Sherwood Anderson’s “The Egg” is a work that, viewed through the eyes of Freud, would have the theory of the tripartite psyche. The main character’s view of his father and mother inter play perfectly with Oedipal references. The character’s view of life in general is affected by his early childhood recollections and experiences, and Freud would have a heyday if this patient were on his couch. Ironically, the egg in the story relates to failures and destruction rather than the new life it should represent.
Freud’s tripartite theory deals with three parts of the human psyche: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the part of our unconscious that wants whatever it wants regardless of any consequences. It deals with the pleasure part of our brain. The ego balances the id by curbing the id’s impulses into socially acceptable behavior. The third part is the superego that also balances the id by acting as the part that delineates what is right and wrong. “The Egg” is written from the point of view of a man recollecting his childhood. All main characters, the child, the mother, and the father, have an id that shows its face at some point in the story. In the story, the mother and father’s id first become apparent in the second paragraph when “The American passion for getting up in the world took possession of them.”
The mother’s id is to have everything possible for her family. This is shown when the character states, “For father and myself she was incurably ambitious.” She seeks to gratify these desires by getting the father to “give up his place as a farm-hand, sell his horse and embark on an independent enterprise of his own.” She also made decisions for the family on impulse when “She talked of it for a year and then one day went off and rented an empty store building opposite the railroad station.
It was her idea that the restaurant would be profitable.” She challenged acceptable behavior for a woman of her time. She acts as the superego for the father late in the story “When, however, he got into the presence of mother something happened to him. He laid the egg gently on the table and dropped on his knees by the bed as I have already explained.” The mother acted as the conscience of the father, and he knew that the aggressive behavior he was demonstrating was wrong because it produced guilt.
The father shows all three parts of the tripartite theory when he tries to show off for a customer in his restaurant. The id takes over first by wanting to entertain immediately when the customer walks in, for earlier in the story “Father became a little feverish in his anxiety to please.” The ego tries to control the anger the father experiences when his attempts to entertain begin to wane for “He grew a little angry and for a moment had to turn his face away and force himself to smile,” as well as “He was angry because his visitor did not watch him as he began to do his trick, but nevertheless went cheerfully to work.”
When he didn’t get his way, the id in him reared its ugly head again as “A roar of anger rose from my father’s throat. He danced and shouted a string of inarticulate words. Grabbing another egg from the basket on the counter, he threw it, just missing the head of the young man as he dodged through the door and escaped.” Afterwards, as explained earlier, morality regains control in the character of the mother and balance is restored.
In Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. Freud explains any male growing into adulthood must repress sexual desires for the mother, relate to his father, and have his own sexual union, for if not, he will have hostility towards authority. The main character in “The Egg” in infancy shows signs of desiring his mother when “I lay beside her—in the days of her lying-in.” He sees his father as a weak man. He relates to the father after the outburst when the father “began to cry like a boy and I, carried away by his grief, cried with him. The two of us filled the little upstairs room with our wailing voices… I remember only my own grief and fright and the shiny path over father’s head glowing in the lamp light as he knelt by the bed.” He also sees life similar to his father.
The egg is viewed as failures by the father, such as the failed chicken farm adventure, by producing the grotesque mutations and bottling them (in doing so bottling his failures), and also as the failed entertainment venture (by “a last desperate effort to conquer the egg”). The son’s epiphany of failures was when “I wondered why eggs had to be and why from the egg came the hen who again laid the egg. The question got into my blood. It has stayed there, I imagine, because I am the son of my father.” His view of failures is affected by his childhood memories of his father and the chicken farm as well when “From the beginning they were impressions of disaster and if, in my turn, 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.” This was his sudden transition to adulthood. He realized the “American Dream” is a sad grand notion like that of the chicken farm he grew up on.
Sherwood Anderson’s “The Egg” has numerous conflicts and characters that bring out Freud’s id, ego, and superego that make for a wonderful psychoanalytical read. The Oedipal complex of the main character shines brightly through his view of and relationship with the father. Overall, the actions of the father are genuinely out of his control due to his unconscious mind, and he passed that trait onto his son as well as his ability to fail no matter how hard he tried. “And that, I conclude, is but another evidence of the complete and final triumph of the egg—at least as far as my family is concerned.”