Study Guide

Water for Elephants Men and Masculinity

By Sara Gruen

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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 f***ing 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 f***ing 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 s***. 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.

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