The Topic At Hand: How Do You Like Your Eggs?

“Don’t you think you’d be safer down on the ground?” Alice went on, not with any idea of making another riddle, but simply in her good-natured anxiety for the queer creature. “That wall is so very narrow!”

“What tremendously easy riddles you ask!” Humpty Dumpty growled out. “Of course I don’t think so!  Why, if ever I did fall off—which there’s no chance of—but if I did—” Here he pursed his lips and looked so solemn and grand that Alice could hardly help laughing. “If I did fall,” he went on, “the King has promised me—ah, you may turn pale, if you like!  You didn’t think I was going to say that, did you? The King has promised me—with his very own mouth—to—to—”

“To send all his horses and all his men,” Alice interrrupted rather unwisely.

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There)

Could there be any greater truth than the fact that things fall apart? Things fall and they break apart:  fragile things, which is pretty much every thing—jobs, families, neighborhoods, whole economies. There is a kind of cosmic gravity, entropy, I suppose, that seems to pull things off shelves, off peaks, from equilibria, out of whack, and into pieces—like cards hurtling willy-nilly from a deck.  Stuff falls and it falls apart:  as Yeats says, the center cannot hold.

The center cannot hold.

Prior to Michael Jackson’s media-engrossing death, all the news was the economy, how it has fallen from its great height, how hundreds of thousands of people (millions?) have lost their jobs, health insurance,  homes, savings. You may not, but I certainly do know people for whom the disintegrating economy has meant a fall more or less “great.” A friend from college, a father of three children, lost his regional-level management position in the sales division of a national kitchen appliance company—formerly a high-paying, sky’s-the-limit job. He has since been unable to find work—going now on 4 months. His wife has sued him for divorce; their bank is foreclosing on their house loan.  Five years ago, such a story would provoke skepticism (“all of that happened?—all at the same time?”); now, depending on the circles in which you run, when-it-rains stories are something like a sick norm. Change some details and multiply the tale by a half million. One wonders what King, what horses, what men, what combination of events if any, could put such a world back together again.

In Lewis Carroll’s scenario, drawn of course from the nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty is destined for a fall. Alice knows it; even Humpty Dumpty, notwithstanding his dismissal of the idea (“. . . if ever I did fall off—which there is no chance of”), apprehends his great fall. We know that he knows because he has revealed a contingency plan. Like an American bank, big auto-maker, or the US economy in general, Humpty Dumpty has a King who has many horses and men and a propensity (which perhaps comes with the office) to make hard-to-fill promises.


Unlike Humpty Dumpty, large automakers, and banks, people like me have no King’s men or King’s horses to count on, indeed, no King with enough time to care whether we individually get put back together again or not. When I fall off a great wall, and there is every chance of my doing so, I have myself, my family, my friends. The King’s men are unemployed, and the King’s horses occupied elsewhere—Afghanistan or Iraq or Wall Street.

Eggs and economies, hardship and hard-scrabble:  judging by the evidence, one response of the middle class and its relatives to economic hardship historically has been to resurrect outmoded forms of cottage industry, such as we see in Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden or the keeping of a hen or two about the yard for fresh eggs. As Joan Jensen and other historians have documented, during the colonial era and throughout the nineteenth century, farm and town women alike sold butter, milk, and eggs for “egg money” (Loosening the Bonds). Do a quick search of “egg money” in Google Books, and you will find a half dozen manuals published by university agricultural departments and state-government organizations during the first half of the twentieth century instructing readers in the profitable arts of poultry husbandry. These manuals offer detailed instructions on how to choose chickens, what to feed them, how to “candle” eggs, and how and where to build chicken coops. In a newspaper article from 1943, in the midst of war, one reporter’s urban source gives as his reason for keeping hens the high cost and low availability of rationed meat. More recently, readers of the New York Times may recall that that paper has published several stories on the keeping of poultry for personal egg supply in the city and its environs (see the NYT City Blog last April and Mark Bittman’s NYT Bitten Blog in November 2008). The trend appears to be national: Worldwatch Institute ran a story in October 2008, citing small but vocal groups in Los Angeles, Boston, and Madison, WI, as evidence of “[a]n underground ‘urban chicken’ movement that has swept across the United States in recent years.”

