Sara Gruen does a great job by including animals in the characterization of Water for Elephants. The animals in the novel are intelligent and show emotions as they face the changing tides of life amidst grief, abuse and love just like the humans in the novel. We have lovable animals like the elephant Rosie and the dog Queenie, yet the narrative is balanced enough to let both the human and the animal characters share the spotlight.
Jacob Jankowski is the narrator and protagonist of the novel. He is an old man who is not sure if he is ninety years old or ninety-three years old but is certain it is one or the other. He lives in a nursing home for old people but is angered by the dull regimented life in the home. A circus comes to town and mounts close to his nursing home, and it triggers memories of his youth. In the novel, we see Jacob from two perspectives, first as a hale and hearty ninety or ninety-three-year-old man and then as a twenty-three-year-old in emotional turmoil from grief and forbidden love.
Jacob is a lover of animals, with training in veterinary science from an Ivy League college, although not certified because he missed his final exams due to unfortunate circumstances in his life. Despite his lack of a veterinary certificate, his training as a vet becomes useful and secures his employment when he inadvertently joins a circus train after an emotional breakdown.
As an aged man, Jacob feels like an outsider in his own family and feels let down that none of his family members agreed to take him in despite his protests against going to an old people’s nursing home. He also feels like an outsider in the old people’s home because he believes he is more healthy in mind and body than the rest of the people in the home.
Jacob is rash. He often makes grave decisions on a whim but sometimes does not follow the decisions through. Apart from aging, there are no drastic changes in Jacob’s character. His personality and way of thinking remain the same throughout the novel.
Rosie is the heroine of the story. Although not human, she is an elephant with a high level of intelligence and emotional capability. She is purchased by Uncle Al from a collapsed circus and evokes mixed reactions from the humans she comes in contact with. Her initial trainer thinks she is extremely stupid. August is extremely cruel to her, Greg is an understanding friend to her, Jacob loves her and is protective of her and Marlena loves her as well.
Although silent in speech, Rosie’s personality shines through, she is friendly, naughty, mischievous, playful, loves alcohol, and understands Polish. She also proves to be a fighter and an avenger in the progress of the story.
Marlena is a beautiful young lady and the love interest of the protagonist. She is a performer at the circus and good with horses. At first, she is seen as the glamorous wife of the circus equestrian who is in the upper echelon of the circus social ladder. But later we see she is an abused and unhappy wife who remains in a loveless marriage because her elopement made her family disown her. She is calm and kind with a streak of strong will.
She loves her horses and is fiercely protective of them. Her character is a naïve young woman who becomes more mature and wise when she falls in love with Jacob and realizes she cannot waste her life staying married to the cruel August.
August is the antagonist of the novel. Although the villain, he is one of the most interesting characters in the story. His personality is very volatile. One moment he is a charming and generous man, the next, he is a cruel and abusive monster.
He is extremely pleased when everything is going his way but out of control when they aren’t. He has no qualms about being unethical and even criminal to get what he wants. He even plots to murder Jacob and Jacob’s friends because of his suspicion that Jacob is having an affair with his wife. He is dreaded by every member of the circus because he does not like his authority challenged and can be vindictive. Later in the story, we learn that part of August’s behavior is because of a psychological illness called paranoid schizophrenia.
Kinko is another interesting character in Water for Elephants. He is one of the most layered and developed characters in the story. He is a performer in the circus whose employers do not give the same dignified treatment they give to other performers. At first, we see Kinko, the surly and hostile roommate to Jacob, but as the novel progresses, we see Walter, a kind friend who protects those he cares about.
We also see him as someone who has been hurt by those he loves because of his dwarfism, his mother sold him off to the circus because he is a dwarf and cannot do much farm work.
Walter is a book lover and a doting pet owner. He is loved among other performers in the circus and is very resourceful in procuring scarce commodities like quality alcohol for himself and his friends. Walter’s fate was tragic because he deserved better than he got from Uncle Al, August, and even his friend Jacob.
Camel is an old man from the lower class of the circus world. He is a laborer whose old age makes him less and less productive to his employers. However, he is loved by most of his co-workers, and they look out for him and grant him favors.
He loves alcohol and takes cheap alternatives because he cannot afford expensive drinks like whiskey. He falls victim to a cheap toxic drink that leaves him irreversibly paralyzed. Later, we realize Camel was once a soldier whose post-traumatic stress from the war made him desert his family to join the circus. When he learns of plans to reunite him with his family, the thought of facing them as an old disabled man leaves him with so much trepidation that he considers it at par with death.
