The title, Water for Elephants, is almost a little inside joke with the reader… once we've finished the book, that is. Jacob, the book's narrator and protagonist, worked as a vet and trainer of sorts at a circus. If anyone knows about elephant training, it's him. That gives him certain bragging rights in his old age, but Jacob keeps his past to himself, sharing it only with us, the readers, and one of the kinder nurses, Rosemary.
Meanwhile, another guy at the nursing home, McGuinty, tries to claim credit for the glamour and hard knocks that come with living a circus life by claiming to have worked in one. To prove his point, McGuinty says that he "used to carry water for the elephants" (1.40).
Those who don't know about circuses take McGuinty at his word, but Jacob knows better: you can't carry water for elephants. As he says, "Carried water for the elephants indeed. Do you have any idea how much an elephant drinks?" (1.59). Carrying water for elephants would be a near impossible task. (Symbolism, anyone?)
What's more, once you read the book, you realize that what elephants really like to drink is alcohol! Rosie would much rather have gin than water, and any elephant trainer worth his salt would know that.
Let's look at it this way: McGuinty has created an "illusion" (7.204) by using the phrase "water for elephants," just like the people at the circus practiced deception about how easy their tricks were and how magical their show was. When Jacob looks down on McGuinty for lying, isn't he being a bit hypocritical, then?
So why call the book Water for Elephants? Well, the phrase reinforces Jacob's association with circuses. But also, by carrying the theme of deceit, the title forces us to question the truthfulness of Jacob's story. Was Jacob really with the circus? We have to take his word for it. Think about what Rosemary says: "Sometimes when you get older – and I'm not talking about you, I'm talking generally, because everyone ages differently – things you think on and wish on start to seem real. And then you believe them [ … ]" (13.68). Jacob's past is "real" to him, but is it any more than that? Should we trust Jacob's version of his life story, or is it all just a clever illusion? Dun dun dun.
With two narratives come two endings. That's right: bonus ending. And like many books, Water for Elephants sneaks in an extra ending or two, just for fun. Just when you think the story might be over, you get another little bit of narrative.
The story about Jacob's past ends first. He closes the narrative on a happy note, explaining that he and Marlena finally got to be together after August died. They adopted Rosie and a bunch of other circus animals, and they made plans to join an even better circus. When the 1930s portion of the story ends, Jacob and Marlena don't know yet what the future holds, but they're excited about it. And they've got a baby on the way – so in a way, their story ends with a new life.
This first ending gets a postscript of sorts with the book's second ending, when Jacob wraps up the events he's been sharing about life in a nursing home. During a conversation he has with a circus worker, Jacob offers some final hints about his life with Marlena: they had a great life and a huge family, and a lot of cool stuff happened to them. Then Marlena died, Jacob got stuck in the nursing home, and things went downhill.
There are only two ways for Jacob to get out of his predicament: die, or run away and join the circus. It worked for Jacob once before, right? So, at the end of the book, despite the fact that he's ninety-three years old (!), Jacob goes back on the road. He may not have a lot of time left, but he's going to make the most of what he's got. He makes the choice to be out in the world again, to take his life back. So even though it's the end of the book, it's a new beginning for our leading man.
Let's start with the circus, because that's just way more fun. In the part of the story set in the 1930s, the setting is vivid and colorful; whatever is faults may be, there's light, life, and color in the circus. And it's not easy to miss.
When Jacob first gets to the circus, he is astounded:
I peer inside. The tent is enormous, as tall as the sky and supported by long, straight poles jutting at various angles. The canvas is taut and nearly translucent – sunlight filters through the material and seams, illuminating the largest candy stand of all. It's smack in the center of the menagerie, under rays of glorious light, surrounded by banners advertising sarsaparilla, Cracker Jack, and frozen custard. (3.113)
Jacob sees the circus as a place of heightened, exaggerated excitement. It is "enormous," full of "sunlight" and "illuminati[on]," and its big tent is full of "rays of glorious light." Note all the light imagery here. Everything is bright, clear, and full of promise. But this is just Jacob's first impression. Supporting all that light and glory is the cold, hard idea of commerce. The whole purpose of all this light and glory is to bring in money.
