Where is gender criticism seen in the beginning and middle sections The Story of Edgar Sawtelle?  I have to compare/contrast gender criticism in this book and gender criticism seen in Hamlet.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is some condition of vagueness in the "beginning" and "middle" conditions of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  This does not preclude the fact that the consideration of gender is vitally important to both Wrolblewski's work and to Shakespare's Hamlet.  The foundational premise of each is similar.  There is a death of the rightful leader of a particular dominion, and the son must wrestle with the reality of such life artificially ending. At the same time, both works feature sons who possess complex relationships with their mothers as a result of the deaths of their fathers.  Yet, in these layered similarities, one can find that there is a distinct difference in the way that the primary women characters are depicted.

In both works, the mother of the protagonist is the primary source of gender criticism.  Gertrude and Trudy face similar predicaments.  Outside of the shared connection in their names, both of them experience challenging losses in their lives.  They both are left widowed prematurely and seek to embracing their respective brothers- in laws in order to effectively cope with the massive level of change that impacts them both.  In the end, both of them struggle with the relationships with their sons in the wake of their husbands' deaths.

I think that there are some subtle ways in which these conditions are played out according to gender.  There is greater definition in Trudy's experiences prior to Gar's death. Through Edgar's eyes, the reader sees Trudy's life with her husband.  It becomes clear that she was extremely happy with Gar and that there was a sense of normalcy and shared love in their lives together.  At the same time, Trudy had struggled with her own understanding of loss, evident in the miscarriages she experienced. As a result, she becomes destabilized when Gar dies.  In explaining this to Edgar, Trudy speaks of a hurt and fragile condition that is not explored in Shakespeare's depiction of Gertrude:

You ask, 'Why am I really fighting this?' If the answer is 'Because I'm scared of what things will be like,' then, most times, you're fighting for the wrong reason....Then you dig in your heels and you fight and fight and fight. But you have to be absolutely sure you can handle a different kind of change, because in the end, things will change anyway, just not that way. In fact, if you get into a fight like that, it pretty much guarantees things are going to change.

Trudy's life has been one of accepting the conditions with which she is presented.  Her sense of loss and pain is an indelible part of her characterization.  The construction of gender identity for Trudy is based upon this premise.  She does not benefit from her husband's death.  If anything, her husband's death has destabilized her world view, a position of hurt that is communicated to Edgar.  Trudy's construction of self is one in which she struggles with pain and loss, fighting through a reality of limited choices.  Her relationship with Claude is one almost of convenience in helping her appropriate reality in accordance to her own subjectivity and doing so to simply survive.  Even though Edgar leaves home, it becomes clear that Trudy is more hurt and a shell of what she once was.

Gertrude speaks from a position of strength.  Gertrude defines being a woman in a stark and rather unsentimental manner. The reader does not see Gertrude mourn for her husband.  She speaks from a position of strength, fed by her own emotional limitations.  Unlike Trudy, Gertrude does not "protest too much" in the way that she speaks to her son, and views emotional displays with a certain skepticism:  "more matter with less art."  Gertrude is shown as directly benefitting from her marriage to Claudius, as she is able to keep the throne.  Her ending is one where she drinks from the poison cup and suffers long enough to tell Hamlet that it is poisoned.

In examining the construction of women in both, it becomes clear that a shared reality of being a woman is that women are forced to accept the conditions with which they are presented.  Both have to marry a man to avoid recognizing a reality in which they are widows.  The reality in which women live is one where they "go along to get along," including rebuking their sons who pose significant inertia to such an idea.  Being a woman is also shown to be complex.  Trudy is a complex character in how she struggles with life after miscarriages and embraces her husband's brother.  Gertrude's complexity lies beneath the surface, as it becomes clear that Hamlet was wrong about his mother's responsibility in his father's death. In both works, psychological ramifications emerge as the result of the reality in which women are presented.  Being a woman involves dealing with victimization and forming a response to it, something that both women show in a pragmatic way in taking in their husbands' brothers.  The focused depiction of women in both works are show women as embracing pragmatism as part of their reality of consciousness.  This victimization reveals itself on the subtle and direct level, suggesting that women process such pain in different realities.  Both women are dependent on the outside world for validation.  This compels them to take men in who, it turns out, have significant roles in eliminating their predecessors.  Both women display women who "need a man."  It is in this notion where the silencing of voice is something that both writers feel appropriate in stressing about what it means to be a woman. In this, the view of gender or the beginning of gender criticism is evident in each work.

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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

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