Study Guide

Water for Elephants Quotes

  • Sex and Sexuality

    Chapter 1

    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. Not that I wouldn't love to have a final roll in the hay – I am a man yet, and some things never die – but the thought of those sweet kernels bursting between my teeth sure sets my mouth to watering. It's fantasy, I know that. Neither will happen. I just like to weight 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)

    Here, Jacob weighs two sensual pleasures. At his stage of life, both seem equally delectable and unattainable. The description of the corn, with "those sweet kernels bursting between my teeth" wouldn't be hard to transfer over to a sexual encounter, and maybe that's the point. He can't have either, but thinking about them gives him the same kind of vicarious pleasure.

    Chapter 2

    I am, as far as I can tell, the oldest male virgin on the face of the earth. Certainly no one else my age is willing to admit it. […] Not too long ago some of the guys on my football team paid a woman a quarter apiece to let them do it, one after the other, in the cattle barn. As much as I had hoped to leave my virginity behind at Cornell, I couldn't bring myself to take part. I simply couldn't do it. (2.3)

    Jacob is brutally honest here. He appears to consider his ongoing virginity as a kind of failure. However, his state also reflects his honesty. He suspects there might be other "old […] male virgins" out there, but they're all pretending they've gotten some. Jacob has standards that he won't lower for anything, even the much-desired event of losing his virginity. He won't lie and he won't participate in mass prostitution. Good values to live by, we'd say.

    Chapter 10

    Oh God. Oh God. I'm touching a breast. Through a dress, but still – (10.60)

    When we contrast this description from a young, naïve, and excited Jacob with others that come from the experienced and elderly Jacob, it's actually kind of cute. Jacob is thrilled and overwhelmed by the fact that he's "touching a breast." It's not even a bare breast, but, as Jacob implies, this is still a monumental event in his sexual development.

    I'm not sure how it happens – do I reach for her? does she reach for me? – but next thing I know she's in my arms and we're waltzing, dipping, and skipping in front of the low-slung rope. As we twirl, I catch sight of Rosie's raised trunk and smiling face. (10.6)

    This isn't sex, but it's kind of a precursor to it. Jacob and Marlena are magically drawn to each other in this scene. Jacob doesn't know why; all he knows is that somehow "she's in my arms" and they're pulled to each other like magnets. Then they dance together, freely and joyously, and Rosie the elephant approves.

    Chapter 11

    [S]he continues turning, spinning in some kind of dervish. On the third rotation, I take her by the shoulders and press my mouth to hers. She stiffens and gasps, sucking air from between my lips. A moment later she softens. Her fingertips rise to my face. Then she yanks away, taking several steps backward and staring at me with stricken eyes. (11.147)

    This moment of a first kiss between Marlena and Jacob is reminiscent of the scene when the two of them dance in front of Rosie. In that scene, they "twirl" (10.6); in this one, Marlena is "turning, spinning in some kind of dervish." The kiss becomes almost like an extension of the earlier dance. In both events, their bodies take over against their minds' best interest.

    Chapter 12

    After he turns away, I pick it up and thumb through it. But despite the explicit and exaggerated drawings, I can't muster any interest whatever in Mr. Big Studio Director boning the skinny would-be starlet with the horse face. (12.173)

    Jacob already shows how much he's growing up here. He's already less interested in sex for the simple sake of it, in being turned on just to get turned on. He's already become emotionally invested in Marlena, so sex on its own has less interest for him. He's holding out for sex with an emotional connection. On a side note, it's funny that Jacob would see the woman in the sexualized comic as someone "with [a] horse face"; this could be the effect of the animals and other elements of circus life spilling over and consuming his mind.

    Chapter 17

    August stares at her. His lower jaw moves a bit, but no sound comes out. Then he reaches forward and clasps her in his arms.

    I have to look away. (17.173-74)

    It hurts Jacob to see Marlena with someone else. He can't bear the thought of August "clasp[ing] her in his arms"; he can't even look while it happens. And this is a public embrace. Imagine what he must think about what could be going on between Marlena and August behind closed doors.

    Chapter 18

    "So," he says. "Is this a postcoital celebration? Did I give you long enough? Or perhaps I should go away for a while and come back? I must say, the elephant is a new twist. I dread to think." (18.79)

    There are a couple levels of irony here. For one, August is both right and wrong in accusing Marlena and Jacob of having an affair. He's right in that they've become emotionally involved, and you could probably say they're having an emotional affair. But August is focused on the physical, accusing them of conducting "a postcoital celebration," and that simply isn't the case. Up to this point Marlena and Jacob have only kissed. The other bit of irony is that August's accusation is the last straw. It's only after he accuses Jacob and Marlena of having sex that they end up doing so. Oops.

    Chapter 20

    Afterward, she lies nestled against me, her hair tickling my face. I stroke her lightly, memorizing her body. I want her to melt into me, like butter on toast. I want to absorb her and walk around for the rest of my days with her encased in my skin. (20.184)

    As soon as he's started falling for Marlena, Jacob is focused on combining sex with emotional connection. Here he manages to achieve that. The "afterward" means they just had sex, and yet as close as they were during their intimate physical time, here they seem even closer. It's interesting that Jacob wants Marlena to be inside <em>him</em>: "I want her to melt into me, like butter on toast. I want to absorb her and […] [have] her encased in my skin."

