrator’s father fails in all his endeavours after he leaves his job as a farm hand on Butterworth’s farm (he fails running the chicken farm and the restaurant). It is also noticeable that the narrator’s father also fails to entertain or impress Joe Kane (and fails with his magic tricks). If anything Kane views the narrator’s father as being insane. What is interesting about the magic tricks that the narrator’s father tries to perform is that they all involve eggs. If the eggs symbolises the American Dream it is possible that by having the narrator’s father fail in performing the tricks, Anderson is also further highlighting the father’s failure in his pursuit of the American Dream. The fact that Kane views the narrator’s father as insane may also be significant as it could suggest (at least symbolically) that the pursuit of the American Dream, at least for the narrator’s father, leads to insanity (or is madness).
The fact that the narrator can still see the egg on the table at the end of the story (after his father put it there and didn’t break it) is also interesting as it suggests the continued (if not blind) pursuit of the American Dream by not only the narrator’s father but it would appear by the narrator too. Despite being aware of the ‘complete and final triumph of the egg,’ (over both himself and his father) there is a sense that the narrator and his family continued their pursuit of the American Dream and if anything it has cost both the narrator and his father their happiness.