Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a novel about an old man in the early 21st Century whose memory of his youth in the 1930s as a veterinarian in a circus is triggered when a circus mounts close to the nursing home where he lives. He remembers his personal challenges in those days amidst the complexities of relationships between humans and animals in the circus.
Water for Elephants ”Spoiler-Free” Summary
There is preparation for a circus across the street from the nursing home where Jacob lives. Jacob is not sure of his exact age but knows he is either ninety or ninety-three years old.
Everyone in the nursing home (who are not senile or too frail anyway) is excited about the circus. Joseph, one of the men in the home, claims he once worked with a circus and that he used to carry water for the elephants. Jacob is infuriated by this claim and has an altercation with the man, the ladies around think that Jacob is overreacting and begin to fawn over Joseph. From there begins a series of flashbacks by Jacob to when he was twenty-three.
Jacob is days away from his graduation from veterinary school when his parents die in an accident. He is so grief-stricken that he has a breakdown in the exam hall and walks out without writing his exams.
After hours of wandering about, Jacob sees a moving train and hops on it. He meets a group of men on the train and one of them introduces himself as Camel and tells Jacob that the train he joined is a circus train belonging to the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
Impressed by his resume as an Ivy League College trained veterinarian, Uncle Al, the owner of the circus, employs Jacob to give veterinary services to the animals of the circus.
Jacob is taken under the wing of August, the dramatic equestrian of the circus, and Jacob tries to fight the love and attraction he feels for August’s wife, Marlena.
Uncle Al purchases an elephant named Rosie. While Rosie stirs feelings of love and endearment in Jacob, Marlena, and others, Rosie evokes a violent and abusive streak in August. August continually beats and abuses Rosie until he is taught a secret to train her without violence.
In the end, Uncle Al and August’s excesses go too far and as things become a matter of life and death, the oppressed animals and humans in the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth must rebel against the ruthless Uncle Al and the abusive August.
Jacob’s mind returns to his ninety or ninety-three years old self and despite the tragedy of his past and the weakened body of his old age, he finds he still craves the excitement of circus life.
Water for Elephants Complete Plot Summary
Warning: This article contains important details and spoilers
The novel begins with a prologue where there is a Disaster March at the Benzini Brothers circus performance, which means that all the animals are loose and running wild. Jacob witnesses a murder but keeps it a secret for seventy years.
Jacob is at a nursing home. There are preparations across the street for a circus show which makes the people in the nursing home excited. Joseph McGuinty, another old man in the home, claims he worked at a circus and used to carry water for the elephants.
This leads to an outburst from Jacob, who calls Joseph a lair and an old coot. The nurse is summoned, and she takes Jacob to his room where she gives him fruits because he did not eat his dinner. Jacob eats the fruits while thinking about his dead wife and goers down memory lane.
Twenty-three-year-old Jacob is ten days away from his final exam in veterinary school when he is brought news of his parents’ death in an accident. After their funeral, he learns that he is left penniless and homeless because his parents had taken a mortgage on their home to fund his ivy league tertiary education and his father’s veterinary practice was not breaking even because he was rendering services without being paid.
Jacob returns to school hoping to round up his final exams but is so overcome with grief that he leaves the exam hall without writing anything and just keeps on walking. Wandering into the night, he sees a moving train and just hops on it without thinking. On the train, he meets an old man called Camel and his companions. They tell him that he is on board the train of The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
Camel is a circus veteran and helps Jacob get an audience with Uncle Al, the owner of the circus. Uncle Al who idolizes and tries to imitate another circus group called the Ringling Brothers is impressed by Jacob’s ivy league veterinary education because it is an opportunity for him to have a veterinarian just as the Ringling Brothers do. Uncle Al employs Jacob, and Jacob is positioned to work under the supervision of August Rosenbluth, the equestrian director.
Jacob is assigned to share a room with a dwarf known as Kinko. Kinko is cold and hostile to Jacob at first but with time they become friends after Jacob prescribes a remedy for Kinko’s sick dog. Kinko then tells Jacob to call him by his real name Walter.
Uncle Al purchases an elephant called Rosie whose former trainer condemns as a stupid elephant. This infuriates August as he is charged with coming up with an act for the elephant. August becomes violent and abusive towards Rosie repeatedly.
Meanwhile, Jacob is madly in love with August’s wife Marlena. He tries to suppress it but one day they kiss after running from a raid at a bar and he finds that the attraction is mutual.