And don't forget, the circus isn't permanent. It goes up and comes down easily, sometimes within mere hours, and travels by train from place to place. The circus people don't have a permanent home. They go where the circus goes, all across America.
The other important thing to consider about the 1930s setting is what was happening in America: it was the beginning of the Great Depression. For Americans suffering through the worst economic crisis the country had ever gone through – with little money and food to go around – attending a circus performance would have seemed like a wondrous, desperately needed escape. Going to the circus would have been a longed-for, much appreciated break for those who could afford the tickets. Think about it. These people didn't have TVs. They had little entertainment and no travel budgets. Plus, they had to wait for the circus to come to them – they couldn't travel to see it.
It was also Prohibition (1920-1933), a time when people weren't legally allowed to drink alcohol. The laws that kept Prohibition in place didn't keep people from drinking, though. They just had to drink on their own terms, which usually meant smuggling liquor in from other countries, making their own versions of liquor (moonshine), or drinking the nasty substitutes available on the black market, like jake (which is what paralyzes Camel). Because they couldn't use liquor as an escape, people were even more likely to turn to circuses for entertainment.
In contrast to the circus, the nursing home is all too permanent. If the circus had an excess of movement, the nursing home has too little. Within the home, Jacob is led from small room to small room, not even under his own command. It takes all of Jacob's guts and courage to walk out of the home and into the world, much like it took all of his guts and courage to leap from circus car to circus car in the middle of the night with a knife in his teeth and murder on his mind.
We sure do love us some Dr. Seuss, and so does Sara Gruen, apparently. Check out the epigraph:
I meant what I said, and I said what I meant …
An elephant's faithful – one hundred per cent!
(Theodor Seuss Geisel, Horton Hatches the Egg, 1940)
The choice of a childish rhyme from a children's book as an epigraph for Water for Elephants is an interesting one. After all, thisis definitely a book for adults that engages with very adult themes, language, and subject matter. So what gives?
The Dr. Seuss quotation is about "faithful[ness]," a quality elephants have in spades ("one hundred per cent," in fact!). The question of faithfulness comes up again and again in Water for Elephants. Marlena is supposed to be faithful to August but she doesn't want to be; he's a violent jerk who endangers her life. Jacob wants to be faithful to Marlena and Rosie, but he isn't always able to be.
Adultery is the epitome of unfaithfulness. Nevertheless, by being unfaithful to August, Jacob and Marlena find the best happiness they've ever known. At first, it seems like their unfaithfulness could destroy them, but ultimately it allows them be together and go on to be faithful to one another. Unlike an elephant, who might be blindly faithful, people have to choose when and where to apply their faithfulness.
This book shouldn't stump you too much. On the one hand, it moves back and forth in time, with an aging narrator who sometimes forgets where and when he is. And in the scenes set in the past, there is a good amount of period language, which isn't super clear for those us who aren't familiar with the 1930s. (Which, let's face it, most of us aren't.)
On the other hand, the story is generally straightforward and told in the present tense. This makes it easy to get caught up in, and turns it into a page-turning easy read.
Finally, at least in Shmoop's paperback copy, each chapter begins with a great, evocative illustration of circus folk. These help draw us in and give us a sense of what the characters might have looked like (our imaginations can do the rest of the work).
The characters in Water for Elephants are members of a circus: specifically, The Benzini Brothers' Most Spectacular Show on Earth. So what does that mean?
Most likely, when we hear the word "circus," we react in the same way Jacob's peers at the old folks' home do. They remember the circuses they've been to with excitement and nostalgia, lingering over the sights, sounds, and tastes of the experience.
"My father used to take us down to the tracks to watch them unload. Gosh, that was something to see. And then the parade! And the smell of peanuts roasting – "
"And Cracker Jack!"
"And candy apples, and ice cream, and lemonade!"
