A Great Dane Goes to the Dogs

My brother and I were never permitted to have pets of any kind, apart from a small turtle that I was given once on a trip to Florida and that my parents unaccountably allowed me to bring back home to Massachusetts. And even this modest and inoffensive creature, sloshing about in its bowl, was forced, on my mother’s command, to spend its nights not in my bedroom but on the screened-in porch. I suppose that my mother feared that somehow, in the middle of the night, the captive would scale the walls of its glass enclosure and strangle us in our beds.

The regimen must not have disagreed with the turtle, since it survived for some months. But when the fall came, and with it a sudden cold snap, I went out to the porch early one morning to find my little pet entirely encased in a block of ice. I rushed into the house and, not knowing what else to do, I put the whole bowl into the oven, at a low temperature. What occurred then was the only miracle—apart from life itself—that I have ever directly experienced: as the ice slowly melted, the turtle, at first rigid and immobile, unaccountably began to move. It had returned to this world from the dark kingdom whose threshold it had crossed.

The next night, of course, I repeated the sequence, promising myself a renewal of the resurrection, to be witnessed now, at my solemn invitation, by my brother. But this time the poor frozen turtle failed to revive. There were no more miracles and no more pets in my house.

Even outside the house, my parents shunned animals. Dogs were the objects of their particular aversion. Fearing them intensely, they communicated their anxiety to me, so that it took many years before I could relax and feel comfortable around them. In the presence of my friends’ dogs, I feigned an admiration and pleasure I did not actually feel, and eventually, as often happens, the feigning produced at least a shadow of the actual feeling. I met dogs that I recognized to be beautiful and lovable, but the love was always in truth someone else’s, not fully my own.

Nothing in my professional life as a scholar contrived to soften this personal distance.1 The artist on whose work I have spent the most time, Shakespeare, seems to have disliked dogs. About almost all other creatures in the world—horses, rabbits, even snails—he felt a deep, inward understanding, but with dogs his imagination curdled. As Caroline Spurgeon observed more than seventy years ago, in a landmark study of Shakespeare’s imagery,2 dogs function in his work almost entirely negatively. He can effortlessly catalog their types—

Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim,
Hound or spaniel, brach or him,
Bobtail tyke or trundle-tail—

—but they are all equally menacing: “Be thy mouth or black or white,/Tooth that poisons if it bite” ( The Tragedy of King Lear 3.6.21–25). In the tragedy from which these lines come, the villainous sisters, Goneril and Reagan, are “dog-hearted,” a quality they share with the “hell-hound” Richard of Gloucester and with the fathomlessly malevolent Iago (“O damned Iago! O inhuman dog”). When in Shakespeare dogs are not snarling and biting, they are servile flatterers, like the most craven courtiers: “Why, what a candy deal of courtesy,” Hotspur remarks of Bolingbroke, “this fawning greyhound then did proffer me!” ( I Henry IV 1.3.247–248). Such sickening displays of canine flattery must never be trusted: “When he fawns, he bites; and when he bites,/His venom tooth will rankle to the death” ( Richard III 1.3.288–289).

Dogs, the clown Lance observes in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, lack all feeling. Everyone in his household is touched by Lance’s departure—“My mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands”—except for their dog Crab: “He is a stone, a very pebble-stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog” (2.3.5–9). Even a Jew, Lance remarks, would have wept at the parting, but Crab did not shed a tear.

This melancholy history must serve in effect as a disclaimer, because, though it has a Shakespearean plot, the best-selling novel about which I write, David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, is first and foremost a book about dogs. The Sawtelle family owns a farm in rural Wisconsin where for several generations they have bred and trained dogs. The kennel is immensely hard work and only barely breaks even, but a privileged few understand that Sawtelle dogs are truly exceptional, the mystic marriage of blood and loving discipline.

Gar Sawtelle’s father, who established the enterprise, had been an early adherent of rigorously scientific breeding, and he passed along his theories and the methods developed to realize them to his son. The son, Gar, in turn attempts to convey the whole complex system to his only child, Edgar. This reach across generations is crucial for successful breeding: “A litter,” Edgar’s father once told him,

is like an x-ray of its parents and its parents’ parents, but an x-ray that takes years to develop, and even then it’s faint. The more x-rays you have, the better the picture you get.

