Tuesday, May 02, 2006

That Triumphant Egg

Yesterday I reread a classic: Sherwood Anderson's "The Egg," first published in 1920 and originally titled "The Triumph of the Egg." This story is probably Anderson's best known piece, outside of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, and there are things to be learned from it, especially if you yearn to write funny.

In "The Egg," the first-person narrator tells the story of his father, a farmhand who is quite content in life until, at the age of thirty-five, he takes a wife. As in many Anderson stories, marriage initiates the father's downfall. For the first time in his life, he experiences a "notion of trying to rise in the world," a notion which leads him to become first a chicken farmer and then a restauranteur, both with unhappy results.

The agent of his ultimate defeat is, ta da, an egg.

The first thing to notice about this story is the contrast between subject matter, which is ludicrous from start to finish, and diction. In much of his writing, Anderson was not above writing in a sort of ham-fisted countrified drawl, but in "The Egg" he is careful to write in his most dignified drawing-room voice:
One unversed in such matters can have no notion of the many and tragic things that can happen to a chicken. It is born out of an egg, lives for a few weeks as a tiny fluffy thing such as you will see pictured on Easter cards, then becomes hideously naked, eats quantities of corn and meal bought by the sweat of your father's brow, gets diseases called pip, cholera, and other names, stands looking with stupid eyes at the sun, becomes sick and dies. A few hens and now and then a rooster, intended to serve God's mysterious ends, struggle through to maturity. The hens lay eggs out of which come other chickens and the dreadful cycle is thus made complete. It is all unbelievably complex. 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.
So proper, so Victorian, right up until the moment of squashing.

The second small touch of craft that I notice in this story is the way Anderson achieves profluence by playing with the order of events. It's a simple but effective trick. For the first half of the story, the narrative is pulled along by the comic voice and by a general sense that a comic scene is coming, although we don't know quite what to expect. The main scene takes place late one night in the family's restaurant, when the father, who has resolved to boost the business by becoming more of an entertainer, tries to perform a couple of egg tricks for a disinterested patron. Eventually the egg breaks and the father is humiliated, and the story ends soon thereafter. What's interesting is the way the sequence begins:
Late one night I was awakened by a roar of anger coming from father's throat. Both mother and I sat upright in our beds. With trembling hands she lighted a lamp that stood on a table by her head. Downstairs the front door of our restaurant went shut with a bang and in a few minutes father tramped up the stairs. He held an egg in his hand and his hand trembled as though he were having a chill. There was a half insane light in his eyes. As he stood glaring at us I was sure he intended throwing the egg at either mother or me. Then he laid it gently on the table beside the lamp and dropped on his knees beside mother's bed. He began to cry like a boy and I, carried away by his grief, cried with him.
Now the hook is set for us to observe the actual scene (in a flashback) in which the father tries to impress his customer by first trying to stand an egg on its end and then trying to put the egg, its shell softened by vinegar, inside a glass bottle.

The final thing I'll note is the way Anderson handles the POV issues in the flashback. The story is told faithfully in the first-person pov of the son. The son was upstairs, asleep, when the critical scene unfolded. But rather than have the scene related by the father (who would have had little perspective on the event), Anderson prefaces the telling with this:
I have forgotten what mother said to him and how she induced him to tell her of what had happened downstairs. His explanation also has gone out of my mind. I remember only my own grief and fright and the shiny path over father's head glowing in the lamplight as he knelt by the bed.

As to what happened downstairs. 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, the narrator is saying, I don't know how I know all these things, but I do, so get over it. Hasn't every writer been in the middle of a first-person narrative and, suddenly running up against its limitations, wished for a free pass to omniscience? This part of the story serves as a reminder: you can do whatever you want, so long as you tip your hat to the rule you choose to ignore.