Study Guide

Water for Elephants Suffering

By Sara Gruen

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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.

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