Study Guide

Water for Elephants Sex and Sexuality

By Sara Gruen

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.