Does "Everybody Need a Little KFC?":
Faith, Ethics, and Poultry in Elaine Magarrell's "Chickens"
By Alison Wonderland

        Elaine Magarrell's "Chickens" relies upon the apparently ridiculous in order to raise very serious questions. Both amusing and troubling by turns, the story introduces such devices as a "chicken angel" to interrogate the value of religious faith and to raise ethical concerns about eating meat. It exploits the fine line between probable opposites - such as laughter and sadness, absurdity and profundity - to ask us to rethink the relationship between dinner and morality.

        Although carnivores would rarely think of eating chicken as a moral issue, Magarrell's narrator deftly aligns the reader's sympathies with the hapless poultry, giving pause to even the most callous of meat-eaters. Describing the man's acts towards the chickens in graphic terms helps show chickens as worthy of sympathy. After learning that the man "does a nice killing" with his "sharpen[ed] razor," the following details emerge: "After plucking and gutting he cooks the bird in a coat of its own beaten eggs. When he eats the flesh it is with pleasure" (94). An act which one might usually view as benign has been transformed into something abhorrent: to cook the bird "in a coat of its own beaten eggs" sounds unnecessarily cruel, and to eat "flesh […] with pleasure" feels barbaric. Details like "plucking and gutting" reinforce the sense that the man's behavior is, at the very least, immoral. This description of an otherwise unremarkable behavior (preparing dinner) has become a deliberate act of chicken homicide.

        The language surrounding the killing turns an everyday slaughter into a brutal killing, but the religious symbolism raises more serious moral questions. While the absurdity of a "chicken angel" may provoke laughter, the angel's presence asks not just "is it right to kill chickens?" but "what is the function of religious belief?" At first, the intervention of this divine bird gives the mortal chickens cause for praise: "The chickens rejoice. They have an ambassador" (95). But, when the chicken angel's attempts to dissuade the man provide only "a respite, she leaves. Not that the chickens expected more." In this sharp turn from the rejoicing prompted by her arrival to the diminished expectations released at her departure, "Chickens" announces the limits of faith. Having the chicken angel acknowledge that "[o]nly so much can be done with intervention" demotes the power of God to that of a well-meaning but ineffectual fowl.

        While arguing for vegetarianism and against faith, Magarrell's story creates a social order where only the absurd can be believed. A man who "stalks a cow" is "intimidated by its intrepid stare, the importance of its dung"; this same man "finds carrots and lettuce frightening, the way they appear out of nothing." The sheer wackiness of these phrases ("the importance of its dung"?) denies us even the comfortable logic of everyday existence. As if chicken angels were not amply unusual, even the human character proves to be strange. In omitting any "normal" character with whom the reader may identify, "Chickens" offers no refuge.

        And that, finally, is the story's main flaw. A tale fraught with moral questions - about God and about whether it is right to kill His creatures - leaves the reader no moral ground on which to stand. Instead of reinforcing these serious questions, the absurdity that courses through each paragraph allows the reader to escape into laughter. Important ideas about religion and the ethics of pummeling poultry for food rapidly give way to guffaws and amusement. If "Chickens" does investigate the morality of humans and chickens, the story's whimsical tone undermines the seriousness of its investigation. To put it another way, it confronts a weighty issue and then "chickens out."

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This page was last updated on 31 October 1999.