Assisting with the whelping of a litter and taking charge of the pups is Edgar Sawtelle’s great initiation ritual, the decisive mark of his father’s trust in the skills that his son has been acquiring virtually from the moment of his birth. The acquisition is complicated by a singular fact of Edgar’s existence: he is mute. His mother Trudy takes him as a baby to an unending series of specialists, in the hope of finding a medical solution, but she hears the definitive answer not from a doctor but from an old crone, the owner of a decrepit grocery store, who functions repeatedly in the novel as an uncanny, laconic truth-teller:

No,” Ida Paine grunted, with some finality.

Not ever?”

He can use his hands.”

As oracular Ida foresaw, the child and his parents learn to sign. Edgar becomes particularly adept at using his hands to convey not only commands but also the smallest nuances of meaning to the dogs, especially to his beloved and faithful Almondine, who has watched over him from birth. He learns to feed and water the dogs; to clean their pens; to groom them. He is given the special responsibility of assigning names to the newborns, a task facilitated by eager forays into his favorite book, TheNew Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.

But none of this gradual training, described in loving detail by Wroblewski, fully prepares young Edgar for the momentousness of his father’s question: “What would you think of making this litter yours?” The novel—which has a tendency not to leave well enough alone—makes sure that readers catch the implication of the question: “You look,” Edgar’s father remarks, “like you’re about to have puppies.” The line between Edgar and the dog world is blurred: he has been, a bit like Kipling’s Mowgli (who is repeatedly invoked), the child of the dogs, and from this moment he will be their parent as well.

Edgar’s quasi-parental responsibility for the puppies extends to a further feature of the Sawtelle kennel, indeed to what is arguably its central pillar: fanatically accurate and extensive record-keeping. In the back of the workshop in the barn there is a row of paint-chipped filing cabinets that contain the records of the whole enterprise, all carefully keyed to the ledgered names and litter numbers of the master litter book:

A thousand times he must have watched his father run a finger along a page, then snatch an overstuffed folder out of a drawer. Generations of dogs filled those metal drawers.

Again Wroblewski wants to be sure that readers grasp the import of his figure of speech:

If ever a folder turned up missing, his father said it was as if they had lost the dog itself, and he would search and search, saying, “These records are it. Without them, we wouldn’t know how to plan the next litter. We wouldn’t know what a dog meant.”

If the Sawtelle farm is, from young Edgar’s perspective, a kind of paradise—a loving father, mother, and child, presiding over the sweet mysteries of natural fertility—it is a paradise that requires constant maintenance and a strict order based on elaborate documentation.

Into this puritanical Eden, a garden built on discipline, hard work, and adherence to the rules, there comes a snake: Gar Sawtelle’s younger brother Claude. Claude had left the farm years before to join the navy, and the reader has already glimpsed him in a mysterious prologue, set in South Korea in 1952. There, in the novel’s opening pages, an unnamed sailor has slipped away from his naval base and sought out a sinister herbalist in a dark alley. In a scene worthy of Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu (“Past the ginseng, a tangled pile of antlers lay beneath a rack of decanters,” etc.), the sailor trades penicillin for a vial of very special poison: “Something that works at once. No stomachache for the rat. No headache. The other rats should think the one rat went to sleep and didn’t wake up.” The herbalist demonstrates the efficacy of his product not on a rat but on a stray dog. End of prologue; cut to the Sawtelle farm.

We do not need to know that Claude has brought the vial of poison home from Korea and that he has been on the wrong side of the law to sense that he is serious trouble. Edgar’s first glance is enough: “His father’s brother wore an ill-fitting serge suit, in which he looked uneasy and shabbily formal.” Confirmation of the unease comes late that night when Edgar, spotting his uncle slipping out of the house, follows him to the barn: “Claude lay in the middle of it all on a hastily improvised bed of bales, one hand hanging slackly to the floor, palm up, fingers half curled beside a liquor bottle.” When Edgar asks him what is going on, his uncle is evasive:

Okay, your father asked me not to get into too much detail here, but, uh, let’s just say I’ve been inside a lot. I got really tired of being inside all the time. Little room, not much sun, that sort of thing.

The orderly life of the Sawtelle kennel has come to an end.