"And the sawdust! It would get in your nose!" (1.36-39)
The characters' excitement here, conveyed through all the exclamation marks, is something most of us can relate to. In this conversation, the characters build up a single, shared memory, a cumulative sense of what attending the circus was like. Attending the circus makes people think of being young and experiencing something special. It's exciting, and it's an escape.
But just how special is the circus to which Jacob belonged? It looks fine from far away, but when you get up close, you start to see the flaws. There are no actual Benzinis, just Uncle Al. Until Rosie's arrival, the circus doesn't even have elephants, the hallmark of any great traveling show (and a showpiece at Ringling Brothers). And the circus takes advantage of the audience, serving lemonade they've made from animal trough water, advertising acts that don't actually appear, and even using a funeral procession to drum up publicity.
Despite his many faults, August is one of the few people able to see the circus for what it is. Early on, he clarifies this for Jacob, explaining that the circus they're traveling with is far from the best:
Tell me, do you honestly think this is the most spectacular show on earth? […] No. It's nowhere near. It's probably not even the fiftieth most spectacular show on earth. […]
It's illusion, Jacob, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's what people want from us. It's what they expect. (7.200, 204)
The circus isn't actually "spectacular." It's a spectacle, and the people watching it want to believe it's spectacular. They're willing participants in the illusion.
There's another illusion going on here: the Benzini Brothers circus never actually existed. Many of the other circuses mentioned in the book, like Ringling Brothers, are real. At the end of the book, Charlie treats the Benzini animal catastrophe as every bit as real as the true-life catastrophes of the Hartford Fire (24.40) and the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus Wreck (24.40). But the Benzini event isn't real (for us readers). So the Benzini circus is an "illusion" created to please its audience, but it's also an illusion created by Gruen to please her readers.
Bottom line: the circus reminds us that things aren't always as they seem and that we shouldn't be fooled by spectacle.
The Big Top is the most exciting part of the circus. There are other tents and areas where the performers get ready, where the audience can buy snacks, where those willing to pay the price can take a look at the "freaks," and where kids can visit the animals (the menagerie), but the Big Top is where the best and brightest acts shine. It's where Marlena and her horses perform, and where Rosie joins the show once Jacob has figured out how to communicate with her.
The Big Top is also the center of "illusion" (7.204) in the book. It's where the tricks happen and where what the audience sees doesn't necessarily match what's going on behind the scenes.
This happens in the audience, too. Toward the end of the book, Jacob catches a man in the audience peeking up a woman's dress, getting an altogether different kind of show. Jacob stops him, but the event makes you wonder – how many other times has this happened? How many shows are being seen at the same time?
Whatever happens in the ring, whether it's Rosie running out unexpectedly or another catastrophe, the circus folk have to make it look like it's all part of the act. The show must go on, and it usually does, no matter what the cost.
Ever heard the phrase, "He's got a memory like an elephant?" Turns out that's not just a colloquial way of speaking. Elephants are some of the smartest animals on earth, and they "have excellent memories" (source). Rosie is no exception. She doesn't forget kindness, and she certainly doesn't forget cruelty, which August finds out the hard way.
As Jacob emphasizes, an elephant can seem almost as with it as a human. At one point, after August abuses her, "[Rosie] stares at [Jacob], a look of unspeakable sadness on her face. Her amber eyes are filled with tears" (20.113). Rosie has real feelings and can even cry. In many ways, she is one of the most "human" characters in the book. (Check out Rosie's "Character Analysis" for more on this.)
So, if an animal can be human, that probably means that humans can be animals, too, right? We see violence and brutality galore in our human characters, and Rosie's presence is a great reminder of this.
Elephants also come to symbolize the idea of the circus in the book. (For more on this idea, head over to "What's Up With the Title?".) McGuinty uses the idea of watering them to prove he used to work for a circus. But that statement instantly tells Jacob that McGuinty did no such thing. As he says to Rosemary, "Pffffft. Carried water for the elephants indeed. Do you have any idea how much an elephant drinks?" (1.59).
While this is meant as a put-down of McGuinty, it's also a good reminder of just how big elephants are. If you check out the "Afterword" to the novel, you'll find stories about elephants that turned on people and murdered them. An elephant may not appear as dangerous as a carnivore like a lion or a panther, but it's still much stronger than a human. And yet, as strong as Rosie is, for much of the book she can't protect herself against someone as cruel as August.
