Study Guide

Water for Elephants Themes

  • Love

    Love is a driving force in Water for Elephants, and it's not limited to the love one human feels for another. People also love animals, and animals love them back. It shouldn't be a surprise that in the prologue we can't tell whether Jacob is talking about Marlena or Rosie when he uses the word "she" – he loves them both and thinks of them both as individuals.

    Human love can be found inside or outside of marriage in this novel; the two don't necessarily go together. Jacob and Marlena fall in love while she's bound to someone else, and they make their emotional and physical pledges to one another in spite of that. Do you think the author, Sara Gruen, makes a judgment call on this? Or does she let the readers decide for themselves?

    In both cases, the love we see in Water for Elephants is far from traditional.

    Questions About Love

    1. Do you think August really loves Marlena? Why or why not?
    2. Which is the most loving relationship described in the book? Why do you think so?         
    3. Is it right for Jacob and Marlena to commit adultery? Can they justify their actions?           
    4. Do you think the events of the book support the idea that love can conquer all?

    Chew on This

    Without her love for Jacob, Marlena might never have been able to get away from August.

    If Jacob really loved Marlena, he wouldn't have kept Rosie's secret from her.

  • Sex and Sexuality

    Ooh la la. This is one steamy book. But it's not just all fun and games. Sex is actually a major source of anxiety for our protagonist. At first, he's an inexperienced virgin, insecure about his lack of knowledge in the sex department. And by the end of the story, the lack of sexual activity in his life just makes him pine for the good old days. And how about those good old days? Jacob and Marlena sure knew how to make love for all it was worth.

    What's so great about the way sex is portrayed in Water for Elephants is that we see it from all angles: through the lens of an innocent boy, a masculine guy in his sexual prime, and an old man looking back on his sexual adventures. Oh, and of course, there's all the weird sexual stuff going on at the circus – but that's a whole different story, and we don't even want to go there. (You should, though, by reading the book.)

    Questions About Sex and Sexuality

    1. Does the circus exploit sexuality? How? What do you think of the women who expose themselves to the audience or sleep with spectators for money?
    2. Why does Jacob wait to have sex?
    3. Is Marlena as sexually prudent as Jacob? How do you know?
    4. Does older Jacob have a different view of sex than younger Jacob?

    Chew on This

    It's hard to appreciate the love-filled sex had by Jacob and Marlena because of all of the awful sexual exploits of the circus.

    Marlena and Jacob don't fall in love until they've had sex.

  • Admiration

    The whole circus business is built on admiration. See the amazing show! Look at the fat lady! Marvel at the elephants! The circus is all about superlatives, or extremes. To get the applause, the compliments, and the excitement, they focus on fantasy. The more outrageous the acts are, the more people applaud. The audience has no idea what goes on behind the scenes and sometimes it seems like they don't want to. Even when characters know how desolate and dark circus life can be, it still exerts a powerful spell on them. And even in the present-day part of the story, being part of the circus makes you admired; that's why people like McGuinty claim to be part of it even when they weren't. That makes Water for Elephants' Jacob a doubly admirable guy: he joined up not once, but twice.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Who is the most admirable character in the book? The least?
    2. How do the circus characters use the audience's admiration to their advantage?
    3. What kinds of bad things do characters do to gain admiration? What admiration in the book is well-deserved?
    4. Is what Rosie does to August admirable? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    At a certain point, no amount of pain is worth the potential admiration that comes with it.

    The characters' drive for applause shows that admiration is worth having no matter what the cost.

  • Courage

    You might say that every act in this book is one of courage. It takes courage to join the circus. It takes courage to fall in love. It takes courage to stand up for what you believe in, for what you know to be morally right. It takes courage to commit murder, and it takes courage to walk away from it. What else takes courage? Leaving your husband. Keeping a huge secret. Telling someone he's a liar. Walking out of your home at the age of 93. The list goes on. Water for Elephants teaches us that courage is everywhere, everyday. You just have to be on the lookout.

    Questions About Courage

    1. Was it braver to kill August or to refrain from doing so?
    2. At his core, is Uncle Al a coward?
    3. In your opinion, what is the most courageous act in the book and why?
    4. Is it gutsier to run away from home or stay there and face what's coming? Was Jacob's choice at the end of the book a courageous one?

    Chew on This

    Jacob does a lot of brave things in the book, but his most courageous moment comes at the end, when he decides to rejoin the circus at the ripe-old age of ninety-three.