    Chapter 21

    We manage to make love twice in the space of six days – ducking behind sidewalls and grappling frantically, rearranging our clothing because there is no time to remove it. These encounters leave me both exhausted and recharged, desperate and fulfilled. (21.101)

    Here Jacob describes the paradox of sex: it both completes him and leaves him wanting more. As he says, "[t]hese encounters leave me both exhausted and recharged, desperate and fulfilled." The more he has, the more he wants. And yet getting to be with Marlena also wears him out and worries him. He's so consumed by her that he can't bear being without her, but sometimes being with her is almost too much to take.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Chapter 1

    I'm parked in the hallway with my walker. I've come a long way since my hip fracture, and thank the Lord for that. For a while it looked like I wouldn't walk again – that's how I got talked into coming here in the first place – but every couple of hours I get up and walk a few steps, and with every day I get a little bit farther before feeling the need to turn around. There may be life in the old dog yet. (1.7)

    Jacob is confined in a physical shell that can do few of the things his younger body could. His body has trapped and betrayed him: it's keeping him from walking and landed him in a nursing home. Ugh.

    I cling to my anger with every ounce of humanity left in my ruined body, but it's no use. It slips away, like a wave from shore. I am pondering this sad fact when I realize the blackness of sleep is circling my head. It's been there awhile, biding its time and growing closer with each revolution. I give up on rage, which at this point has become a formality, and make a mental note to get angry again in the morning. Then I let myself drift, because there's really no fighting it. (1.90)

    Again, Jacob's spirit has become imprisoned in his physical body. Here he's a prisoner to the drugs the doctor and nurse have forced on him. Even though he "cling[s] to his anger," his "ruined body" won't help him. He has no choice but to give up and submit to the confinement.

    Chapter 8

    I threatened to cut them [my kids] off without a cent until I remembered they already controlled my money. They didn't remind me – they just let me rail on like an old fool until I remembered of my own accord, and that made me even angrier because if they had any respect for me at all they would have at least made sure I had the facts straight. I felt like a toddler whose tantrum was being allowed to run its course.

    As the enormity of my helplessness dawned on me, my position began to slip. (8.47-48)

    Jacob is forced stay in the nursing home, and it's partially his own fault. He no longer has anything to hold over his children's heads or to use as leverage against them because he already gave them his main bargaining chip: his money. To add insult to injury, his family doesn't remind him of that fact when he forgets. This makes him "fe[el] like a toddler" rather than a respected father.

    Chapter 12

    "I'm going to teach her a lesson," he says without stopping.

    "But August!" I shout after him. "Wait! She was good! She came back of her own accord. […]" (12.132-33)

    Rosie gets a taste of freedom and actually gives it up to return to the circus. Jacob thinks that it's great that she "came back of her own accord" – that shows her loyalty. She's an animal who's being mistreated; it makes sense that she'd try to run away. But August, the main mistreater, doesn't see things that way. He doesn't care what Rosie's motivation is: all he cares about is "teach[ing] her a lesson."

    Chapter 17

    There's a long pause. She drops her gaze to the ground. Her mouth moves a few times before she finally speaks. "I can't."

    "Marlena, for God's sake – "

    "I just can't. I'm married. I made my bed, and now I have to lie in it." (17.16-18)

    Marlena wants to be with Jacob but doesn't allow herself to – not yet at least. Here she is still abiding by the rules of the loveless marriage to which she is committed. The popular saying, "I made my bed, and now I have to lie in it," takes on a double meaning here, since it implies literal bed that she's forced to share with August.

    Chapter 18

    "Let me go," I plead, jerking my head around first to Grady and then to Bill. "For Christ's sake, let me go! He's nuts! He'll kill her!" I struggle hard enough that I manage to pull them forward a few feet. From inside the tent I hear the crash of broken dishes and then Marlena screams. (18.117)

    Sometimes Jacob admits that he can't or shouldn't intervene. Several times in the book he has to force himself to stay away and not help Rosie, Marlena, or whoever else is in trouble. Here, though, he can't stand it anymore. Even though Grady, Bill, and a bunch of other people are there to hold him back, Jacob struggles against them enough to almost make it in and help Marlena. Instead of stopping himself through force of will, he's forced to obey the others, who ultimately outnumber him.

    Chapter 20

    "I called my parents and asked if I could come home, but they wouldn't even speak to me. It was bad enough that I'd married a Jew, but now I wanted a divorce as well? My father made Mother tell me that in his eyes I had died the day I eloped." (20.162)

    Marrying August was supposed to free Marlena from her family, but instead it simply replaced one prison with another. Know the saying "out of the frying pan into the fire"? Marlena got out of one bad situation by getting into a worse one. When she wants to escape the new situation, it's too late to go back. She's truly trapped.

    When her hands move to my shirt, I open my eyes. She undoes the buttons slowly, methodically. I watch her, knowing I should stop her. But I can't. I am helpless. (20.172)

    In some cases, confinement can be a good thing. Here Jacob's "helpless[ness]" results in physical pleasure. Once again, his moral code or ethical makeup tells him to do one thing and, against his better judgment, he resists.

    Chapter 21

    I weave on my knees trying to figure out who and what and where but now the ground comes screaming toward me. I'm powerless to stop it so I brace myself, but in the end it isn't necessary because the blackness swallows me before it hits. (21.209)

    Does this "blackness" sound familiar? Earlier in the book, when the older Jacob is given drugs in the nursing home, he describes the sensation of unconsciousness in a strikingly similar way: "the blackness of sleep is circling my head. It's been there awhile, biding its time and growing closer with each revolution" (1.90). That "blackness" comes back for him here and, just like the first time, Jacob finds that he is "powerless" to protect himself.