Humpty Dumpty is not just an off-the-wall egg, but in his egg-hood, he bears other connections to an economy that is in its nature both perfect and bound to break.  Martin Gardiner has written of the perfect economy of form embodied by the egg (The Last Recreations), and any amateur nutritionist knows that the most perfect source of protein for human beings is the egg white. The egg is an economy of expectation.  Alice knew this:  the encounter with Humpty Dumpty occurs after Alice has purchased a single egg from a sheep in a general store for more money than two would cost because she fears she might not like them and would be unable to eat them both. Further, the doomed egg-man then materializes from the overpriced regular-sized egg that seems both to grow in size and recede in the distance as Alice approaches.

Indeed, go ask Alice about eggs and she will tell you not to count your chickens. Something that Alice knows but is too polite to say is that putting eggs back together again is much harder than breaking them into pieces.  Perhaps it is a perfect economy of form that makes the egg seem nearly itching to break, designed to break, always almost-already and just about to be broken.  Breaking is integral to the egg’s basic function of giving way to new life. Surely, an egg would not have much value if it did not break, thus rendering its “fall” in some sense fortunate.  But even an egg that exists for reasons other than to shelter nascent life or provide nutrients to an existing one gains value from its breakability. Consider that some of the allure of a Fabergé egg lies in its existence on an imaginary threshold of breakability. Thence its air of almost being not-perfect anymore.  A Fabergé egg rests tenuously on the “whole” side of a line between whole and broken.

The egg is an economy of expectation.

Falling and falling apart. In a moment like the present, in a world apparently bent on falling and breaking into pieces, Humpty Dumpty—eggs in general—are prominently situated, somehow representative of a defining tendency toward dispersal, imaging forth a form both perfect in its wholeness and terrible in its propensity for falling apart and resisting restoration.  But also and finally, surprisingly versatile in function and likely to give way to something different, something new, the next square in the chess game.



Humpty Dumpty and chessboard images from a woodcut by Sir John Tenniel, used to illustrate the Alice books in the 1870s.

Fabergé image from Simplistic Art.

Egg bank image from ianclaridge.

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8 responses to “Falling And Falling Apart”

  1. The fabric here connecting the literal and the metaphorical is seamless, and that very relationship reinforces the ideas expressed in the piece. Smart and well-crafted.

  2. Amanda says:

    Thank you, Michael. I was aiming for seamlessness and am glad to know that that’s how the essay reads!

  3. Eric Eicher says:

    This was a very enjoyable meditation on the nature of eggs and egghood, sophisticated in ways that I am ill-equipped to comment upon. But I’ve always liked Humpty Dumpty the character, and I was glad to read about him here; that being so, it always makes me a little unhappy that he reminds me of so many “real world” political figures that I simply can’t stand.

  4. tania says:

    A great thought provoking little romp! I found optimism in the ending…something new will arise from this broken egg. Also, I want to get some chickens….Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Janie Epstein says:

    I particularly like the last image (visual and written) of the chess board. It does seem that growth and inovation are often spurred by the breaking down of old patterns.

  6. Ron Ganze says:

    Ah, that Amandonian (can’t really call it Emersonian, or it would be too confusing) optimism.

    As I sit here writing a grant application, I hope your optimism proves correct, particular in terms of the American dollar.

    I was going to swing by and visit on my way back from Kentucky, but I had two drugged cats in the car, and was racing against time to get home before the drugs wore off. Possibly just before Thanksgiving?

  7. Amanda says:

    Hello, Ron! You know, you COULD call my optimism Emersonian and let Ralph find another adjective to monopolize. I confess, though, his has always been my favorite kind of optimism, one he confesses in “Compensation” to be cracked right down the middle.

    On a different note, cats on drugs sounds like something Alice might encounter, though not something I’d want to try at home. I hope your trip went well–we would love to see you any time!

  8. max191 says:

    Thanks for a great blog. I was able to get the information that I had been looking for. Thanks once again!
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The Author

Amanda Emerson

Just before the bottom fell out of the economy, in August 2008, with President Obama's injunction to contribute to change ringing in her ears, Amanda Emerson resigned a tenure-track faculty appointment in the English Department at a moderate sized state university to pursue a degree in nursing. Amanda’s short-lived academic career produced a dissertation (Brown Univ, 2004) and articles on how writers of the early Republic and the nineteenth century represented the idea of equality in fiction and political rhetoric. Her work appears in differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies; Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers; and NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. As an impoverished nursing student, Amanda now survives on happy dreams of healing bodies and spirits and writing books while traveling the world. She lives in the Kansas City-metro area with her husband Oleg, a Russian emigré, with whom she is in the process of “flipping” a house—if by “flipping” one means haphazardly disassembling. She intends eventually to relocate to within smelling distance of an ocean. View all of Amanda's Revolving Floor contributions.

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