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Themes

At the circus, everything on the surface is beautiful, exciting, or dramatic, but underneath there's pain. To get Rosie to walk on cue, August beats her. He also beats Marlena to get her to do what he wants. Jacob suffers when he tries to defend those he loves and suffers even more when he's prevented from doing so. The most telling moment of suffering in Water for Elephants comes during Marlena's first act with Rosie. She has to make an emergency landing and bruises her feet horribly – but all the audience sees is a magical tumbling pass and a graceful encounter with an elephant. Marlena suffers and they applaud. Indeed, sometimes it seems like circus life is all about suffering to create a good show.

Questions About Suffering

  1. Out of all the ordeals the characters go through, which sounds the most terrible to you, and why?
  2. Does the book make it sound like emotional or physical pain is more difficult to endure? 
  3. Which episodes of suffering do the characters seem to feel are worth it? Which are not?
  4. Do you think people suffer more when they're young or when they're old?

Chew on This

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

Jacob suffers more when he watches others in pain and can't help them than when he's being put through something painful himself.

The individual who suffers most in the book is Rosie, because she can't speak up to defend herself.

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