Claude, who is handy and manages dogs well, stays on to help Gar and Trudy with the farm. There are moments of pleasure—card games with the elderly vet Doctor Papineau, old stories of childhood escapades, genial teasing and flirting—but the tension between the two brothers, always simmering, soon boils over. After a violent quarrel in which Edgar’s father manages to best his brother, Claude leaves to find work in the nearby town.

Peace returns to the farm and, with it, a resumption of the training routines that Wroblewski describes in painstaking detail:

Edgar stayed one dog and let it rest while he snapped a long line to the other’s collar and put it in a standing stay. On each trial, he lifted his hand overhead to signal down, rewarding them with a scrub of their ruff, or correcting with a sharp tug on the long line, which he’d threaded through an eye bolt in the floor to direct the force down and not forward. As soon as they’d mastered one distance, he retreated a pace farther.

Readers who are not enthralled with methods for training dogs in long-distance downs, stays, and retrievals will find these descriptions trying, as I confess I did. But it is precisely at this point that The Story of Edgar Sawtelle becomes interesting, for the rigorous, repetitive exercises and the elaborate files turn out to be a thin wall warding off something—misfortune, chaos, desire, wildness—that finally bursts into the garden.

One winter day when Trudy is in town running errands, Edgar pauses his exercises to find his father sprawled and motionless on the workshop floor. He runs to the house and picks up the phone, but, of course, he is mute. Wroblewski is at his best conveying the horror of the moment:

He tried to force sound from his mouth, but there was only the gasp of exhaled breath. He swung his hand wide, then struck his chest with all the force he could muster, mouthing the words.

Is this an emergency?” the operator said.

He struck his chest again. Again. Each blow drove a single note from his body.


Edgar’s father—who seems to have suffered a stroke—never recovers consciousness and is dead by the time his wife returns home. After the funeral, Trudy and Edgar attempt to reestablish routines, but the widow is racked with grief and the son with tormenting guilt and terrible dreams. A savage fight among the dogs Edgar is trying to train by himself, while Trudy lies in bed with pneumonia, signals the impending collapse of the whole Sawtelle kingdom.

Reenter Claude.

Wroblewski handles deftly the uncertainty, from Edgar’s point of view, of what is happening and his jumbled outrage and incredulity when he slowly realizes that his uncle has displaced his father both in the business and in his mother’s bed. At this point, if not well before, it will have dawned on the reader that certain of the names are not accidental: Trudy is short for Gertrude; Claude for Claudius. The novel is rehearsing the plot of Hamlet.

That plot, as Shakespeare crafted it—and here he departed radically from his French source, François de Belleforest, and from Belleforest’s source, Saxo the Grammarian—depends on the absolute secrecy of the murder. While old Hamlet was sleeping in his garden, his brother Claudius poured poison—“the juice of cursèd hebenon in a vial” (1.5.62)—into his ears. Death was almost instantaneous. There were no witnesses, and everyone assumed that the king had been bitten by a poisonous snake. If there is in Shakespeare’s tragedy no equivalent to Wroblewski’s prologue in which we see how the murderer acquired his poison,3 it is because Shakespeare wants the audience to join the prince in wondering why the ghost, which haunts the first moments of the play, has returned and then to share the full shock of its revelation: “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/Now wears his crown” (1.5.39–40). This revelation is at the same time a demand for vengeance; from this point on, Hamlet will live his life under the insupportable burden of the dead father’s command: “Remember me” (1.5.91).

Initially, Hamlet imagines that this command will be easy to follow: he vows to erase all other memories from his brain and to sweep to his revenge. But reality, as he experiences it, is infinitely more complex. The problem is not only—or even principally—that his uncle is cunning, suspicious, and well-protected; it is rather that Hamlet finds himself gripped with obsessive doubts and uncertainties. Is the ghost’s account to be credited? What, for that matter, is a ghost? Is there any way to verify a murder that took place—if it took place—without witnesses, apart from the murderer himself? Is there anyone—the palace guards, his school friends, the woman he loves—whom he can trust? Was his mother part of the plot against his father’s life? And, even were she not, what can he make of her willingness to marry his uncle, and with such unseemly haste? How could she turn from his noble, upright father—a paragon of every manly virtue—to his sleazy, devious uncle? What is the nature of female sexuality, that it could “sate itself in a celestial bed,/And prey on garbage” (1.5.56–57)? And what, for that matter, is the nature of his own inner life, that it torments him with bad dreams, self-loathing, and suicidal thoughts?

