Study Guide

Water for Elephants Old Age

By Sara Gruen

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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.

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