Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Beautifully written... exquisite detail... an amazing story and a wild adventure! LOVED it!
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*WARNING* CONTAINS SPOILERS!!
1. To what extent do the chapters concerning the elderly Jacob enhance the chapters recounting the young Jacob’s experiences with the Benzini Brothers circus? In what ways do the chapters about the young Jacob contribute to a deeper understanding of the elderly Jacob’s life?
Well, after reading all of the events that occurred in the 3 months that the main part of the story takes place, you can certainly understand why he might not remember exactly how old he is! I think it is important for the older Jacob to have these memories (even if he is starting to forget a few things), especially as he is alone in the world. Sure he has his kids, grandkids-- but it is obvious that they are not close-- and as he says later, he is not really a part of their lives anymore. I think the older Jacob clings to these memories, perhaps as a way of remembering Marlena, but also to remind himself that he is, for all purposes, a survivor. Sure he is old now, and wobbly-- but he has endured so much in his long life! No way a wheelchair, walker, or forgetful son will slow him down now!
2. How does the novel’s epigraph, the quote from Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg, apply to the novel? What are the roles and importance of faithfulness and loyalty in Water for Elephants? In what ways does Gruen contrast the antagonisms and cruelties of circus life with the equally impressive loyalties and instances of caring?
The epigraph is perfect! It perfectly describes Rosie. 100% loyal-- no matter what beatings she took-- and even the times that Jacob felt he let her down because he wasn't there to stop August-- she recognized in him the caring and love he had for her. And in the end, Rosie is the one that defends not only herself, but Jacob and Marlena as well. As cruel as the circus and it's ways and people could be, they were a family. You look after your family, you fight with your family, you trust and distrust your family.... Rosie was loyal to Jacob, and in the end, he was eternally loyal to her.
3. Who did you, upon reading the prologue, think murdered August? What effect did that opening scene of chaos and murder have on your reception of the story that follows?
I admit, I thought it was Marlena that had killed August. Through the rest of the story I kept waiting for that bit to come back around-- I knew it would eventually. And I certainly would not have blamed Marlena if she had killed him. Especially when she found out she was pregnant. I could see where she might view this as the only way. In the end though, I'm glad it wasn't her and that it was Rosie. Rosie had just as much reason as Marlena or Jacob for sure, and some how I doubt animals feel guilt, at least not like people do.
4. In connection with Jacob’s formal dinner with August and Marlena in their stateroom, Jacob remarks, “August is gracious, charming, and mischievous” (page 93). To what extent is this an adequate characterization of August? How would you expand upon Jacob’s observation? How would you characterize August? Which situations in the novel reveal his true character?
At that point in the story I'd say it IS an adequate description. However, as the story goes on, and August's character is revealed further, I think Jacob (and the reader) certainly add to their initial thoughts. He is crazy. Apparently he is a paranoid schizophrenic, but I'm not even sure that does justice or even explains his immense cruelty. One thing can be said for him, he is not biased as to who he beats (physically and emotionally)... from his wife, to Jacob, to the animals-- he is a maniac. I think I felt better through all the tales of his insaness knowing that he gets what's coming to him in the end.
5. August says of Marlena, “Not everyone can work with liberty horses. It’s a God-given talent, a sixth sense, if you will” (page 94). Both August and Jacob recognize Marlena’s skills, her “sixth sense,” in working with the horses. In what ways does that sixth sense attract each man? How do August and Jacob differ in terms of the importance each places on Marlena’s abilities?
As a trained vet Jacob also has a sixth sense with animals. This is shows through not only Rosie, but other animals-- Bobo for example. Jacob and Marlena are very similar in many ways. You can certainly understand why someone so caring and amazing with animals would be attractive to a vet. August, on the other hand-- I feel he is attracted to Marlena simply for status' sake. She is beautiful and talented, and sure to attract a LOT of attention. August seems to seek out attention-- both good and bad. And as she was considerably younger than he-- not only is she like a prize, but more easily manipluated by him.
6. After Jacob puts Silver Star down, August talks with him about the reality of the circus. “The whole thing’s illusion, Jacob,” he says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect” (page 104). How does Gruen contrast the worlds of reality and illusion in the novel? Is there anything wrong with pandering to people’s need for illusion? Why do we crave the illusions that the circus represents?