    Chapter 24

    I scotch to the edge of my seat and reach for my walker. By my estimation, I'm only eighteen feet from freedom. Well, there's an entire city block to traverse after that, but if I hoof it I bet I can catch the last few acts. […] I may be in my nineties, but who says I'm helpless? (24.9)

    At last Jacob takes ownership of his elderly body, working with what he has and making a break for "freedom." Instead of feeling resigned to or trapped in his body, he simply says, hey, this body is over ninety years old, but it's still got some kick. He's not<em> </em>helpless after all.

  • Old Age

    Chapter 1

    Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I'm twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It's a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I'm – you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you're not. You're thirty-five. And then you're bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it's decades before you admit it. (1.2)

    Early on in the book, Jacob claims not to know how old he is. He's just old. He says that not knowing your exact age is "the beginning of the end"; in other words, once you have to think about how old you are, you're aging too quickly to keep up with. You leave behind the golden time of the 20s, enter full adulthood in your 30s, then start sliding down the slippery slope to old age. Depressing, right?

    But there's nothing to be done about it. All I can do is put in time waiting for the inevitable, observing as the ghosts of my past rattle around my vacuous present. They crash and bang and make themselves at home, mostly because there's no competition. I've stopped fighting them. (1.101)

    Jacob now lives more in the past than the present. He just keeps thinking back to the old days and spending time with his "ghosts." At first, it seems, he tried to remain grounded in the present and avoid the past, but there's just not enough going on in his life now to keep him interested. Defeated, he says he's just "waiting for the inevitable" (death).

    Chapter 8

    One of the greatest indignities about being old is that people insist on helping you with things like bathing and going to the washroom.

    I don't in fact require help with either, but they're all so afraid I'm going to slip and break my hip again that I get a chaperone whether I like it or not. (8.34-35)

    A series of small indignities fill up Jacob's days and slowly wear away at his sense of self. First he can't eat what he wants, and now he can't even shower or pee by himself. Try to imagine <em>that</em> – company every time you've gotta go? He insists he can do these things by himself, so he's getting assistance he doesn't even want.

    I try to brush the hairs flat with my hand and freeze at the sight of my old hand on my old head. I lean close and open my eyes very wide, trying to see beyond the sagging flesh.

    It's no good. Even when I look straight into the milky blue eyes, I can't find myself anymore. When did I stop being me? (8.76-77)

    You often hear older people say that when they look in the mirror, they don't recognize the person staring back at them. Inside, they still feel like the same person they were in their prime. This is what's happening with Jacob here: when he sees his reflection, the Jacob he knows isn't there. But no matter what he does, he isn't able to escape the old body he's trapped inside.

    Chapter 13

    "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, and before you know it they're a part of your history, and if someone challenges you on them and says they're not true – why, then you get offended. Because you don't remember the first part. All you know is that you've been called a liar. […]" (13.68)

    This resonant statement comes from Rosemary, the one person at the old folks' home who seems to understand Jacob and see him as a person rather than just some old dude. She understands what it means to grow older and how that can affect someone's memory, and she explains it in the most reasonable terms she can. Everyone forgets a little; everyone is tempted to rewrite his or her "history." We're tempted to ask: is this what Jacob has done? Did he rewrite his story or is he telling it exactly how it happened?

    Chapter 16

    "No. About… Oh hell, don't you understand? <em>I didn't even realize I was talking</em>. It's the beginning of the end. It's all downhill from here, and I didn't have very far to go. But I was really hoping to hang on to my brains. I really was." (16.19)

    Here's that phrase again: "the beginning of the end." Jacob uses it right at the beginning of the novel to talk about the moment when you first start realizing that you're aging. Now he's using it again to talk about memory loss. How many beginnings to the end can there be? There's only one end, after all, so if he keeps beginning it, is he putting it off in some way?

    Chapter 19

    By the time she returns, I have managed to undo three buttons on my other shirt. Not bad for gnarled fingers. I'm rather pleased with myself. Brain and body, both in working order. (19.9)

    This moment represents a big achievement for Jacob: he "un[did] three buttons." Given where he is, this is quite a coup, but his younger self wouldn't have given a second thought to such a banal accomplishment. It shows how much the young and healthy take for granted. This passage also reminds us of the moment where Marlena unbuttons Jacob's shirt – think of how much has changed since then.

    Chapter 21

    Whatever he [Camel] was when he wandered away from his family, he is incalculably worse now, damaged beyond repair and probably even recognition. And if they're not in a forgiving frame of mind, what will it be like for him to be so helpless in their hands? (21.115)

    Jacob worries that Camel will be "helpless in [his family's] hands," that they won't want to have to deal with him. But right before the reunion is supposed to take place, Camel dies. Much later, older Jacob goes through a version of this same worry himself. He's not as "damaged" as Camel was, but he is somewhat helpless in <em>his </em>family's hands. The difference is, at the very end, Jacob is able to walk away.

    Chapter 25

    And then I laugh, because it's so ridiculous and so gorgeous and it's all I can do to not melt into a fit of giggles. So what if I'm ninety-three? So what if I'm ancient and cranky and my body's a wreck? If they're willing to accept me and my guilty conscience, why the hell shouldn't I run away with the circus? (25.68)

    At the beginning of the book, Jacob is unsure of his age, but when he gets back to the circus he knows it exactly. He feels young again even as he acknowledges that he is "ancient and cranky." He is finally back in a place where he's wanted and fits in, where he feels like himself again.

