My wife came up with a fascinating proposition the other day. She suggested that you ought to be able to tell the character of a woman by the way she breaks an egg.

"Observe," she says, "the stance, grip, vigor of movement, grit of teeth and contortion of mouth. Those are all ideal indicators of personality characteristics heightened to a ferocious intensity as they focus on the egg, at once the most simple object and the most profound symbol." (She doesn't always talk that way--only when she is deeply moved.)

I do not under any circumstances take my wife's propositions lightly, but this one seemed to have more merit than just a casual observation. When you reflect on the role the egg plays and has played in our culture, there can be no doubt that my wife--let's call her "Mary Lou"--has hit on one of the great verities.

A psychologist gave me some evidence pertinent to Mary Lou's insight a number of years ago. He told me that women's compulsive buying of Esso gasoline (back when it was still Esso and using the old logo) was entirely attributable to that irresistible oval on towering sign posts. It's not as clear in my memory that the posts were part of the symbolism, but I do remember the oval. It was compelling to women, said the psychologist, because it resembled an egg.

Certainly, a long-practiced gesture such as that employed in breaking an egg is as valid an indicator of personality as the interpretation of dreams and Rorschach splotches. Think of all there is to consider: the set of the feet, flex of the knees, balance of the shoulders.

More subtle is the swing of the arm itself. Does the movement involve the whole arm, only the forearm or merely the wrist?

Nothing, however, gives as deep a reading as the expression on the face, from the set of the jaw to the wrinkling of the brow. Does the mouth show diabolic pleasure or Madonna-like sorrow? Is the nose flared in passion or tensed in repulsion? Do the ears extend slightly to permit the egg-breaker to immerse every sense completely in the act?

Wide variations of the basic approach can be observed. I recall a hairy-armed mess sergeant who would seize two eggs in each hand, break their shells neatly and deposit the contents in a huge pan, all in a single, smooth, synchronized motion evocative of some of our greatest orchestra conductors.

At the other extreme, watch a youngster assigned the task of breaking his or her first egg. The eyebrows register astonishment. The shoulders indicate doubt, perhaps a hint of fear. Wonder flows in waves up and down the still undefined posture. The child holds the egg with both hands, tremulous at the opportunity, responsibility and risk.

The first attempt will be tentative and ineffective, as the child learns that the egg is one of nature's most marvelous works of architecture.

Successive taps of the egg get more and more forceful until that first egg comes to the universal end for all such first eggs shattered in the convulsive clutch of tiny hands.

That experience must surely be a considerable force in the determination of the way in which the child will grow up; most certainly for a woman-child.

Consider what the egg represents to a woman. Can she see it simply as food? Surely, the egg must eventually represent all that is important, either as a formidable obstacle in her path or as the epitome of womanhood. Women obviously cannot be neutral about eggs.

What about men?

"Very few men," scoffs Mary Lou, "have broken enough eggs for it to have become a reflex action. For a man, the action is wholly externalized. For a woman it is internal. Women govern their activities from their early teens according to the whim of eggs. How they react to that fact controls the way they break eggs."

Conceding that women deserve to have the greater feeling for eggs, I insist that men also are sensitive to them. Look at the importance of eggs in the early lives of even those least inclined to culinary activity. It began in the nursery when we were distressed to learn that Humpty-Dumpty had fallen off the wall, and how about all those eggs hatching in kindergarten incubators?

Beyond the arcane world of Jung and Freud, eggs have figured in our classic literature. Shakespeare has Touchstone say in As You Like It: "Truly, thou are damn'd; like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side."

Pope also leaned on the roasted egg to classify the population at a different level: "The vulgar boil, the learned roast an egg." Clearly, our treatment of the egg has had sociological implications to match its psychological ones.

In a familiar fable we were admonished not to put all we have into one basket. Can you put such a stricture out of your mind as you raise the brittle hen fruit before violently bringing it down to destroy its simple perfection?

Consider another deeply etched image: "walking on eggs." There is a complete picture of mental and physical anguish.

We had the goose laying those golden eggs--a source of endless wealth, of everything good. And, astonishingly, the egg also stands for nothing, as in our corruption of the French tennis score. Given all that the egg has meant through the ages, there can be little wonder that it has been converted into "love" from l'oeuf.

Which, of course, brings me back to Mary Lou and her original thesis.