Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen
Jacob is working overtime as the narrator of Water for Elephants. Younger Jacob and older Jacob each gets to have his say: they both have their own trials and tribulations, and they both tell the story as though it's happening right now. (To emphasize this, the whole book is written in the present tense.) Yet, in spite of the decades that separate younger and older Jacob, we realize that Jacob (stubbornly) remains the same man.
Sex-Crazed Young Gent
When we first meet him, Jacob's still a kid in many ways. A senior in college, he's a little bit obsessed with sex. Sure, he's working on a promising vet career and has a job all lined up, but he's mostly preoccupied with his virginity. One of the first things he tells the reader is, "I am, as far as I can tell, the oldest male virgin on the face of the earth" (2.3). Nicely put.
Why is Jacob so sex-focused when we first meet him? Well, he's a young guy constantly being exposed to pretty young ladies, like Catherine, who taunt him by being both available and unavailable. He's in college, away from his parents' authority, plus he likes school and doesn't have any major problems. That means he's free to obsess about sex. He's just learning who he is and what his place is in the world. Cut the guy some slack.
Sex remains a major concern for Jacob even after his parents die and everything changes. In many ways, it seems like college in the 1930s wasn't so different from college today. People are focused on who's done what with whom and who's experienced what when. Jacob's peers (like many people in college today) value knowledge over innocence. Bummer.
Jacob is embarrassed about his lack of experience, but he also has standards. He's a bit of a romantic: he stays away from prostitutes and porn. (Although, if that qualifies as being a romantic, our standards sure are low.) Sure, he's kind of turned on by some of these things, but he doesn't just want to have lots of mindless sex.
At the circus, he quickly (and embarrassingly) gets a crash course on the female body when a circus talent exposes her breasts at a show. Later, he sees Marlena and falls head over heels for her: it's pretty clear that he wants to sleep with her almost as soon as he sees her. And eventually, he does.
To his credit, Jacob holds out for a long time – as does Marlena. It's not until August forces the issue that Marlena and Jacob finally turn to each other and really get it on. Is anybody surprised at that point that the sex is really great? Jacob is blown away by the closeness he feels, and he shares this with Marlena. He's the one who says "I love you" first, and it seems like he wants her to become part of his very self.
By saying "I love you," Jacob is brave enough to put himself out there and declare how he feels without knowing whether Marlena fully reciprocates. It's pretty clear that he values the emotional elements of sex and doesn't want to keep things up with Marlena unless love is a part of the equation.
So Jacob's a little bit of a contradiction. On one hand, he seems like he's hell-bent on proving how masculine he is, given the way he displays such a keen interest in women and has such frequent thoughts about sex. It's like he has to prove that he's a "red-blooded American" (3.122) male, as the circus's sideshow announcer describes it. On the other hand, Jacob is committed to only having sex with someone he really loves and making sure that love is an explicit part of sex. He spends the majority of his life in a monogamous relationship and claims he never had the desire to get out of that relationship. These qualities don't sit as well with the definition of a masculine man, according to the other folks in the 1930s circus.
The Honorable Jacob
Jacob has strong values. Even though he's often thwarted in his attempt to do the right thing (he's always getting held back from defending someone or rushing to someone's rescue), he has a stubborn sense of right and wrong. He can't abide the smell of a slaughterhouse. He puts a foundering horse out of its misery. He tries not to sleep with another man's wife, even if the man is a wife beater and animal abuser who doesn't deserve her. He gives up his father's gold watch for a medical examination for Camel. By the end of the book, he's even able to protect Rosie.
Sacrifice and honor are just a part of who this guy is. This leads to a good amount of guilt, too. For example, Jacob's lowest moment comes when he discovers that Walter and Camel have been murdered. Of course, if he'd been there to help Walter and Camel, he might have been killed, too. But Jacob can't help but feeling guilty. You think this has anything to do with the death of his parents? How are the two incidents related in his mind?
Yet Jacob is also pretty violent. In fact, he often tries to express his awesome values by using not-so-awesome violence. He's always ready, maybe too ready, to beat up the bad guys. He's not good at using just his words to resolve conflicts, and other people often have to hold him back. Perhaps, like his interest in sex, Jacob uses his readiness to participate in violence as a way of proving his masculinity to other characters. Why do you think he's so concerned with this?
