Study Guide

Water for Elephants Freedom and Confinement

By Sara Gruen

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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.

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