Uncle Al is the owner of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He is dramatic and fussy. He does shady and unethical deals in his business of running the circus. He acquires assets and performers from collapsed circuses, he leaves animals dehydrated under a scorching sun just to get a cheaper deal with his sellers, he throws workers off a moving train when he cannot afford to pay them their wages, and he uses the death of one of his performers to generate publicity for his shows.
He is ruthless, selfish, and pretentious and does not change in the story.
Grady is one of the laborers in the circus. He is a friend to Camel and protects him. He takes care of Camel after his paralysis till he is handed into Jacob’s care. He is among the first people Jacob meets as he hops on the moving train.
Grady serves as a bridge of information from the ranks of the laborers to Jacob, he informs him about the things going on in the circus, warning him to be alert.
Earl is a bouncer and Uncle Al’s security guard. He is physically strong and acts tough but is a kind and sympathetic man underneath. Uncle Al knows Earl is kind and therefore does not use Earl to achieve his wicked ends.
This is another bouncer and security guard in the Benzini Brothers circus train; he does not speak much but is wicked and evil. He is the one Uncle Al and August assign to do criminal deeds like throwing people out of a moving train and committing murder.
Rosemary is one of the nurses that work in the nursing home where Jacob is confined to. She is different from the other nurses in her treatment of Jacob. She is attentive to him, treats him dignifiedly, and indulges some of his whims.
Rosemary does not conform to the ideas shared by other nurses in the home that the old people should be treated as helpless babies without a will all the time. This is also shown when we learn that Rosemary does not confine the aged people in her family to a nursing home.
We later get a glimpse into Rosemary’s personal life when she tells Jacob that she has been married for twenty-six years.
He is another old man who recently moved into the nursing home where Jacob lives. He is one of the few healthy old men in the home and enjoys the fawning and attention of the ladies. His need to impress the ladies makes him lie that he used to be a member of a circus and used to carry water for elephants. His statement annoys Jacob, and Jacob calls him out as a liar, but Joseph is filled with righteous indignation at Jacob’s ability to challenge his claim.
Joseph Mcguinty is described as indestructible by Jacob because he is a retired lawyer.
He continues to tell the lie about once being a member of a circus and basks in the attention and preferential treatment it gets him.
Greg is an interesting character. He refuses to work for Uncle Al and August because of their abusive and unscrupulous behavior towards animals. But his love for Rosie keeps him close to the Benzini Brothers’ train circus and he steps in to nurse Rosie whenever she is hurt by August. It is through him that Jacob learns that Rosie only understands Polish and some other crucial things about caring for elephants.
Barbara is one of the performers in the Benzini Brothers circus. Her performance is lewd and raunchy, she seductively displays her nudity in her performances and gives private sessions to men for a fee.
Despite her profession that makes characters like August refer to her as a whore, she is a kind woman who helps her friends when needed.
Queenie is one of the characters in the novel who is an animal. She is Walter’s dog, who is very loyal and loving. She senses goodness or evil in humans and reacts accordingly, she bites August when he helps her aboard the moving train that left her behind but warms up to Jacob, Marlena, and Camel, who are good to her.
Queenie’s sickness is the reason Walter and Jacob become friends.
Bobo is an intelligent orangutan who clings to Jacob whenever he sees him. He can demonstrate gratitude, smile, and do many things as if he is human.
Charlie O’Brien is the owner of the circus that comes to town in Jacob’s old age. He is extremely intrigued by Jacob’s story and the idea of Jacob being a historical figure in circus history that he agrees to allow Jacob to elope with him.
What is wrong with August in Water for Elephants?
August is said to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia in Water for Elephants. Paranoid Schizophrenia is a mental illness that makes a person suffer from illusions and hallucinations and often makes them incapable of distinguishing what is real from what is not real. August has a volatile disposition that makes him alternate between being charming and being cruel and abusive.
How old was Marlena in Water for Elephants?
Marlena was twenty-one years at the time she was featured in the story. She marries August at the age of seventeen, meets and marries Jacob at the age of twenty-one, and dies sixty-one years later at the age of eighty-four.
Where is Jacob from in Water for Elephants?
Jacob in Water for Elephants is from Poland by origin but was born and bred in Ithaca a town in the United States. He later settles in Chicago with his family after his time as a circus worker.
Why did Rosie’s former trainer think she was stupid in Water for Elephants?
Rosie’s former trainer believed Rosie was stupid because Rosie never obeyed him. But Rosie’s inability to follow instructions was not because of stupidity but because she was trained in Polish while the trainers were trying to instruct her in English.