Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a novel that looks deceptively like simple storytelling in the course of reading it but the moment one reads it to the end, one begins to appreciate the intricate details and technicalities in the novel. Literary devices like plot twists and character foils are layered into the story along with symbols.
Water for Elephants Themes
From animal rights to old age, love, opportunism, and grief, Water for Elephants has lessons for every reader.
The strongest message in Water for Elephants is that animals are capable of emotions and should be treated with respect and dignity. The novel portrays animals as intelligent beings that feel emotions we think may think are felt by humans only, such as love, grief, friendship, anger, sadness, rebellion, and self-preservation. For instance, Rosie loves attention, smiles, and winks when she feels playful, understands Polish, and weeps when beaten. Queenie is extremely attached and loyal to Walter and is heartbroken when Walter is red-lighted. Bobo knows how to ask for what he wants to eat and can demonstrate gratitude.
It also follows the narrative that the moral worth of an animal should be independent of its service to humans. Adding to this, the novel depicts some graphic abuse scenes as an awareness of animal abuse.
The novel takes us into the mind of an old man from which we learn that old people are adults who deserve to be treated better than mere frail invalids. The author’s ideal of how old people ought to be treated is seen in Nurse Rosemary and Charlie O’Brien’s treatment of Jacob.
Even though the younger people mean well, the stifling rules imposed on these old folks may further elongate their days but sometimes they reduce the quality of these old folks’ lives. Of what use is being alive for an additional twenty years beyond the age of ninety if you are not going to at least eat what you enjoy?
Another layer in the theme of old age is that one is never too old to go in pursuit of their own happiness and that old people deserve more love and care than the impersonal routine nursing care they are often given.
The novel portrays the evil of how some individuals are so obsessed with money that they take advantage of every opportunity to make money without any consideration for morality, ethics, or even human life.
Uncle Al depicts opportunism in the novel. He has no regard for the welfare of the humans and animals working for him, he takes advantage of his performer’s death to make more profit and even kills his workers when he can no longer afford to pay them the arrears of their wages.
Love is depicted in many dimensions in the novel. The novel teaches that love is boundless and can be found in unexpected places. We see the romantic love between Jacob and Marlena, a woman who should be off limits to him because she is married to someone else. Then we see the selfless love between Walter and his dog Queenie, Marlena and her horses, Greg and the elephant Rosie, and Jacob and all the animals.
Another message is that love can make one willingly sacrifice to protect the interest of the loved one. Walter sacrifices his privacy and comfort several times to assist Camel and Jacob when they are in need.
This novel gives an idea of the devastating effect of the loss of a loved one. Sometimes, the pain of grief is so overwhelming that one cannot control or even understand what they are feeling and how they are reacting.
The sense of loss hits unexpectedly and the worst is that with death, the loss is permanent. We see the theme of grief portrayed in the effect of Jacob’s parent’s death on him, and the effect of Walter’s red lighting on Queenie, among others.
Analysis of Key Moments
- Jacob is in a nursing home for old people. Fom the window, he sees a frenzy down the street and is told that the circus is coming to town.
- Everyone in the nursing home is excited about the circus and begins to talk about the good old days when they used to see the circus. Joseph, one of the old men in the home, claims that he used to work in a circus and that he used to carry water for elephants.
- Jacob is infuriated by Joseph’s claim and calls him a liar, asking if Joseph knows how much water an elephant drinks. And they have a fallout.
- Jacob begins to flashback to his young days. In the flashback, he is twenty-three days away from his final exams in veterinary school when he is told that his parents both died in an accident.
- After his parents’ funeral, Jacob returns to college to write his exams but is so overcome with grief that he walks away from his exam hall. Desolate and sad, he sees a moving train and hops on it on impulse.
- On the train, Jacob meets an old man called Camel and some other men. Camel tells Jacob that he is on board the train of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
- Camel helps Jacob get an audience with Uncle Al, the owner of the Benzini Brothers circus. Uncle Al is impressed that Jacob went to a veterinary school and employs him. Putting him under the supervision of August, the equestrian director.
- Jacob is sent to share a room with one of the performers, a dwarf called Kinko. Kinko owns a dog called Queenie, and both are hostile to Jacob.
- Jacob meets Marlena and feels an instant attraction to her but suppresses his feelings because Marlena is married to August
- Uncle Al purchases an elephant for the circus and tells August to come up with an act that the elephant would perform. The elephant’s name is Rosie.
- August is infuriated by Rosie’s inability to follow his instructions and beats her violently.
- Jacob treats Kinko’s dog when she falls sick. From there, they become friends, and Kinko asks Jacob to start calling him Walter instead.
- August takes Jacob and Marlena out for a drink. There is a raid at the bar and Jacob and Marlena flee together leaving August behind. Jacob and Marlena acknowledge their mutual attraction and kiss for the first time.
- Camel becomes paralyzed from drinking an adulterated alcoholic drink called Jake.
- Camel’s friends worry that Camel will be thrown out of the train because of his paralysis, and Jacob offers to hide Camel in his room.
- Jacob meets a man called Greg who teaches him about elephants. From Greg, Jacob learns that Rosie understands Polish.