This vulnerability is a trait Rosie shares with other characters, specifically Marlena and Jacob. Like Marlena, Rosie performs for others and is abused by August. Both are treated like scapegoats. Like Jacob, Rosie is a kind of outsider who falls into circus life by accident and almost doesn't succeed. Ultimately, though, Rosie does what neither Marlena nor Jacob can bring themselves to: she kills August. And unlike her human counterparts, she doesn't seem to lose any sleep over the murder. She is just an elephant, after all.
Food is important to Jacob in both strands of this story. When he's young and has little money, he's desperate for decent food. Don't forget, this is during the Depression, when lots of people didn't have enough to eat. (That's why the lower-class circus workers get so upset when Uncle Al stiffs them on their paychecks. They really, really need that money.) So when Jacob first hooks up with the circus, he's excited to be able to eat a full meal:
I grab a plate and scoop up a mountain of potatoes, eggs, and sausages, trying to keep from looking desperate. The scent is overwhelming. I open my mouth, inhaling deeply – it's like manna from heaven. It is manna from heaven. (3.60)
Not everyone gets such "heaven[ly]" food. At times Jacob has to watch helplessly while others go hungry. That doesn't bother people like August, who have no problem chowing down in front of the less fortunate. It seems to bother Marlena more than anybody else. She gives food away or refuses to eat if others are going hungry.
Later in life, Jacob still covets good food. In the nursing home, he gets angry that the old people are fed a restricted diet:
"What?" I say loudly. "Is that so much to ask? Doesn't anyone else here miss real food? Surely you can't all be happy with this … this … pap?" I put my hand on the edge of my plate and give it a shove. (5.58)
Jacob values "real food" because it was so important in his early life. It's ironic that he lived through the Depression, a time when food shortages were very real, only to find himself in a time and place where food is plentiful but doctors and nurses seem to be arbitrarily restricting it. Great food has become a long-lost pleasure, something to dream about: "I just like to weigh the options, as though I were standing in front of Solomon: a final roll in the hay or an ear of corn. What a wonderful dilemma" (1.24).
Tellingly, Jacob makes a biblical comparison here, linking food to the wise judge Solomon. (Earlier he linked it to heaven.) It seems as if great food can only come from God. When Rosemary brings Jacob something appetizing to eat at the end of the first chapter, it's an apple. Could there be a more Biblical food?
All in all, food in this story reminds us that life just isn't fair sometimes. Some people have food and others don't, through no fault of their own.
See "What's Up With the Title?" for more on this. (No need to repeat: yay, Internet!)
The narrative technique of Water for Elephants is more complicated than it might appear appears. Sure, there's just one narrator throughout, Jacob, who tells us his life story. But actually he's telling us two life stories – the story of the most exciting period in his life, when he worked for the circus, and the story of probably the least exciting period in his life, waiting out his final days in the nursing home. In one story he's falling in love, and in the other he's all alone.
The narrative moves back and forth frequently between these two times in Jacob's life, and the events and even people from one era start blending into the other. This reinforces the fact that Jacob is getting old and his memory is starting to fail.
For this reason, you might say that Jacob is an unreliable narrator. Certainly others at the old folks' home, like McGuinty, are unreliable narrators of their own lives. And although Jacob's knowledge of the circus seems real, we can't sure. But even if he's stretching the truth a little, what's the harm in that? It makes for a better story in the end.
What would we miss out on if this story were narrated in the third person? And why Jacob? Why not use Marlena's point of view? She's even more involved in circus drama, after all. What do you think?
Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey (referenced throughout)
A First of May (3.17, 3.31, 10.54, 10.58)
"The Star Spangled Banner" (1.14, 22. 218)
Cracker Jack (1.37, 3.113, 12.25)
Bull Durham (3.14)
Old Glory (3.47)
Plymouth Roadster (9.5)
The Hartford Fire (24.40)
The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus Wreck (24.40)