Study Guide

Camel in Water for Elephants

By Sara Gruen

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Camel is one of the first people Jacob meets at the circus and one of the first to be kind to him. Indeed, if it weren't for Camel, Jacob wouldn't have made it on board as a circus worker at all. This good deed pays off when Jacob looks out for Camel when he starts to get sick.

We're probably meant to notice that Camel has an animal name. We mean, come on, it's a pretty strange name and totally sticks out, especially in a book where animals play such an important role. Some animals in the circus are treated as more valuable than humans, even. Camel (human), for example, is way more expendable than Marlena's horses, Rosie, or the big lions like Leo and Rex. It's also an ironic touch that while camels can survive long stretches with very little to drink, Camel can barely survive a minute without his liquor.

Aging Camel

Like McGuinty, Camel is important because his approach to old age conflicts with Jacob's. Camel wants to give in to the aging process, telling Jacob:

I'm gettin' too old for this, Jacob. I ache all over at the end of every day. Hell, I ache all over now, and we ain't even at the end of the day yet. The Flying Squadron won't pull out for probably two more hours, and we start the whole danged thing over again five hours after that. It's no life for an old man. (4.11)

This is a key moment in the book. Camel says the elderly can't be part of the circus: "It's no life for an old man." Yet, as "an old man," being part of the circus is still the life that Jacob wants. The circus ends up destroying Camel; the muscle guys throw him off the train like so much trash. Jacob, on the other hand, is saved by a circus. Twice.

If he had the chance, Jacob might tell Camel that being in a home is "no life for an old man" either. What do you think about that?

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