David Wroblewski is bent on exploring some of the same issues and reaching for some of the same effects—that is, after all, the point of taking his plot from Hamlet. Sure enough, the ghost of Edgar’s father returns in a driving rainstorm—

His head, his torso. Arms held away from his body. All formed by raindrops suspended and instantly replaced. Near the ground, the figure’s legs frayed into tattered blue-gray sprays of water,

—and tells his son to search for the murder weapon, the syringe, that his wicked uncle has dropped. Before he vanishes, the spectral figure signs to Edgar the very words with which the ghost of old Hamlet left his son:

A touch of the thumb to the forehead.

The I-hand held to his chest.

Remember me.

Other pieces of the Hamlet plot duly fall into place: Edgar, who had been a model child, becomes sullen, brooding, disturbed, and outright dangerous. His mother is baffled, but Claude begins to suspect that the boy knows something. Edgar is bitter when he sees his beloved Almondine sitting at the feet of Claude, and he treats the poor, baffled creature—the novel’s Ophelia—with devastating coldness. The spiral of spying and provocation culminates when Edgar, “grim and ecstatic and oblivious,” goes after a shadowy figure—whom he assumes to be his uncle—with a hay hook. The victim turns out to be the inoffensive, meddling Doctor Papineau, the family farm’s Polonius.

Edgar flees into the Chequamegon forest—the equivalent of Hamlet’s sea voyage toward England—accompanied by three of the faithful dogs he has littered and trained. He is pursued by Doctor Papineau’s dim-witted son Glen (as easily manipulated by Claude as Polonius’s son Laertes is by Claudius), but Edgar proves himself to be brave, wily, and resourceful. When he finally feels himself ready to turn back to his home, he is endowed with something like Hamlet’s mood of philosophical resignation:

Life was a swarm of accidents waiting in the treetops, descending upon any living thing that passed, ready to eat them alive. You swam in a river of chance and coincidence. You clung to the happiest accidents—the rest you let float by.

This is not quite “The readiness is all,” but it is enough to signal Edgar’s readiness to master his grief at the sight of Almondine’s fresh grave and to face his uncle.

The novel’s climactic scene is a mad, chaotic swirl of events: Glen Papineau blinded in an attempt to seize Edgar; Trudy pinned down on the ground by Glen; the barn accidentally set on fire; Edgar, rushing in to save the files, poisoned by the evil Claude; Claude trapped in the burning barn and seeing in his dying moments the ghost of his brother. The details are all different, to be sure, but Wroblewski succeeds in capturing the chiaroscuro confusion—half murderous design, half accident—of the final duel in Hamlet. Why then does this conclusion, and indeed the whole novel, feel so utterly alien to the spirit of Shakespeare’s tragedy?

In part the obvious answer is literary skill: it will not come as a surprise to learn that David Wroblewski is not William Shakespeare. But setting aside some overwriting, particularly in purple prose meant to evoke the natural world, and the penchant to explain metaphors, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is quite a good novel, and it is worth reflecting on what its careful, systematic use of Shakespeare’s play reveals both about its own project and about Hamlet. First, Wroblewski’s novel has almost no serious engagement with sexuality, certainly nothing remotely comparable to the extraordinary scene in which Hamlet, pleading with his mother to “refrain tonight,” loses himself in perverse fantasies:

Let the bloat King tempt you again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out.


And given the fact that the novel’s Ophelia character is a dog, there is nothing like the tragic hero’s equally weird mix of dirty jokes and passionate urging of chastity: “Get thee to a nunnery. Why woulds’t thou be a breeder of sinners?” (3.1.122–123). Dogs are precisely not sinners, and the pervasive disgust at breeding, so central to Shakespeare’s play, is displaced in the novel by the literal business of breeding.