    But it all zipped by. One minute Marlena and I were in it up to our eyeballs, and next thing we knew the kids were borrowing the car and fleeing the coop for college. And now, here I am. In my nineties and alone. (25.9)

    Jacob had many wonderful things in his life, but most of them are gone by the end. There was a time – after he and Marlena escaped from August and had a family – that they floated in a happy existence. But that went by so quickly that we barely hear about it in the book. It seems unfair for Jacob that the good parts of his life would go by quickly and the bad ones drag out so long.

  • Love

    Chapter 1

    Although there are times I'd give anything to have her back, I'm glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. It was the moment it all ended for me, and I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that. Being the survivor stinks. (1.99)

    Jacob loves Marlena so much that he's "glad she went first"; he wants to protect her from being alone the way he is. It seems to him that it would be less painful to disappear than to suffer through that. (Also, check out how he uses the same phrase to describe the feeling of losing Marlena as he does to describe August's brutal murder: what's up with that?)

    Chapter 7

    I'm marveling and not just a little unnerved at her stoic reaction when a strange noise rises from her throat. It's followed by a moan, and next thing I know she's bawling. She doesn't even try to wipe the tears that slide down her cheeks, just stands hugging her arms with shoulders heaving, gasping for breath. She looks like she's going to collapse in on herself. (7.131)

    Marlena is so unhappy here because her beloved horse is dying. Shouldn't this be a "Suffering" quote? Marlena is "stoic" at first, but then she "moan[s]," starts "bawling," and then "gasping for breath." Sure sounds like suffering to us, but this is suffering at the hands of love. The two feelings often go together; without experiencing such strong love, she wouldn't experience such strong pain.

    Chapter 8

    Sometimes, when I'm in bed, I close my eyes and remember the look – and especially the feel – of a woman's naked body. Usually it's my wife's, but not always. I was completely faithful to her. Not once in more than sixty years did I stray, except in my imagination, and I have a feeling she wouldn't have minded that. She was a woman of extraordinary understanding. (8.45)

    This may not be the most passionate quotation, but it's a quiet expression of love. To be "completely faithful" to someone for "more than sixty years" is a huge commitment. Odds are, there's a lot of love there after sixty years. And to say that your wife had "extraordinary understanding" is pretty high praise.

    Chapter 11

    It's impossible to describe how tenderly I suddenly feel toward them – hyenas, camels, and all. Even the polar bear, who sits on his backside chewing his four-inch claws with his four-inch teeth. A love for these animals wells up in me suddenly, a flash flood, and there it is, solid as an obelisk and viscous as water. (11.40)

    One neat thing about this book is how much love the human characters have for animals. You hear about animals being mistreated at circuses, and certainly that's shown in the book through characters like August. But for every individual like him there's someone like Jacob, who cares for animals so "tenderly" that he feels like he's overflowing with love for them.

    Chapter 12

    I hate him. I hate him for being so brutal. I hate that I'm beholden to him. I hate that I'm in love with his wife and something damned close to that with the elephant. And most of all, I hate that I've let them both down. (12.154)

    Love is a strong emotion and one that's closely attached here to its opposite, equally strong emotion: hate. Jacob's hate for August arises, at least in part, because he's in love with his wife. He's also getting "close" to feeling love for the elephant that is technically is under August's supervision. Jacob might also hate August for other reasons, as listed in the quotation, but he probably wouldn't feel quite so strongly about August if he didn't feel so strongly about Marlena and Rosie, too.

    Chapter 15

    My heart pounds so hard that, despite the roaring of the crowd, I am aware of blood whooshing through my ears. I am filled to overflowing, bursting with love. (15.38)

    Several times in the book Jacob compares the idea of love rising up in himself to a wave. Here he says that he's "overflowing, bursting with love." It's almost like love is a physical thing that he can feel moving through his body. It's not just an intangible emotion; it's almost like a foreign object sweeping through him. That might mean that he feels like this love is out of his control – it's larger than him and takes him over.

    Chapter 20

    She talks of the pain, grief, and horror of the past four years; of learning to cope with being the wife of a man so violent and unpredictable his touch made her skin crawl and of thinking, until quite recently, that she'd finally managed to do that. And then, finally, of how my appearance had forced her to realize she hadn't learned to cope at all. (20.181)

    It took the appearance of real love for Marlena to realize that there was no love in her life. She didn't know how bad things were until Jacob showed up and helped her understand what real love could be. The discovery of something so good made her understand that she could no longer cope with a situation as bad as her current one with August.

    [I]t will never happen again. He loves her more than life itself – surely she knows that. He doesn't know what came over him. He'll do anything – anything! – to make it up to her. She is a goddess, a queen, and he is just a miserable puddle of remorse. Can't she see how sorry he is? Is she trying to torture him? Has she no heart? (20.3)

    This is Jacob's version of August's apology to Marlena. The apology is full of hyperbolic statements of how much August loves Marlena, full of over-the-top praise, base "remorse," and intense pleading. Yet it all kind of rings hollow. Jacob, Marlena, and everyone listening know how August has treated her. If he really did love her that much, how could he have been so cruel? It's hard to trust anything he says to her.

