At a Glance

In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, author David Wroblewski reimagines Shakespeare's Hamlet on a dog farm in Wisconsin. Edgar, the main character, suspects his uncle Claude of having murdered Gar, Edgar's father. In the resulting conflict, both are killed.

  • Edgar lives on the dog farm his grandfather founded. He was born mute, but has a strong affinity with the dogs his family has been selectively breeding.

  • Edgar's father dies suddenly of heart failure. When the estranged Claude happens to return to the farm shortly after, Edgar begins to suspect foul play.

  • In his quest to prove Claude's guilt, Edgar accidentally pushes Claude's former employer, a veterinarian, down the stairs. He later finds the proof that he needs, but dies with Claude in a fire.


David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008) explores the silent world of the novel’s protagonist, Edgar Sawtelle. Edgar lives in Wisconsin during the middle of the twentieth century. Born mute, he is a teenager who seems to prefer the language of dogs more than the words of the adults around him. From his earliest memories, his favorite job on the farm was to name the new puppies that were born there. He chooses names randomly from a dictionary. As he grows older, his connection with the dogs becomes more profound. He helps to train them through sign language.

Wroblewski begins his novel with Edgar’s grandfather, telling readers about how the dog farm began. When Edgar’s father, Gar, dies suspiciously, Edgar blames his uncle Claude, his father’s younger brother, who has meant nothing but trouble for the family. When Claude makes romantic overtures to Edgar’s mother, Trudy, Edgar is outraged.

The story is filled with loving family memories until Claude arrives. Claude spends most of his time in the barn or at the local bar. The details of Claude’s life are sketchy at best and Edgar finds Claude to be two-faced. The man presents his best side to Edgar’s mother. She falls for him, allowing him to fill in the vacant spaces left behind from her husband’s death. Edgar sees the other side of Claude, a side that Edgar finds dangerous.

When tensions become too strong between Edgar and Claude, Edgar takes his favorite dogs and runs away from home. For the story itself, this tension raises the level of curiosity for the reader. It is at this point that the novel takes on the form of a mystery or a sort of detective story. Edgar fears the police are looking for him because of an accidental death that he played a part in. Readers worry that Edgar might be caught because Claude is suggesting to local officials that Edgar committed murder. In the end, it is Edgar versus Claude—a fight to the finish. Unfortunately, there are no winners.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was Wroblewski’s first novel. It took him ten years to complete it. Literary critics praise the author’s writing, especially in the first half of the story. Some critics, however, have found the second half to be too artificially manipulated.


David Wroblewski took ten years to write his first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

The story is set in Wisconsin, near the farmland where Wroblewski once lived as a child. The time is somewhere in the 1970s, though the laid-back environment of the farm, which lies at the edge of a small town, gives the sense of a much earlier time.

Critics have pointed out, and Wroblewski has revealed, that at its simplest form this novel uses the framework of Shakespeare’s playHamlet. Though some critics go to great lengths to make the comparison, the basic elements that the play and the novel share are these: a son whose father is murdered by the father’s brother, who then beds the widow; the father appears to his son in ghost form to divulge his murderer’s identity; the son then seeks revenge.

The novel opens with a brief history of the lineage of the Sawtelle dogs.Edgar’s grandfather was the one who began the breed, with painstaking diligence. He sought dogs whose character he liked and slowly bred these desired traits until he came up with a dog that was intelligent, gentle, and trainable. The details of his decisions were recorded, filed, and enhanced as the breed evolved, down to Edgar’s father, Gar.

Gar’s brother, Claude, showed little interest in the dogs and moved away. However, as the story moves forward to Edgar’s fourteenth year, Claude shows up, needing a home. He sets himself up in the barn and helps around the farm until he and Gar get into a fight. Trudy, Gar’s wife, tells Edgar that she knows there was “bad blood” between Edgar’s father and Claude, but she is not sure what caused it.

Claude moves away and is seldom seen until Gar mysteriously dies.Edgar is in the barn with his father but can do nothing to help save his life. When Gar appears to Edgar as an apparition one stormy night, Gar leads Edgar to a syringe. Claude has been working at Dr. Papineau’s veterinary clinic and has access to drugs. Edgar suspects that Claude injected a drug into his father, causing his father’s heart to fail.

To let Claude know that he suspects Claude’s role in Gar’s death, Edgar cleverly trains his dogs to play out the death scene. One dog picks up a syringe and bumps into another dog, who then plays dead on the barn...

(The entire section is 937 words.)