Camel becomes paralyzed from drinking Jamaica Ginger Extract adulterated with a toxic ingredient. His friends worry that he may be thrown off the circus train, and so Jacob hides him in his room, and Walter cares for him.
Jacob learns from a guy named Greg that Rosie is not stupid but does not obey August’s command because she is trained in Polish. Jacob, who is Polish, informs August of this discovery and teaches August some Polish words with which he can communicate with Rosie. August is pleased by the result and begins to act nice to Rosie.
After a successful performance with Rosie, Marlena invites Jacob to her menagerie for a celebration that is meant to surprise August. But August walks in and does not believe it is a surprise celebration, he believes he has just walked in on his wife cheating on him with Jacob. August loses his cool and begins to assault Marlena, Jacob intervenes, and they have a brawl.
Marlena packs up and goes to lodge in a hotel with Jacob’s assistance. The next day, Jacob visits Marlena in her hotel, and they make love.
When Marlena returns to the circus train, August asks for forgiveness and for them to get back together. He is distraught when Marlena refuses to get back with him, and this makes him incapable of putting up a good circus performance.
Marlena informs Jacob that she is pregnant, and Jacob promises her that they will find a way to be together.
Uncle Al is worried that August’s despair will negatively affect his business. He asks Jacob to use his influence as Marlena’s friend to reunite August and Marlena. Jacob refuses at first and announces that he is quitting the circus, but Uncle Al threatens to harm his friends Walter and Camel if he refuses. And so he plays along.
Jacob takes Walter’s knife and climbs on top of the train intending to kill August. When he gets to August’s room, he finds August sleeping but his conscience does not allow him to go through with the killing. He drops Walter’s knife beside August as a warning and returns to his room to find that Camel and Walter have been thrown out of the train.
About eight other circus workers have also been thrown out of the train. The ones that survive devise a plot to avenge the killing and unfair treatment they receive.
They attack the circus performance that evening and let the animals loose. In the pandemonium, Jacob sees Rosie as she picks up a stake and smashes August’s head with it. August falls and is stampeded by a herd of scared Zebras.
The Benzini Brothers circus collapses, and as Uncle Al is nowhere to be found, the police and other circus owners come to reap from the spoils. Marlena lies that the horses she performs with belong to her, and Jacob claims ownership of Rosie, Bobo, and Queenie.
With their animals, they join another circus. Jacob contacts his school and is told he is free to come back and write his final exams.
After seven years of working at the circus, they quit and buy a home of their own. Jacob gets a job at a zoo, and Rosie is deposited at the zoo.
The old Jacob comes back to the present. It is the last day of the circus that came to town and Jacob gets ready for his family to take him to the circus when they come for their weekly visit. But his son that is meant to take Jacob to the circus states that he would not be able to visit for that week. Jacob bursts into tears at this, and Nurse Rosemary comforts him but regrets not being able to take him herself because she has to work.
Everyone else in the nursing home has gone to the circus, and the nurses on duty are taking care of the very sick old people around. Jacob is alone and feeling sad in the lobby when it suddenly occurs to him that he can take himself to the circus.
He walks slowly to the circus with his walker. While trying to enter, he is stopped by a teenage boy for not having a ticket. The exchange makes the owner of the circus intervene, and this owner introduces himself as Charles O’Brien. Jacob eventually watches the circus, after which Charles takes him to his office. At the office, Jacob narrates his life story to Charles and asks that Charles employ him to sell tickets because he needs the excitement. Charles is still considering the request when a police officer comes to the office looking for a missing old man. Charles lies that Jacob is his father and dismisses the police officer.
Charles accepts Jacob as a member of his circus after some consideration, and Jacob rejoices that he is finally at home again.
Is Water for Elephants a sad book?
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a sad book as it portrays sad issues like death, grief, and abuse. However, it has a happy ending.
Were any animals hurt in Water for Elephants?
Yes, animals were hurt in Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. The elephant Rosie is the most hurt of all the animals as she is repeatedly beaten and abused by August.
What happened to Walter in Water for Elephants?
Walter in Water for Elephants gets red-lighted and injures his legs so bad that those who see him fear he will not last long alive.
What happened to Camel in Water for Elephants?
Camel becomes paralyzed after drinking a poisonous alcoholic beverage called Jamaica Ginger Extract. He lives with Jacob and Walter for a while until he dies from being red-lighted.