    Chapter 21

    "Last night you said, 'I need you.' You never said the word 'love,' so I only know how I feel." I swallow hard, blinking at the part in her hair. "I love you, Marlena. I love you with my heart and soul, and I want to be with you." (21.10)

    It takes a lot of courage to say you love someone, especially if you're the first one. Jacob emphasizes that Marlena has only told him that she "need[s]" him and so he takes a leap of faith to figure out exactly where they stand in their relationship. It's a very modern action for a 1930s guy.

    Chapter 24

    [W]hen Marlena pulled the blanket back from his hair and I saw that it was red, I thought I might actually faint from joy. I never really doubted – not really, and I would have loved and raised him, anyway – but still. I damn near dropped over when I saw that red hair. (24.4)

    Jacob says here that he would have loved Marlena's child even if August had been the father. They were going to become a family, and that's what he had signed on for. Still, it might have been a little more challenging to love someone with August's DNA. Luckily the child has "red hair," which shows that he's clearly Jacob's.

  • Suffering

    Chapter 2

    Suddenly he's right in front of me again. I blink, wondering what he means. How the hell can I be okay? Then I realize he's asking whether I'm going to cry. (2.24)

    The Dean has "ask[ed]" Jacob if he will "be okay," and Jacob understands "okay" to mean something like all right, or normal, or fine. To Jacob, "okay" doesn't mean "whether [he's] going to cry" or not. And yet, that's all the Dean wants to know. Clearly, this guy doesn't understand the pain that Jacob is in.

    This morning, I had parents. This morning, they ate breakfast.

    I fall to my knees, right there on the back stoop, howling into splayed hands. (2.42-43)

    When Jacob's parents die, he experiences suffering and grief like never before in his life. The fact that his parents have been taken from him so swiftly and unexpectedly only makes it worse. In this moment, he realizes that, in just the short span of a day, everything has changed. On the other hand, this terrible accident means Jacob's parents will never have to suffer old age, be sent to a nursing home, or have their offspring abandon them.

    Chapter 7

    "No. I'm afraid there's no chance [the horse will get better] at all."

    She lays a hand on his neck, holding it there. "In that case, promise me it will be quick. I don't want him to suffer." (7.128-129)

    In order to prevent further suffering for Silver Star, who is irrevocably injured, Marlena and Jacob have to inflict more pain on him, ending his life. The only way Marlena can handle it is if the death is "quick" – she equates a longer death with "suffer[ing]."

    Chapter 11

    The buildings are flat and ugly […] But that is nothing compared to the noises and smells coming from the buildings: within minutes the bloody stench and piercing shrieks send me flying back to the goat room to press my nose against the mildewed horse blanket – anything to replace the smell of death. (11.38)

    Walking by the slaughterhouses is unbearable for Jacob, with their "noises and smells," "bloody stench and piercing shrieks." He feels as though he can "smell […] death" and it's utterly horrible. But if it's that bad for him, imagine how it is for the animals who are actually trapped inside.

    Chapter 12

    I return to the ring stock car and lie on my bedroll, sickened beyond belief by the thought of what's going on in the menagerie and even more sickened that I'm doing nothing to prevent it. (12.137)

    Here Jacob suffers doubly. First he is "sickened" by knowledge: "the thought of what's going on," which is animal abuse. Second, he's "even more sickened that [he's] doing nothing to prevent it." Jacob considers failure to prevent a sin (a sin of omission) even worse than the sin itself.

    Chapter 14

    "He's going to get redlighted otherwise. His friends had to hide him behind a roll of canvas last night."

    Walter looks at me in horror. "You have got to be kidding."

    "Look, I know you were less than thrilled when I showed up, and I know he's a working man and all, but he's an old man and he's in bad shape and he needs help." (14.240-42)

    The only way Jacob thinks he can convince Walter to help save Camel is by painting a graphic picture of what will happen if they don't: the suffering he will endure and, to back it up, the suffering he's already been through. This is a good tactic, since Walter is full of "horror" at what Jacob tells him.

    Chapter 15

    Uncle Al is desolate, weeping and honking into his red handkerchief and allowing himself only the occasional upward glance to gauge whether the procession's speed allows for maximum crowd enlargement. (15.15)

    This moment of suffering is fake-ity fake fake. Al puts on a grand show of "desolat[ion]" for the "crowd." He's actually working really hard to look credibly upset about the death of the fat lady. Jacob figures this out from the fact that Al is "allowing himself" to check on the crowd only "occasional[ly]" rather than constantly. Nice job, Al. (Not.)

    Chapter 20

    August marches off. I turn back to Rosie. She stares at me, a look of unspeakable sadness on her face. Her amber eyes are filled with tears. (20.113)

    In this moment of unhappiness, the characters don't need words to express their pain. Rosie says it all through her body: "her face" has "a look of unspeakable sadness" and "[h]er […] eyes are filled with tears." She sounds as though she could be entirely human here.

    Chapter 21

    August is not the only one consumed by thoughts of Marlena. I lie on my horse blanket at night wanting her so badly I ache. A part of me wishes she would come to me – but not really, because it's too dangerous. I also can't go to her, because she's sharing a bunk in the virgin car with one of the bally broads. (21.100)

    Pain is caused by both good and bad feelings, which makes more sense the more you think about it. Jacob longs for Marlena "so badly [he] aches." His desire for her actually pains him, rather than bringing him joy or relief.