    If Jacob were really courageous, he would have called out August the second he knew something was fishy. He definitely let that situation go on too long.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    There are all kinds of ways of being trapped; it's not always physical. Characters can be restrained by physical bonds, laws, or words. In Water for Elephants, we get a little bit of everything in the trapped department: Marlena is legally married to August; Jacob is physically held back by people like Blackie and Earl; Al forces Jacob's hand by threatening Walter and Camel; the list goes on.

    And then of course there's the confinement of the animals. This is a huge controversy when talking about circuses, and although Water for Elephants doesn't address it correctly, there is a subtle discussion. Shmoop thinks the takeaway is this: confinement (of animals and otherwise) is probably going to backfire. Think about it: Rosie actually uses her boundary as a weapon, pulling the stake that's supposed to tie her down out of the ground and using it to kill August. Yikes. Are there other times in the book when confinement turns out to be dangerous?

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Why does it take Marlena so long to break away from August?
    2. What would have happened to Marlena and Jacob's relationship if August hadn't died?
    3. Which character is most confined by his or her body? Why do you think so?
    4. Do the animals in the book have less freedom than the human characters? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Everybody in <em>Water for Elephants</em> is confined by something.

    Forget the humans: the animals are the victims of confinement in this story.

  • Suffering

    At the circus, everything on the surface is beautiful, exciting, or dramatic, but underneath there's pain. To get Rosie to walk on cue, August beats her. He also beats Marlena to get her to do what he wants. Jacob suffers when he tries to defend those he loves and suffers even more when he's prevented from doing so. The most telling moment of suffering in Water for Elephants comes during Marlena's first act with Rosie. She has to make an emergency landing and bruises her feet horribly – but all the audience sees is a magical tumbling pass and a graceful encounter with an elephant. Marlena suffers and they applaud. Indeed, sometimes it seems like circus life is all about suffering to create a good show.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Out of all the ordeals the characters go through, which sounds the most terrible to you, and why?
    2. Does the book make it sound like emotional or physical pain is more difficult to endure? 
    3. Which episodes of suffering do the characters seem to feel are worth it? Which are not?
    4. Do you think people suffer more when they're young or when they're old?

    Chew on This

    Jacob suffers more when he watches others in pain and can't help them than when he's being put through something painful himself.

    The individual who suffers most in the book is Rosie, because she can't speak up to defend herself.

  • Men and Masculinity

    What does it mean to be a man in Water for Elephants? To Jacob it means standing up for yourself, defending those you love, and taking ownership of who you are. To August it means taking ownership of others and getting what you want. As different as these two men are, they share some interesting ideas about masculinity. Both believe in looking nice for important occasions, both recognize a beautiful woman when they see one, and both want the same thing (Marlena), which, ironically, neither of them can have. So even though we have two men with extremely different values, we see an expression of masculinity in both of them. (And yes, we realize that these men's violence stands out pretty sharply, but we have bigger fish to fry – violence is old news in this book when it comes to being a dude.)

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. According to the values presented in this book, what do you think it takes to be a real man?
    2. In <em>Water for Elephants</em>, how closely does someone's physical appearance relate to his masculinity?         
    3. Why do so many of the male characters resort to physical violence as a way of addressing their problems? Is this a comment on masculinity?    

    Chew on This

    August takes his masculinity and employs it in a negative way: he uses his physical strength violently, preys on those who are weaker, and tries to dominate everyone around him.

    The person in the book who best embodies masculine traits is Walter: he's reasonable, rational, and honorable.

  • Old Age

    For much of Water for Elephants, Jacob is almost painfully old. He can barely walk, it's a struggle to bathe himself, and many of his desires are severely limited. He thinks about fresh fruit with the same longing he used to reserve for sex. And yet at his core, his personality remains unchanged; he's still the same person on the inside. To make sense of this, he retreats into the past, focusing on a time when his inside and outside matched – a time of adventure, wonder, excitement, and drama. It seems like all of those qualities are missing from his current life. Even though Jacob has aged, his desire for excitement and wonder has remained. And through his decision to return to the circus, we know he's still got that gumption he always had. So are we supposed to fear growing old after reading this book? Or is the message more optimistic?

    Questions About Old Age

    1. How does Jacob's age relate to his happiness?
    2. Does Jacob's narrative voice change when the story moves from his young self to his old self? Why or why not?         
    3. What do you think you'll be like when you're ninety-three? And chance you'll join the circus? Is it reasonable for Jacob to rejoin the circus at that age? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Jacob joins the circus again at the end of the book shows that his personality transcends his age.

    Old age is the most terrifying opponent Jacob encounters in the book. It's unavoidable and unstoppable. He can't defend himself against it or beat it in a fight, but he has to succumb to it eventually.