37 pages 1 hour read

Thomas Savage

The Power of the Dog

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1967

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Power of the Dog is a 1967 Western fiction novel written by the American author Thomas Savage. It takes place in 1925 in Montana, just as the frontier era has come to a close. The novel portrays the story of two brothers, Phil and George Burbank, who have inherited family property and operate a cattle ranch. When George meets the widow Rose Gordon and brings her, along with her son Peter, to the farm, tensions between the brothers mount towards a surprising conclusion.

The novel explores the nature of masculinity, questioning the traits that make up a good man. Phil is the proudly rugged cowboy; George is the modest and introverted businessman. In his quest to subdue those around him, including his brother George, Phil is the top dog on the ranch. The novel explores the many ways Phil achieves dominance and exercises control over those around him. When Rose and Peter are brought to the ranch, Phil’s actions become sharply more cruel. Maintaining control of the world he has constructed at the ranch becomes Phil’s urgent, singular focus. However, even for the top dog, there is always a stronger, unpredictable force that cannot be dominated—an unfortunate fact for Phil, whose hubris does not allow for humility.

The novel was adapted into a film in 2021 directed by Jane Campion who received the Academy Award for Best Director. This guide uses the Kindle edition first published in 2009.

Plot Summary

The opening paragraph of the novel, a memorable and graphic account of the castration of bull-calves, establishes a tone that will reverberate through its entirety. This is a harsh, cruel, and brutal world, and it is not for the faint-of-heart. Readers are quickly introduced to two of the novel’s primary characters, the brothers Phil and George Burbank.

Inheritors of a vast estate left them by their still living parents, Phil and George operate one of the larger cattle ranches in the region. Of the two, Phil looks and acts the part of cowboy. He is a gritty and rugged man of 40. Manners, etiquette, and other niceties of high society are not for him. While educated and extremely intelligent, Phil’s worldview is formed by his duties at the ranch and not by societal expectation. By contrast, George has a very different, lighter temperament, and while he participates in some of the ranch duties, such as helping to lead cattle drives, his primary occupation at the ranch is to handle its business operations. George has one foot in the world of the cowboy and one foot in the world of the capitalist. Of the two brothers, George is the introverted one. His quiet demeanor often creates suspicion amongst the hired hands at the ranch who see themselves more clearly in Phil than in him. For this reason, even though George controls the purse strings, Phil is their leader, commanding respect and admiration.

The novel introduces the secondary plot line: the history of Johnny Gordon and his wife, Rose. Johnny is a doctor and an intelligent man, but he is haunted by a sense of low self-worth. His lack of confidence in his own ability to achieve his dreams is his defining characteristic. A man of small stature, Johnny’s self-doubt consumes him, causing him to abuse alcohol. Even though Johnny is considered kind by all who know him, he is never comfortable being a doctor in such an unforgiving world. His wife Rose sees the kindness in Johnny and admires and loves him for it. This trait is what she most values, but Johnny always feels as though he is not good enough for her.

After drinking too much one night, some years prior to the novel’s present time, Johnny has a fateful encounter with Phil at a bar which provides the spark for the slowly rising action of the plot. While drunk, Johnny tries to make small talk with Phil, to which Phil, full of contempt at the pathetic display, is in no mood to reciprocate. When Phil engages in conversation with Johnny, his words are loaded with mockery, and when he calls Johnny’s young son a sissy, Johnny tries to mount a defense. He physically confronts Phil which leads to Phil handing Johnny a beating. The humiliating scene is too much for the woeful Johnny to bear. After one final conversation with his young son, in which he gives the boy final advice, Johnny hangs himself. His son, Peter, whose role in the plot increases slowly but dramatically as the novel reaches its conclusion, is the one who cuts the rope from which his father was hanging. This interaction between the Burbanks and the Gordons is only the first.

When the cattle drive reaches the town of Beech, the Burbank outfit has dinner at The Red Mill, a roadhouse operated by Rose and Peter. As the crew assembles at the tables, Phil notices that paper flowers adorn the table setting, and as is his way, he mocks them. He notices Peter, now a teenager, waiting tables with a towel draped over his arm. Phil openly mocks Peter and once again calls him a sissy in Rose’s earshot. When the outfit finally leaves the establishment, Rose is heard crying in the kitchen when George goes to pay the bill. George’s compassion for Rose is the beginning of what will become a relationship between the two. Eventually, and in a short time, they marry, without Phil’s approval or his awareness. George brings Rose to the ranch, and the tension mounts.

Phil becomes ever crueler to Rose, and his expressions of territorial dominance become overbearing for her. Rose is not from the upper crust of society. Her background is modest, and when she arrives at the Burbank ranch, she is overwhelmed by the evidence of wealth all around her. She feels out of place as it is, but with Phil’s antagonism, her sense of self-identity is compromised. Much like her deceased husband before her, she takes to abusing alcohol as a coping mechanism. Meanwhile, Phil is suspicious of her motives, feeling that she is only after George’s money. Seeing Rose as a schemer, he feels that George is too naive to understand what he has gotten himself into with her. As much as Phil tries to alert George to what he sees as Rose’s true personality, George does not bend or cave to Phil. He holds fast to his own beliefs and refuses to abandon her.

There is an important secondary character who remains off-stage throughout the novel. His name is Bronco Henry. What readers explicitly know of Bronco Henry is that he is a deceased, former leader of a ranching outfit who taught Phil how to be a cowboy. Phil idolizes the man and attributes much of what he knows to his former mentor. However, there are subtle clues throughout the novel that suggest that Phil had a physically intimate relationship with Bronco Henry and that his admiration for the mentor is actually love.

When Peter arrives at the ranch, Phil is initially full of contempt. He mocks the boy and devises nicknames by which the ranch-hands refer to him. However, one day Peter stumbles upon Phil bathing naked in a secret swimming hole. It is the only place where Phil feels comfortable being naked, and although he is at first enraged, it marks a turning point in how he behaves toward Peter. Eventually, he warms up to Peter and befriends him. He sets out to teach the young man the rancher life and how to be a cowboy. He also decides to make a gift for him: a rope that Phil braids himself out of rawhide. As the relationship between the two grows, Phil’s true nature bubbles to the surface. Readers see that much of his rugged rough exterior is a disguise for his self-loathing.

Peter, an intellectually gifted young man who aspires to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor, learns how to skin animals for their hides. He discovers a cow killed by anthrax, skins it, and offers the hide to Phil so that he can finish braiding the rope. The poisoned hide infects Phil, and he dies from his illness. In the act of killing Phil, the physically weaker Peter delivers his mother from Phil’s cruelty and avenges his father’s humiliating defeat.

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