Monday, March 16, 2009

Hamlet Has Gone to the Dogs

Since I promised (did I?) a review of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, here goes.

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.

No kidding.

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.)
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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.

11 comments:

dog-geek said...

Excellent review! I think that there was more that I liked than disliked, but I can see why a lot of my dog training friends disliked it. It has been many, many years since I have read Hamlet, so I missed a couple of the parrallels that you have outlined here - bravo!

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

I take it the author gave no acknowledgment to Shakespeare's influence. Might this be plagiarism?

KGMom said...

Dog-Geek--glad to hear your comment, as I know you read the book, AND have dogs!
Philip--well, actually Shakespeare himself "plagiarized" a great deal--he was one of the all time great copiers. One such article here illustrates that. Of course, where Shakespeare is concerned, we call it REWORKING a source

Ginnie said...

Very interesting. I would never have put the two together but can see how you did.
I had a very strange reaction to this book. I loved it up until the end and then it all fell apart for me. I am not one who demands happy endings but this one left me cringing.

KGMom said...

NOTE: PLOT SPOILER--if you plan to read the novel, do not read this comment.
(Hee hee--hard to resist such a warning, isn't it?)

Ginnie--does it help knowing that the novel parallels Hamlet? After all, Hamlet is frequently referred to as a revenge play. Both Hamlet and Edgar are trying to figure out how to get revenge.

Also Hamlet ends with almost all the main players dead on the stage. Claudius spikes some wine with poison, intending it for Hamlet. Gertrude grabs the glass and drinks it, while Claudius looks on stunned. Most everyone else gets stabbed, run through by a sword, or somehow done in. Then on to the stage comes Fortinbras to rescue the kingdom, if not the people.

I didn't write all this in my post as it is a plot spoiler.

JeanMac said...

I envy your students.

KGMom said...

Jean--I don't get to teach literature often enough.
Hey, maybe I should do a blog literature course.
What would you like to learn?

NCmountainwoman said...

I've almost finished the book and I must say I have a love/hate relationship with it. I can't stop reading it, but I don't really like it. I feel as if I am watching a train wreck and can't take my eyes away.

Ruth said...

Interesting review indeed. I don't think it is a book I will rush to the library to sign out. btw...I finished Middlemarch last night (late) and found it to be an excellent read. Now to see what the upcoming movie does with the complicated story.

Anvilcloud said...

For some reason I haven't been drawn to this novel, and I still am not.

NCmountainwoman said...

I read this book in a couple of long sittings. I wanted it to end because I did not really enjoy the book. Yet it held my interest and I couldn't put it down. I know some people who absolutely loved the book, but I can't say I would recommend it. What worked well for Shakespeare does not work well for Wroblewski. Perhaps my opinion of the book will change as I become more distanced from the reading of it. But having just finished it, my thought is, "All this. And for what?"