Second, unlike Hamlet, Edgar Sawtelle never actually grows up or, more precisely, he never seriously grapples with mortality, his own or that of others. To be sure, he deeply mourns the loss of his father, but that loss does not widen into a pervasive vision, in the way that the death of old Hamlet leads ultimately to the scene in the graveyard and the prince’s meditation on the skull of Yorick. The novel has neither the play’s terrible sense of rotting matter nor its anxious brooding on the afterlife. The ghost of Gar Sawtelle is a literary device, borrowed from Hamlet, not a remnant of the old belief in Purgatory.

What, in the absence of sexuality and mortality, does The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, more than five hundred pages long, offer instead? First, Wroblewski has turned Hamlet into Huckleberry Finn, rebellious and troubled but deeply, abidingly innocent. Hamlet ceaselessly excoriates himself as a guilty wretch; that is the central burden of his celebrated interiority. Edgar, whose muteness drives him powerfully within himself, is the American Adam. His long flight north—breaking into vacation houses to steal food, but carefully taking only enough to survive and protect his beloved dogs—displays his underlying, instinctive moral decency.

Second, there are the dogs: Wroblewski has turned the kingdom into a kennel and thereby populated the realm. Several recent books on Hamlet have argued forcefully for the play’s political dimension,4 but the authors have to struggle with the fact that the world of this tragedy, unlike that of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, or Coriolanus, depicts so few subjects, whether loyal or rebellious. We hear something about the “distracted multitude” (4.3.4), but they are noises offstage, displaced precisely by the dimensions of the play that Wroblewski downplays or ignores. By contrast, in the novel, the subjects are at the very center, in the ongoing reflections on the relative importance of breeding and training, in the complex bonds of affection, resistance, and authority, in the subtle delineation of the differences among the personalities of dogs whelped from the same litter, in the obsessive attention to the filing cabinets full of statistics, recorded observations, blood lines, photographs, and letters.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle incorporates a deep current of uneasiness not about the fact that the subjects are dogs but about the fact that the dogs are subjects, and not citizens. Indeed, bred and raised to be sold, they are products in a business. The uneasiness swirls around a mysterious half-wild stray, Forte—of course, Fortinbras—who is not part of the kennel world but seems to be, in some mystical sense, its progenitor. And it culminates in Edgar’s decision to send Essay, the last of the dogs that accompanied him on his flight, away from the burning barn:

He took her ruff in his hands to shake her down, scare her away, then stopped himself. They were done with commands. He put his hand under the belly and drew her attention into him.

Away, he signed, pouring into the gesture all the force he could muster. I know you understand. I know it’s your choice. But please. Away!

It’s your choice.” The dog has been officially emancipated; she is now a free agent. But Edgar is not free. The ostensible action in the final scene is the duel between uncle and nephew, but the key act—the act that brings Edgar to his death—is the desperate attempt to save the records. The tragedy of Edgar Sawtelle is that he is not a dog and therefore cannot run free. He is the heir to the kingdom, and he dies in a desperate attempt to rescue it from the flames.


Shakespeare Goes to the Dogs May 14, 2009

  1. 1

    There are, to be sure, endless loving representations of dogs in Renaissance painting: the frisky Brussels griffon in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding portrait, the sleek, loping hunting dogs in Breughel’s sublime Hunters in the Snow, the pissing mongrel that aroused the Inquisition’s wrath in Veronese’s Last Supper, and (my personal favorite) the eerily intelligent gray dog in Dosso Dossi’s Circe or Melissa in the Borghese Gallery.

  2. 2

    Shakespeare’s Imagery, and What It Tells Us (Cambridge University Press, 1935). Citations of Shakespeare are to The Norton Shakespeare, second edition, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Norton, 2008).

  3. 3

    That Shakespeare knew perfectly well how to write such a scene is clear elsewhere in his work from Romeo’s ill-fated visit to the Mantuan apothecary, a visit in which the sinister location is brilliantly evoked:

    Sharp misery had worn him to the bones,
    And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
    An alligator stuffed, and other skins
    Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
    A beggarly account of empty boxes,
    Green earthen pots, bladders, and musty seeds,
    Remnants of packthread, and old cakes of roses
    Were thinly scattered to make up a show.
    (Romeo and Juliet
    5.1.41–48 )

  4. 4

    The most interesting of these are Margreta de Grazia, Hamlet Without Hamlet (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Paul A. Kottman, A Politics of the Scene (Stanford University Press, 2008).