Take Shakespeare's play Hamlet, add a hefty dose of dog breeding and dog training and what do you have? The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
I wasn't that far into the book when I thought to myself--wait a minute, I know this story. Except for the main character's name being Edgar, instead of Hamlet, the parallels between this novel and Shakespeare's play are practically endless.
Let's do character names first. There is Edgar, the protagonist, his father Gar (presumably short for EdGAR) and his mother Trudy. In Hamlet, there is Hamlet, his father the Ghost (who you are told was old King Hamlet) and his mother Gertrude. There is Gar's brother Claude who has been away from the family homestead--the dog breeding place. In the play, there is the king's brother Claudius.
Of course, you remember Ophelia, the faithful long-suffering young woman who loved Hamlet beyond all reason. In the novel, that character is an extraordinary dog named Almondine. Two final characters linking are Dr. Papineau from the novel. He is a kindly, somewhat loquacious doctor. The mirror character from Hamlet is Polonius, a garrulous wind-bag of an old man who happens to be Ophelia's father. And there is also a mirror character in Papineau's son, Glen, who--like Polonius' son Laertes, tries to avenge his father's death.
With a tumbling host of dogs in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle there are plenty enough bit characters to fill up linkages to the various characters in Hamlet. One particular dog stands out--Forte. Forte is a legendary dog, mostly out of the time frame of the story. It just dawned on me, as I was doing these comparisons, that Forte is the mirror for Fortinbras, an important off-stage character for most of the play Hamlet.
Now to some plot elements. Where Hamlet begins with the father already dead, and haunting the castle at Elsinore, the novel begins with the story of Edgar's birth. Early on, the reader is informed that Edgar is born mute. I saw this detail as a wonderful twist on Hamlet's loquaciousness. Hamlet has more soliloquy lines than ANY other Shakespeare character.
When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Edgar and his mother naturally grieve. Edgar prefers to sleep in the barn close to the dogs, and one evening in a pouring rain, he sees a shape in the rain. The figure is of his father, who signs to him "remember me" and indicates that he may not have died a natural death. Oh, so like Hamlet. There, Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father, learns from the ghost that he was poisoned by his brother Claudius.
In Hamlet, Claudius is motivated by desire to take over the kingdom, and the queen. So too in Edgar Sawtelle. Claude eventually moves in, taking over the dog breeding business, and proposing to Trudy.
Hamlet tries to get Claudius to confess his guilt by presenting a play that features the recreation of the poison scene. He enlists the aid of a troupe of players who are visiting the castle. When they enact the death scene, Claudius rises, pale, and flees the room. The parallel scene in the novel involves the dogs that Edgar has been training. In a rather elaborate scene, he sets up to have one dog carry a glass syringe, the presumed mechanism for Claude delivering the poison to Gar, and present it to another dog. Eventually, Edgar has one dog trot over to Claude to tag him with the syringe. Claude gets very angry, his reaction setting off a pivotal scene.
A pivotal scene in Hamlet is when he confronts his mother in her bedroom, accusing her for taking up with Claudius. When Hamlet sees movement in a curtain, he rushes at it, stabbing with his sword. Out falls Polonius. The parallel scene in Edgar Sawtelle is when Edgar is with his mother in the barn, and thinks he sees a figure--perhaps thinking it his father--he lunges at it, while holding a bailing hook. He inadvertently hits Dr. Papineau, who suddenly appears, killing him.
Edgar flees, taking 3 of the dogs with him. He eventually encounters Forte, who is a kind of stray dog. I will skip the details of this escape interlude, so as not to spoil the plot, for those of you who plan to read the novel, and also to keep this post from getting much longer than it already is. One final word on Forte--just as in Hamlet, when Fortinbras appears to mop up the stage littered with bodies, so also Forte appears at the end of the novel. Enough said.
After writing this review of sorts, I did a quick Internet search and note that I am not the only one to have noted the similarities to Hamlet. I do want to aver, however, that I did NOT read them before I wrote my comparison.
What I found frustrating about Edgar Sawtelle is NOT that it is a reworking of a Shakespeare play--after all there have been many reworking of his plays. For example, West Side Story is Romeo and Julie, and A Thousand Acres is King Lear. My objection is that this reworking is somewhat inartful (is that a word?). If you want a good reworking of a Shakespearean theme, you will do far better reading A Thousand Acres.
My other primary criticism is that Edgar Sawtelle is a plot-driven, rather than a character driven novel. It is as though the author puts his characters in difficult situations, and says--OK, now what? A character driven novel, on the other hand, allows the events to grow out of who the character is.
When an author writes a plot driven novel, I get to the point, as a reader, where I feel like saying--LEAVE HIM ALONE. And that's eventually where I got to with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
Would I recommend the book? (You can't see it, but my hand, held out flat, is wavering back and forth.)
The two illustrations:
German shepherd dog--the dogs in Edgar Sawtelle are their own breed, but there are references to the dogs having some markings similar to German shepherds.
The painting is by Eugene Delacroix, and it features the famous graveyard scene where the skull of Yorick is unearthed which allows Hamlet to say "Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well." This is not a scene that is repeated in the novel.