    Chapter 22

    I sink to the floor, overcome with grief and guilt. I throw a book at the wall. I pound the floorboards. I shake my fists at heaven and God, and when I finally subside into uncontrolled sobbing Queenie creeps out from behind the trunks and slides into my lap. I hold her warm body until finally we are rocking in silence. (22.96)

    Jacob's suffering comes out through his body in waves as he does everything possible to express his emotion and anger. He resorts to violence, tears, and animal comfort, but it seems like nothing is enough to make him feel better about the loss of Walter and Camel, or the fact that he wasn't there to protect them.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Chapter 2

    Now, I'm no virgin to liquor, but moonshine is another beast entirely. It burns hellfire through my chest and head. I catch my breath and fight back tears, staring Camel straight in the eyes even as my lungs threaten to combust. (2.157)

    Jacob seems to think that in order to appear masculine in front of Camel, he can't show how the "moonshine" affects him, no matter how much it "burns hellfire." Jacob sucks it up and tries to pretend like it's no big deal, even though he's feeling like he might explode on the inside. This is classic male insecurity if we ever saw it.

    Chapter 3

    I'm glad nothing requires my intervention, because I'm trying hard to maintain my composure. This is the first time I've ever seen a woman naked and I don't think I'll ever be the same. (3.195)

    From the first time we meet him, the younger Jacob is concerned about his lack of knowledge about sex and how it's interfering with his ability to grow up. At the circus, he starts to fill in the gaps.

    Gentlemen, if you're a red-blooded American, if you've got manly blood flowing through your veins, then this is something you don't want to miss. If you'll follow that there fella – right there, just right over there – you'll see something so amazing, so shocking, it's guaranteed to [ … ] (3.122)

    The implication here is that any guy who doesn't give in to this sales pitch isn't "a red-blooded American" and doesn't have "manly blood." You can see how this would work on a bunch of guys who are already at the circus to escape their downtrodden lives. In order to prove their masculinity, the customers are asked to pay up and view the "amazing" and "shocking" exhibit.

    Chapter 12

    I feel my face turn red. I look at the sidewall. I look at the ceiling. I look at my feet.

    "Ah heck, ain't you cute," she says, tapping the cigarette over the grass. She brings it to her mouth and takes a deep drag. "You're blushing." (12.122-23)

    Here, Jacob takes on a submissive role: the shy young man interacting with the experienced older woman. She adds to his embarrassment by pointing out the fact that he's blushing and even calling him "cute." That might just be a blow to his masculine ego.

    Chapter 15

    "That fucking bull cost me a <em>fortune!</em> She's the reason I couldn't pay the men and had to take care of business and caught heat from the goddamned railroad authority! And for what? The goddamned thing won't perform and she steals the fucking lemonade!"

    "Al!" August says sharply. "Watch your mouth. I'll have you remember you're in the presence of a lady." (15.217-18)

    August shares the idea here that men should behave differently when they're "in the presence of a lady." The implication is that they should speak more carefully and properly, avoiding slang and cursing. In private, among other men, it seems they can use any language they want. This is ironic coming from August, given that he doesn't treat women any better than he treats men.

    Chapter 18

    "[…] I want my good shirt. And my bow tie."

    "Your bow tie!" She hoots, throwing her head back and laughing.

    "Yes, my bow tie." (18.5-7)

    As an old man, Jacob still understands the importance of dressing up and looking nice for important events. He tells Rosemary that he wants his fancy clothes so he can look like the man he knows himself to be. Rosemary "hoots" and "laugh[s]," as though it's slightly ridiculous that Jacob would want to dress up, but he persists.

    Chapter 20

    "Look here," he says, blowing smoke. "I was hoping we could let bygones be bygones. So what do you say, my boy – friends again?" He extends his hand. (20.102)

    Here, August comes to apologize rather insincerely to Jacob. He approaches, smoking, calls Jacob "[his] boy" (which is rather patronizing), and doesn't even fully apologize. Instead he says he wants "bygones [to] be bygones," rather than taking full responsibility for his actions. Perhaps to underscore August's insincerity, Gruen writes that, as he's speaking, he's "blowing smoke," which could suggest that he's saying a whole lot of nothing. Is this just how guys apologize? What gives?

    Chapter 21

    "Well, naturally August should keep his distance. That would give her a chance to miss him. It might even be beneficial for him to pretend <em>he's</em> no longer interested. Women are funny that way. Also, she <em>mustn't</em> think that we're pushing them back together. It's critical that she think it's her idea." (21.79)

    Jacob plays on gender stereotypes to protect Marlena, telling Al that August "should keep his distance" so that Marlena, like a typical woman, will want him back. Really, though, this is an attempt to keep Marlena and August as far apart as possible.


    "So, the tomcat returns," says Walter. (21.41)

    Walter calls Jacob a "tomcat" because, presumably, he's been out on the prowl with another man's wife. While this is not quite true, what really happened between Jacob and Marlena is secondary to the <em>appearance</em> of what happened.

    Chapter 22

    "Hell no! What do you think I am? "I'd never do something like that. Aw shit. Aw hell. The poor old fella. Wait a minute – " he says, training his eyes on me suddenly. "Where were you?"

    "Somewhere else," I say. (22.125-26)

    Earl's definition of manhood can be seen in what he will and won't do. He's deeply offended that Jacob thinks for a second he'd participate in redlighting Walter and Camel, saying "What do you think I am?" This is not just about masculinity but about who he is at his core. The implication is that a good man would never do such a thing.