- Jacob informs August that Rosie understands Polish, and with Jacob’s help, August begins to train Rosie for her performance and stops abusing her when he sees she is following instructions.
- Rosie performs her first act for the circus and Marlena invites Jacob to her room to organize a surprise for August. August walks into the room but does not believe the surprise, he believes he has caught his wife cheating on him with Jacob.
- August becomes violent and beats Marlena. Jacob fights August in defense of Marlena.
- Marlena moves out of the train and checks into a hotel in town with Jacob’s help. The next day, Jacob and Marlena consummate their love at the hotel.
- Uncle Al asks Jacob to convince Marlena to get back together with August. He gives Jacob three weeks to convince Marlena and threatens to kill Jacob’s friends Walter and Camel if he does not comply.
- Jacob sneaks out of his train compartment with Walter’s knife at night in search of August, intending to kill him. But his conscience does not allow him to go through with the act, so he drops Walter’s knife beside August as a warning instead.
- Jacob gets to his room only to find that Walter and Camel, and some other workers in the circus have been thrown out of the train to die, an act termed ‘’redlighting’’ among circus workers.
- The redlighted workers who survived plot vengeance on Uncle Al. They raid his circus performance, let all the animals loose, and cause a pandemonium.
- August and Uncle Al are killed in the process, and the circus collapses.
- Jacob and Marlena claim ownership of Rosie, some horses, an orangutan, and Queenie the dog. They join a bigger circus and begin a new family as Marlena is already pregnant.
Style, Tone, and Figurative Language
The narration of the novel is from the first-person point of view. The story unfolds through flashbacks that sometimes occur as dreams. The main events of the novel all happen in the flashbacks.
The tone of the narrator is direct and matter-of-fact, he does not sound poetic. But the depth of his emotions is felt in his tone.
There are many literary devices used in the story, including simile, allusions, suspense, character foil, and character mirroring. For instance in chapter one, the narrator Jacob uses a simile when he says:
I am like a piece of meat unearthed from the back of a fridge, suspect until proven otherwise
Then there is an allusion to the Y2K bug of the late 1990s, an allusion to the Ringling Brothers Circus. Then allusions to the Great Depression and the American dream.
August serves as a character foil to Jacob. August is as cruel as Jacob is kind, and always glamorous while Jacob is often always sweaty and dressed for rough work. Another pair of character foils are Uncle Al and Jacob’s father. Uncle Al does every unethical thing in the book and even commits murder numerous times just to maximize his profit, while Jacob’s father was so altruistic that he ran his business and personal finances into bankruptcy while trying to save animals and help people.
There is character mirroring between Camel and the older version of Jacob. Camel as an old man maintains his presence of mind and dignity even in his paralysis. And loves his alcohol. The same is with the older Jacob, who was overjoyed when given alcohol. Both are older men who cry when they are upset but insist on spending their old age in a circus.
Analysis of Symbols
Symbols are things that have literal meanings in a story but also represent abstract ideas. Some of the symbols in Water for Elephants are water, trains, wheelchair, and the hooked cane.
Water in the story symbolizes respite.
In the case of the elephant, water for an elephant is so large in quantity that only one person cannot carry it, hence Jacob’s angst with Joseph McGuinty’s lie. The symbolism there is that the same way it entails the efforts of more than one person to get enough water to satisfy an elephant, and then takes the elephants own decision and effort to drink the water, is the same way one person alone cannot provide all the respite an elephant needs and even when they do provide, the elephant itself plays the ultimate role in claiming its own respite. Jacob alone was not enough to provide respite to Rosie from August’s abuse, it takes the combined efforts of Jacob, Greg and Walter to achieve it. But ultimately, it is Rosie herself that makes the decisive move to free herself completely from August’s abuse, thereby drinking her water by herself.
Trains and Train Tracks
The trains in the novel symbolize one’s position in life and the tracks symbolize the path in one’s life journey. When people get thrown out of the train, it means that that particular journey is over for them. Jacob hops on a train which takes his life on an entirely different path.
Wheelchair and Walker
The wheelchair symbolizes dependence and incapacitation, while the walker symbolizes independence.
Although Jacob submits to being in a wheelchair sometimes, he always like his walker to be within his reach. In the wheelchair, he cries like a baby when no one shows up to take him to the circus. But with the walker, he decides to go after what he wants by himself.
Hooked Cane vs. Silver-topped Cane
The hooked cane symbolizes abuse, while the silver-topped cane symbolizes care and conviviality.
August uses the hooked cane when he is angry and violent towards Rosie, but changes to the silver cane when he is in his charming state.
What is the meaning of the title water for elephants?
The phrase ”water for elephants” is found in the first chapter of the novel when a character Joseph McGuinty claimed he used to carry water for elephants and the protagonist Jacob calls him a liar. Also, we see the phrase in Chapter Four of the novel when Uncle Al teases Jacob and asks if he wants to carry water for elephants.
What happens to Rosie at the end of Water for Elephants?
Jacob adopts Rosie as his own, and eventually, Rosie is taken to a zoo where she is cared for.
Does Water for Elephants have a happy ending?
Yes, Water for Elephants has a happy ending. The protagonist triumphs in love despite the obstacles and also courageous does what makes him happy.