Participating in violence isn't always a bad thing, though. It's good to be able to defend yourself if you need to. It's good to be able to stand up for people who can't stand up for themselves (like Camel). Fighting is one of the ways the circus people communicate with one another. Jacob's world is full of people who understand fighting with fists better than fighting with words, and Jacob is just fitting in with that. So can we let him off the hook?
Violence is also a trait that Jacob, somewhat surprisingly, shares with his archenemy August. Both of them frequently resort to physical force as a way to address conflict. It's no surprise, then, that several times they use this force on each other. Jacob's participation in violence leaves permanent marks on his body: he develops a crooked nose and an eye condition. One could say, though, that Jacob's participation in violence is different than August's in that Jacob fights to defend others: Marlena, Rosie, Camel. August just tries to hurt them.
Jacob tries to do right by his friends and loved ones and struggles internally when he fails them. The value system revealed by his attitude to sex shows up just as clearly in the ways he uses violence. Jacob always has a good, moral reason for violence. The one time when his interest in violence might take him too far – to murder – he remembers his moral code and backs down at the last minute.
Like a Fine Wine
In his old age, Jacob is still mentally interested in sex, even if his body can't keep up: and so he retreats into his memories to relive sensuous pleasures. He's no longer worried about getting to have sex; instead, he's worried about his ability to hold on to his memories of it. And despite the fact that he previously had such a voracious appetite for physical pleasure, he never cheated on Marlena: "I was completely faithful to her. Not once in more than sixty years did I stray" (8.45). This point becomes even more relevant in hindsight, when Jacob reveals that he and Marlena first got together by committing adultery. In order to be with him, she had to be unfaithful to someone else.
As an old man, Jacob seems to wish, more than anything, that he could slot himself back into his young body and get back the freedom he used to take for granted. In his 90s, he can barely walk across the room. When he describes his memories, he doesn't necessarily value one thing more than another. He misses sex the same way he misses food: "Sometimes I think that if I had to choose between an ear of corn or making love to a woman, I'd choose the corn" (1.24).
He misses Marlena the most, but he misses Rosie, too. In a way, he seems to miss the drama and excitement of the Benzini circus. His memories focus on a time full of adventure and danger rather than the pleasant decades as father and husband he must have enjoyed as well.
Jacob After Marlena
Jacob will always love Marlena. He says, "Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. It was the moment it all ended for me" (1.99). In other words, even though he's still alive, he's only half himself. (As a side note, check this out: August was "cleft down the middle" when he was killed, too. What's up with that? Is losing Marlena as awful as being brutally murdered? What do you think?)
Jacob says very little about his relationship with Marlena or about their day-to-day life after the catastrophe that shut the circus down. Without August to keep them apart, it seems like they just relax into life together. In fact, the events between the 1930s and the present are condensed into about four paragraphs in Chapter 25. He loved her and he loved being with her, but that's all we really learn. It seems their marriage was as gloriously ordinary as their courtship was dramatically difficult. Why do you think he doesn't go into more detail? Sequel, perhaps?
Without Marlena, their family has disintegrated. We readers are left to imagine how Marlena changed (or didn't) as she got older; we don't meet an older version of her the way we meet an older version of Jacob. The people Jacob meets during the 1930s are much more vivid than the people in his life now. Why do you think the people in Jacob's present seem less interesting –maybe even less real – than the larger-than-life characters who dominate his memories?
The older Jacob is a great storyteller. In both cases of his storytelling within the book (to Rosemary and Charlie), his audience is eager and excited to hear from him. Jacob reports: "Charlie, bless his heart, is actually interested in my story" (25.10). Although Jacob doesn't tell Rosemary all the details, he can't keep himself from sharing the whole shebang with Charlie: "I tell Charlie everything: about my parents, my affair with Marlena, and the deaths of Camel and Walter. […] I just open my mouth and the words tumble out. […] The relief is instant and palpable. All these years it's been pent up inside me. I thought I'd feel guilty, like I betrayed her, but what I feel […] is more like absolution" (25.2, 3).
The question is, what prompts Jacob to divulge everything to Charlie at long last? Is it just pure catharsis? Is he happy to finally get respect and recognition from someone? Or do you think Charlie reminds Jacob of himself?
At the end of the book, both Jacobs get a version of a happy ending. Both of them go on to another, better circus. Would this older Jacob trade places with his younger self and go back and do it all again? Maybe not. Maybe he is finally content to be himself in his elderly body, on the road with the people and animals and costumes and lights, helping make sure the show does go on.