Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Reflections on “The Egg,” by Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson (1876 – 1941) is another American writer I am just getting to know. The years of his life are fully representative of those who struggled through periods of immense change, and he reflected these struggles through his collections of short stories. Perhaps his most well-known work is “The Egg,” published in a larger work titled, “The Triumph of The Egg: A Book of Impressions from American Life” (1921).

The story of “The Egg” gives us a glimpse into his rather unsettled early life. His family moved often and, as others who settled and resettled in still-early America, worked hard to keep food on the table, and then some. Anderson would describe his parents as “ambitious. The American passion for getting up in the world took possession of them.” While his father worked as a farmhand near Bidwell, Ohio, his mother taught school. The fire of their ambition stoked by reading of James Garfield (an Ohio native), and Abraham Lincoln, both born in log cabins who became great men. What great contribution could this small family make to mankind?

One of the business ventures Anderson describes (moving us closer to “The Egg”) was when the family entered into the restaurant business in Bidwell, opening directly across the street from the train station. This was the first step to what Anderson describes as his father’s downfall. The second step was when his father (working late at night in the restaurant) began to think. This led to the third step, which was the performance of a small parlor trick that miserably failed. The result was the reduction of a man from his strength to infantile weakness.

Anderson says of the story, “if correctly told . . . will center on the egg.” Anderson tells the story correctly, but the center of the story is really what the egg represents. Many ancient cultures thought the world itself was in the shape of an egg. Perhaps it symbolizes the complex and fragile life of a man. Fragility is the first impression one has of an egg; but, on the other hand, the complexity of it cannot go unnoticed. For example, try to crush an egg in your hand and one will quickly discover its complexity by its resistance. Drop the egg, and one has the other picture altogether. Perhaps the same can be said of a man with high expectations, who grits his teeth and sets his shoulder to making a contribution to the world through his family. What happens if his expectations are not met but that he is crushed?

Perhaps his father’s failure was that he felt the world owed him. Providing food service to travelers on the train line was a noble attempt; but, expecting that each customer should be entertained and respond with attention (at the very least) can be excessive. This is what happened to Anderson’s father. When he did not receive what he felt he deserved, he got desperate and tried to perform and this backfired on him, leaving “egg on his face” (as the old saying goes). Anderson’s father wanted his customers to leave his establishment in awe, and in return, bring back many other customers. He wanted his place on the map. What he got was humiliation and the possibility of negative publicity. Instead of people saying, “You have got come and see . . .” but instead got, “some fool over in Bidwell . . .”

The passion for “getting up in the world” is more than alive and well today. The lines that once divided the upper from the middle and lower classes are blurry because of the materialism we have now that Anderson’s father did not have then. Today, poverty-level families have laptop computers. Even the homeless and jobless have an opportunity for their piece of the American “up in the world.” The motto of the last decade has been “no person left behind” on various levels.

Interestingly, Sherwood Anderson does not tell us how old he was in this story and there are no clues to tell. Perhaps he was somewhere between the ages of 10 to 12 years old—old enough to see and hear what happened to his father and draw conclusions regarding the triumph of the egg, “as far as my family is concerned.” Life goes on, in all its complexity. One wrong or bad decision, one wrong move and life as we knew it is shattered, changed. And still, life goes on, leaving all its’ ambitious men behind either stronger or crushed. This is what Anderson learned from his father’s experience: he would not be crushed as his father was.

Anderson tells us that his father responded to his failure with the kind of anger that destroyed a basket of eggs; yet, when he describes how his father entered the house, he is careful to report that he entered the room with an egg in his hand, which he gently lays down. Could it be that his father, who would not be beat, conceded in his weakness? Could it be that his father was signaling his regret at making a bad decision that left an ugly, unwanted mark on the world?
Hard to say what Anderson was really writing about. Was he really writing about an egg, or life? Was he writing about his father, or himself? Was he writing about the American life and the American dream? He says the story is about the egg.

What if there was an implicit point being made, a spiritual lesson? The Lord Jesus Christ asks plainly, “for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:26). There is no gain in setting high expectations for that we have no business to set. Covetousness causes us to take our eyes off of what has been provided to desire that which we perhaps should have no business. We would rather take pain relief than safe ourselves pain by learning to be content. We also need to learn how to live out of weakness and dependence on the Lord, not on our own strength. Unrealistic expectations create false hope and thrive on strength we actually do not have.

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