The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

by David Wroblewski

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What are some symbols in David Wroblewski's "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle?"

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There are many symbols in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Perhaps the most obvious one is Edgar's inability to speak. While he cannot verbally communicate, he is still able to successfully communicate with, and therefore train, the dogs. The overarching symbolism of this in the story is that even though he seemingly cannot communicate with them, his lack of speech actually allows him to communicate with the dogs at a deeper level.

Edgar's lack of verbal communication is a symbol for an ability to see more than others do; it's a symbol of looking beyond the everyday and finding something extraordinary. For example, consider when Edgar is unable to get help from calling 911 after his father falls in the barn. This shows us clearly how Edgar's being mute can be unhelpful. However, the symbolism for his being mute in this situation shows up clearly when his father's specter, if you will, shows up that night in the rain. The specter is able to communicate to Edgar and let him know that even if Edgar had been able to call, it would not have changed anything.

Since Edgar cannot speak, he is more attuned to the power words have. He uses this when he meticulously chooses names for his dogs--each dog's name is a symbol in itself, albeit (seemingly) randomly chosen from the dictionary.

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In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the names of the dogs as well as the dogs themselves could be considered symbolic.  Keep in mind each dog is named directly out of the dictionary.  (One brief discussion point in the naming of the dogs is the question of whether they live up to the definition of their names, or they are named so perfectly that their character is defined before each is mature.)  To fully explore this idea, I encourage you to make a list of the most important dogs in the story and consider the personality and key role of each dog.  You will quickly begin to notice that the character of the dog comes to fit almost perfectly with its name.  To help you get started, let's look at the following:

  1. Almondine: Edgar's "nurse" and protector from the time he is a baby; the constant companion of the entire family; brings comfort in the wake of death.  Almond = Biblical symbol of watchfulness and promise; almond branches often portrayed artistically as holding the Baby Jesus.
  2. Forte: the original Forte was a dog of great size and strength; the stray/wild dog whom Edgar names Forte lives on his own in the wild.  Forte = "fort" a stronghold; "Fortinbras" from Hamlet is the only one alive in the end to take on the throne.
  3. Essay: the "alpha" from Edgar's first litter; the one who teaches Edgar the most about training, himself, the dogs, etc.  John Sawtelle's original vision (canis posterous) is realized in her seeming understanding of the fire and leading the other dogs away from harm; Essay = to put to a test; experimental effort.

Other symbolic elements in the book include nature (notice the way the weather often fits the mood of a scene; seasonal change parallels life changes), poison (displayed in the character of Claude, both literally and metaphorically), and record-keeping (records of the dogs to test and ensure genetic perfection; mental/emotional records or grudges which play out as the story progresses).

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