In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, what is the role of gender criticism, especially in the last section of the book? Any specific pages or quotes that prove significant?
In examining gender criticism, the reader looks at the way that gender affects a work and whether gender stereotypes have been upheld and, therefore, supported or whether they have been broken down to reveal inconsistencies and contradictions, thus disputing the stereotype.
As The Story of Edgar Sawtelle continues, the typical setting with the overwhelmed wife and the manual labor needed to maintain the farm reveals that the familial relationships are dominated by an ever-present expectation of behavior between males, mainly Edgar and his uncle Claude and females, mainly Edgar's mother.
Trudy marries Claude and, thus, avoids the untenable title of widow, and Edgar no longer needs to step into the void left by his father. His mother is, however, unable to see, as Edgar does, that there is “not one Claude but many,” as she strives to do the best thing giving in to her feelings of powerlessness, unable to fight expectations, "as if it's a choice we could make" - thus upholding the stereotype which then perpetuates as the story proceeds. Edgar escapes from his part in this, having taught his dogs to "watch and listen and trust. To think and choose." They have personalities that are aside from the norm and that are unexpected. This is Wroblewski's subtle way of transcending stereotypes whilst at the same time recognizing their existence and how they complicate every day life.
After the father's death, Almondine smells the ground as he is laid to rest but "She knew it most keenly in the diminishment of her own self." This can be considered two ways and its interpretation is upon the reader as it indicates either that, without an overriding male influence she was incomplete (even being a dog) or that this thinking disputes stereotyping. The reliance of the female on the male is countered and actually confirmed because Almondine includes Trudy and acknowledges that each of them "powered her heart a different way." She is thus supporting the view that males and females fulfill different roles.
Later, after the death of hte veterinarian, the unfortunate turn of events adds another element to the story as the stepson (Edgar) unwittingly directs suspicion at himself, allowing Claude to appear even more masterful and in control and giving him opportunity to manipulate his position, dominating the situation as expected of the male stereotype. Edgar's poor mother is helpless to understand or protect her son- "as opaque as a rock"- but does encourage him to run away, indicating that perhaps she does realize that Claude could be more of a danger to her son. When he returns, she tries to give him a chance.
In the end, the need for dominance destroys this family and there is a temptation to draw a comparison with the typical wild animal and male domination. As Edgar "screamed, silently," the reader is reminded that misunderstandings whether voiced or not, cause untold damage and trying to fit into an expected role is often a recipe for disaster.