  • Admiration

    Chapter 3

    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 <em>is</em> manna from heaven. (3.60)

    In hard times, even the simplest things can be worthy of admiration. "Potatoes, eggs, and sausages" may not sound that exciting, but for someone on the verge of starving, it's "overwhelming." Jacob may sound like he's exaggerating, but during the Depression, encountering such bounty would indeed be "like [seeing] manna from heaven."

    Chapter 6
    Jacob Jankowski

    "Auggie says you're a vet." At the sound of his name, August spins around.

    "No," I say. "I mean, not exactly."

    "He's being modest," says August. (6.26-28)

    Here, other people's admiration of Jacob's veterinary training gets him a job and enables him to keep it. Even though Jacob is trying to remain "modest" and tell the truth (that he's a couple tests away from being an official vet), that doesn't matter much to the circus people. Let's not forget, they're all about "illusion" (7.204) anyway. The buzz that a Cornell-educated vet will bring to the circus is more than enough for Uncle Al.

    Chapter 10

    Her windsail of an ear moves forward and then back, and the trunk returns. I touch it tentatively, and then stroke it. I am entirely enamored, and so engrossed that I don't see August until he comes to an abrupt stop in front of me. (10.137)

    Jacob's early admiration of Rosie is already setting the foundation for his love for her. This isn't that different from the way his feelings about Marlena grow – from admiration very quickly to love. But unlike in his relationship with Marlena, Jacob can touch Rosie when he wants to (within reason) and doesn't have to hide his affection or worry about the repercussions.

    Chapter 11

    The door to the stateroom swings open, revealing Marlena, gorgeous in red satin.

    "What?" she says, looking down at herself. "Is there something on my dress?" She twists, inspecting her body and legs.

    "No," I say. "You look swell." (11.84-86)

    Marlena may be practicing a little false modesty here. When Jacob stares at her in admiration, she wonders if there's something wrong with her appearance. She doesn't automatically assume that Jacob is full of admiration for her. Perhaps, though, it's dangerous for her to acknowledge something like that so early on in their relationship. (Don't forget, there's a jealous husband lurking in the wings!)

    Chapter 15

    More cheering, more adulation. Marlena spreads her arms in the air, turning to give each section of the audience a chance to adore her. Then she turns to Midnight and perches delicately on his lowered back. He rises, arches his neck, and carries Marlena from the big top. (15.37)

    Marlena's act is carefully choreographed to acknowledge and invite "cheering," "adulation," and "ador[ation]." The act is designed precisely to bring out admiration: the more she receives, the better the act has done. But unlike the admiration Jacob feels for her or Rosie, this admiration is impersonal and based on performance.

    Chapter 17

    And then the shower of money starts – the sweet, sweet shower of money. Uncle Al is delirious, standing in the center of the hippodrome track with his arms and face raised, basking in the coins that rain down on him. He keeps his face raised even as coins bounce off his cheeks, nose, and forehead. I think he may actually be crying. (17.193)

    Here is a scene in which admiration takes on a physical form. The crowd's admiration for the circus turns into money, which is then "shower[ed]" and "rain[ed]" down on Uncle Al. Funny, too, that money turns into a "shower" and a fall of "rain" for Al, when Jacob describes himself overflowing with love by using the same watery metaphor. How can water represent money and love at the same time?

    Chapter 18

    I regret saying it instantly. Not that she wasn't spectacular – she was, but that wasn't all I meant and she knew it and now I've made her uncomfortable. I decide to beat a hasty retreat. (18.11)

    "Spectacular" is such a circus word. It's in the title of the Benzini Brothers' show, and it's also in that important passage where August explains to Jacob what the Benzini circus is not. (For more on that, check out "Symbols: The Circus," then come back.) Here, surrounded by a circus that is not "spectacular," Jacob emphasizes, "she was." Marlena outshines her setting; she's a star.

    Chapter 21

    In Hartford, a handful of patrons take serious exception to Rosie's non-performance, as well as the continued presence of the Lovely Lucinda sideshow banner despite the unfortunate absence of the Lovely Lucinda. The patches aren't fast enough, and before we know it disgruntled men swarm the ticket wagon demanding refunds. (21.110)

    Admiration has its negative side, too. In this case, it's the fact that two desired objects are missing from the circus performance. The audience wants to admire Rosie and "the Lovely Lucinda," and they feel cheated when they are denied the chance. The circus has claimed that the audience will get the chance to admire them, promising more than it can deliver.

    Chapter 23

    In late morning, the Nesci Brothers Circus train pulls up on a siding next to ours. The sheriff and the railroad officials return and greet the general manager as though he were visiting royalty. They stroll the lot together and finish up with hearty handshakes and booming laughter. (23.9)

    Sometimes people admire what they don't understand. The "sheriff and railroad officials" see the leftover Benzini circus as a problem. They don't understand it, it's cluttering up their town, and they need a solution. The Nesci Brothers come in and offer one. Because the Nesci "general manager" steps in and offers to solve the problem, the locals are overflowing with gratitude.

    Chapter 24

    "Mr. Jankowski, I'm going to get you into the show now before there's nothing left to see, but it would be an honor and a privilege if you would join me for a drink in my trailer after the show. You're a living piece of history, and I'd surely love to hear about that collapse firsthand. I'd be happy to see you home afterward." (24.44)

    Here, Charlie shares his genuine admiration for Jacob's past, calling him "a living piece of history." Finally, after feeling alone and unwanted for so long, keeping to himself in the old folks' home, Jacob has met someone who appreciates his past and his achievements.

