Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Rose-coloured Reviews Sherwood Anderson's "The Egg"

Sherwood Anderson's short story The Egg (1920) is the story of a poor farmhand slowly driven mad by his attempts to "get up in the world." A few months ago, I read Anderson's first collection, Winesburg, Ohio (that Wikipedia link freakishly calls the book a novel, apparently because there is a reoccuring character in most of the stories. Wikis can't be perfect, I guess) That book is also about small-town and rural folks, mainly struggling with themselves and their lives within those contexts, and not often coming out very happy.

"Winesburg" is a wonderful book, with some rather penetrating insight into human beings, especially for 90-year-old insight. But that book takes itself very very seriously, and the moral intensity of it all sometimes becomes a bit grim, especially if a reader doesn't quite buy into every situation and even finds a few a bit hackneyed (but oh goodness, not most--try the four-part "Godliness" for a little bit of deeply original and heartfelt misery).

"The Egg," on the other hand, is from Anderson's second collection, *The Triumph of the Egg* (the original title of this story). Though released only two years later, *The Egg* is different from anything in the prior book: it is wrist-slittingly funny.

The piece narrated by a young boy, but largely about his father. The father was as a bachelor a happy farmhand, but once he married and had his only son, his wife convinced him to try to "get up in the world," for the sake of the boy.

Their first attempt at wealth is a chicken farm, in which they invest 10 years and untold toil and money, and which is a desparate failure. The sad spectacle of it is described with such perfect black humour that I'm actually worried for your sake that you won't go follow the link and read the story. So I quote at length:

"Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms. One hopes for so much from a chicken and is so dreadfully disillusioned. Small chickens, just setting out on the journey of life, look so bright and alert and they are in fact so dreadfully stupid. They are so much like people they mix one up in one's judgments of life. If disease does not kill them they wait until your expectations are thoroughly aroused and then walk under the wheels of a wagon--to go squashed and dead back to their maker. Vermin infest their youth, and fortunes must be spent for curative powders. In later life I have seen how a literature has been built up on the subject of fortunes to be made out of the raising of chickens. It is intended to be read by the gods who have just eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is a hopeful literature and declares that much may be done by simple ambitious people who own a few hens. Do not be led astray by it. It was not written for you."

You see what I mean? Hilarious, but in the end, the humour is not distancing--this is a quite intimate story about the death of hope, even if the faultiness of that hope is often maligned. The son cares for the father's suffering, and we feel both the care and the suffering.

After the farm, the mother (whom some might call the villain of this story) decides that they ought run a restaurant by the train depot, and that that restaurant ought stay open all night. It is in the late and lonely nights in the restaurant that the father's ambition runs completely afield of reality. He has brought from the farm a selection of glass jars in which he has preserved deformed chicks from his flock. He displays them at the restaurant as a form of entertainment, and eventually ends up deciding to expand upon this by becoming part restauranteur, part entertainer, with repartee and some tricks related to...eggs.

The narrator does not see his father's most dramatic unravelling, as it occurred in the middle of the night with only one customer present, with the son still a child, upstairs and asleep. And yet, "For some unexplainable reason I know the story as well as though I had been a witness to my father's discomfiture. One in time gets to know many unexplainable things." So this miserable scene is the relating of the one patron, of course, and also of town gossip in general, but also in part the narrator's own creation, the logic and coherence he has given to his father's breakdown.

I got this story recommendation from my online short story discussion group, the Fiction Files, and they are also mulling over what exactly the egg represents in the piece. Me, I wonder if the egg is the curse of possibilities--like the oyster that might be a pearl when opened, but most likely isn't. In the first paragraph of the story, the narrator alludes to his father's single days of good cheer and calm, and adds, "He had at that time no notion of trying to rise in the world." The narrator has made himself a story out of scraps and gossip, most likely not perfectly accurate and definitely distressing, but the story he has made is something he can live with. His father, unable to create things for himself, was reliant on fate and nature and other people to create things for him, and when none of those will cooperate, it wrecks him. I wonder if Anderson's point has something to do with valuing life as it is or as we make it, and not putting too much stock in possibilities not yet hatched.

What are you thinking? I'll give you 3 guesses


Anagramsci said...

love Sherwood Anderson!

haven't read "The Egg" in ages--gonna have to revisit it soon


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