Reading Questions for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
1. One of the abiding mysteries in Edgar's life concerns how his parents met. In fact, Edgar is an inveterate snoop about it. Yet when Trudy finally offers to tell him, he decides he'd rather not know. What does that reveal about Edgar's character or his state of mind? Do you think he might have made a different decision earlier in the story?
2. In one of Edgar's favorite passages from The Jungle Book, Bagheera tells Mowgli that he was once a caged animal, until "one night I felt that I was Bagheera—the Panther—and no man's plaything, and I broke the silly lock with one blow of my paw and came away." There is a dialectic in Edgar's story that is similarly concerned with the ideas of wildness and domestication. How does this manifest itself? What is the "wildest" element in the story? What is the most "domestic"?
3. Claude is a mysterious presence in this story. What does he want and when did he start wanting it? What is his modus operandi? Would his methods work in the real world, or is such behavior merely a convenient trope of fiction?
4. How does Almondine's way of seeing the world differ from the human characters in this story? Does Essay's perception (which we can only infer) differ from Almondine's? Assuming that both dogs are examples of what John Sawtelle dubbed canis posterus, "the next dogs," what specifically can they do that other dogs cannot?
5. At first glance, Henry Lamb seems an unlikely caretaker for a pair of Sawtelle dogs, yet Edgar feels that Tinder and Baboo will be safe with him. What is it about Henry that makes him fit? Would it have been better if Edgar had placed the dogs with someone more experienced? Why doesn't Edgar simply insist that all the dogs return home with him?
6. Haunting is a prominent motif in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. How many ghosts, both literal and figurative, are in this story? In what ways are the ghosts alike? Who is haunted, and by whom?
7. Do Edgar's own dog-training techniques and methods change over the course of the story? If so, how? Do different methods of dog training represent a trade-off of some kind, or are certain methods simply better? Would it be more or less difficult to train a breed of dogs that had been selected for many generations for their intellect?
After you've finished reading...
8. How would Edgar's story have been different if he had been born with a voice? How would Edgar himself have been different? Since Edgar can communicate perfectly well in sign language most of the time, why should having a voice make any difference at all?
9. Some readers forget entirely about the poison that makes its appearance in the prologue; others never lose track of it. Which kind of reader were you? What is the nature of the poison? When the man and the old herbalist argue in the prologue, who did you think was right?
10. Two of the final chapters are told from Claude's point of view. Do they help explain his character or motivation?
11. At one point in this story, Trudy tells Edgar that what makes the Sawtelle dogs valuable is something that cannot be put into words, at least by her. By the end of the book, Edgar feels he understands what she meant, though he is equally at a loss to name this quality. What do you think Trudy meant?
12. In the final moments of the novel, Essay must make a choice. What do you think she decides, and why? Do you think all the dogs will abide by her decision?
13. Mark Doty has called The Story of Edgar Sawtelle "an American Hamlet." Certainly, there are moments that evoke that older drama, but many other significant story elements do not. Edgar's encounter with Ida Paine is one example out of many. Are other Shakespearean plays evoked in this story? Consider Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and The Tempest. In what sense is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle like all Elizabethan stage drama? Is it important to know (or not know) that the story is, at some level, a retelling of an older tale? Do you think Elizabethan audiences were aware that Hamlet was itself a retelling of an older story?