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Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants

by Sara Gruen

Old Age Theme

For much of Water for Elephants, Jacob is almost painfully old. He can barely walk, it's a struggle to bathe himself, and many of his desires are severely limited. He thinks about fresh fruit with the same longing he used to reserve for sex. And yet at his core, his personality remains unchanged; he's still the same person on the inside. To make sense of this, he retreats into the past, focusing on a time when his inside and outside matched – a time of adventure, wonder, excitement, and drama. It seems like all of those qualities are missing from his current life. Even though Jacob has aged, his desire for excitement and wonder has remained. And through his decision to return to the circus, we know he's still got that gumption he always had. So are we supposed to fear growing old after reading this book? Or is the message more optimistic?

Questions About Old Age

  1. How does Jacob's age relate to his happiness?
  2. Does Jacob's narrative voice change when the story moves from his young self to his old self? Why or why not?         
  3. What do you think you'll be like when you're ninety-three? And chance you'll join the circus? Is it reasonable for Jacob to rejoin the circus at that age? Why or why not?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The fact that Jacob joins the circus again at the end of the book shows that his personality transcends his age.

Old age is the most terrifying opponent Jacob encounters in the book. It's unavoidable and unstoppable. He can't defend himself against it or beat it in a fight, but he has to succumb to it eventually.

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