  • Courage

    Chapter 4

    "Just shut it. I don't want to hear it. You're a good kid, and I ain't about to stand by and watch you mope off 'cuz that fat old grouch don't got time. I just ain't. So have a little respect for your elders and don't give me no trouble." (4.65)

    Camel reveals his courage early on by sticking up for Jacob and finding him a place on the train. Camel defends Jacob in a way that he won't be able to later for himself. This effort makes Jacob loyal to Camel and helps prolong his life.

    Chapter 5

    There's dead silence in the room. I look around. All eyes are trained on me. '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… <em>pap?</em>' I put my hand on the edge of my plate and give it a shove. (5.58)

    Sometimes it takes courage just to say what's on your mind. Jacob lays it all out on the line here, declaring that the people in the home aren't getting good, "real food," and accusing those who work there of serving them "<em>pap.</em>" How much of an effect his protest will have on the home's staff is debatable, but at least Jacob has the satisfaction of speaking his mind.

    Chapter 6

    When the cat sees me coming, he lunges at the door. I freeze.

    "What's the matter, Jacob?"

    I turn around. August's face is glowing.

    "You're not afraid of Rex, are you?" he continues. "He's just a <em>widdle kitty cat</em>." (6.208-11)

    Here we get an early hint of August's personality. He's pressuring Jacob to go in and feed a lion like it's no big deal. But Jacob is brand new at the circus and doesn't have any experience with lions. August puts Jacob in danger and then teases him by saying that Rex is "just a <em>widdle kitty cat</em>." It takes great courage to walk into a lion's cage, but August is trying to belittle that courage.

    Chapter 12

    And most of all, I hate that I've let them [Marlena and Rosie] both down. I don't know if the elephant is smart enough to connect me to her punishment and wonder why I didn't do anything to stop it, but I am and I do. (12.154)

    This is an example of courage that isn't acted upon. Jacob knows what he should have done – stop the punishment of Rosie – but he wasn't able to. He thinks here that if he were truly courageous, he would have helped her. He blames himself for not being able to help her and laments his cowardice.

    Chapter 14

    Walter stares at me, tapping his fingers against his leg. After half a minute of silence he says, "All right. Bring him on over. Don't let anyone see you or we'll all catch hell." (14.253)

    Walter knows better than to help Camel when everybody's out to get him – to do so is to put all of them in danger. Yet he does it anyway. This is a big act of courage and, sadly for Walter, it doesn't pay off.

    Chapter 18

    "Yes. You can. Come on. Walk away."

    I stare at the silent tent. After another few seconds, I tear my eyes from the billowing flap and walk away. (18.127-28)

    Sometimes butting in to try to defend someone can do more harm than good. Here Jacob is forced to accept the realization that he needs to "walk away" from the situation and that if he pushes himself into "the silent tent" he'll just make matters worse for everyone. It goes against his every instinct to keep himself from defending those he loves, but at last he accepts that he has no choice this time: he'll just have to watch and wait.

    I speak first. "Has he ever hit you before?"


    "If he does it again, I swear to God I'll kill him."

    "If he does it again, you won't have to," she says quietly. (18.203-206)

    Marlena may not have stood up for herself in the past, but that all changes here. August has taken it a step too far by laying hands on her, and she has enough courage to defend herself and clarify what is and what's not okay. It's most definitely not okay for August to hit her. It's hard to see anything good in a situation of domestic violence, but the positive takeaway is that both Marlena and Jacob see that it's wrong and will work to prevent it from ever happening again.

    Chapter 20
    Jacob Jankowski

    "I'm not going to sit here and listen to you tell me that it's okay for August to hit her because she's his wife. Or that it's not his fault because he's insane. If he's insane, that's all the more reason she should stay away." (20.81)

    Jacob takes an even stronger stand against domestic violence here, insisting that there's no defending August's abuse. He won't listen to any pitiful excuses Al might try to offer on August's behalf.

    Chapter 21

    He lowers his glass without drinking. I cock my head and keep smiling. Let him examine me. Just let him. Today I am invincible. (21.90)

    Jacob gets through this situation on chutzpah alone, pretending everything's fine and that he's not secretly in love with Marlena. He thinks if he pretends hard enough, he'll seem "invincible" and fool everyone, even Uncle Al. Jacob buys in to the circus concept of illusion wholeheartedly here, and it seems to work on Al for a time. But Jacob can only pretend to be "invincible" and unattached to Marlena for so long – rumors are spreading through the circus like wildfire.

    Chapter 25

    I was never entirely sure whether Marlena knew – there was so much going on in the menagerie at that moment that I have no idea what she saw, and I never brought it up. I couldn't, because I couldn't risk changing how she felt about Rosie – or, if it comes right down to it, how she felt about me. Rosie may have been the one who killed August, but I also wanted him dead. (25.4)

    This quote offers two examples of a lack of courage. In the first, Jacob "never" had the courage to tell Marlena how August really died. He's so concerned about this that he uses the word "never" twice. Because he didn't have the courage to tell the truth, he ended up lying to her for six decades. Second, Rosie ended up doing Jacob's dirty work for him. She did what Jacob couldn't, or wouldn't do: she killed August. Jacob benefited without having to live with the murder on his own conscience.