It seems few things in life are ever what they seem. As for events like the circus, or the lives of celebrities, etc... I think people realize how fake it all is. But as August says, it's what people want. Everyone wants to escape their own lives from time to time-- to be wowed and amazed! Often times though, reality is more chaotic than fantasy. Look at the end of the book-- here's Jacob stuck with no job, no degree, a pregnant girlfriend, a dozen horses, an orangutan, and an elephant-- and murderous elephant at that. And that is ANOTHER thing he has-- Rosie's secret. To use Rubes, the circus represents the impossible-- people flying through the air, walking on wires, riding on and performing with exotic WILD animals... not to mention the romantic notion of life on the road- part of a caravan of performers and workers. Nothing to tie you down and hold you to a certain place. Freedom.
7. Reflecting on the fact that his platitudes and stories don’t hold his children’s interest, the elderly Jacob notes, “My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik—that’s all ancient history now. But what else do I have to offer?” (page 110). How might we learn to appreciate the stories and life lessons of our elders and encourage people younger than ourselves to appreciate our own?
Life is a lesson we can constantly learn from. I personally love to hear stories my 95 year old grandmother tells of her life and struggles. But I am also a person that loves history-- I would love to teach nothing but social studies to the 5th graders I work with. I recognize that this is usually their least favorite subject-- and I relish in the challenge of showing them how fascinating it can be. And showing them that they are living in history right now-- that one day their kids and grandkids will ask them about events they witnessed and lived through. Of course there is also the whole "we can learn from past mistakes" -- which it seems we rarely do... perhaps because we are not paying attention to these old timers' tales like we should be.
8. Looking at himself in the mirror, the old Jacob tries “to see beyond the sagging flesh.” But he claims, “It’s no good.... I can’t find myself anymore. When did I stop being me?” (page 111). How would you answer that question for Jacob or any individual, or for yourself?
I think everyone goes through times in life when they lose themselves, or do not recognize who they have become. Perhaps this is stronger later in life... I'll get back to you on that one! :) For the character of Jacob, he has gained and then consequently lost so much through his life. And after all the years of excitement-- during both circus shows, raising a family, life with exotic animals.... to be stuck in a wheelchair in the lobby of his nursing home, forgotten by seemingly everyone, I can see how he would feel lost.
9. After Jacob successfully coaches August in Polish commands for Rosie, he observes, “It’s only when I catch Rosie actually purring under August’s loving ministrations that my conviction starts to crumble. And what I’m left looking at in its place is a terrible thing” (page 229). What is Jacob left “looking at,” how does it pertain to August’s personality and Jacob’s relationship with August, and what makes it a “terrible thing”?
I think Jacob is afraid that Rosie has, as he did, fallen for August's manipulations. At first Jacob pretty much befriends August-- he dines with him, goes out with him, etc. But more and more he sees what August is really like, and I'm sure feels somewhat foolish for believing in him at first. I think he is afraid that Rosie has done the same. Luckily though, Rosie is NOT as dumb as a bag of hammers, and can see through the manipulation. Animals are usually smarter than humans on this point.
10. How did you react to the redlighting of Walter and Camel, and eight others, off the trestle? How might we see Uncle Al’s cutthroat behavior as “an indictment of a lifetime spent feigning emotions to make a buck” (in the words of one reviewer)?
I was horrified! Of course, after all the attention drawn to the act of redlighting, I suppose it was inevitable that it would happen to one or more of the main characters. This is going to sound horrible, but I was SO relieved when I found out Queenie was spared! I have always had a hard time with books that feature cruelty or death to animals-- and lord knows this book had both! I think the saving of Queenie helped restore my faith a bit. As for Uncle Al, I'm not so sure he wasn't as crazy (or more so!) than August. It is clear that his employees (whom I have already mentioned function more like a family) meant nothing to him. But in the end...well, karma is a bitch!
11. After the collapse of the Benzini Brothers circus and Uncle Al’s having“done a runner” (page 314), Jacob realizes, “Not only am I unemployed and homeless, but I also have a pregnant woman, bereaved dog, elephant, and eleven horses to take care of” (page 317). What expectations did you entertain for Jacob and Marlena’s—and their menagerie’s—future after they leave the Benzini Brothers circus? How do the elderly Jacob’s memories of Marlena and their life together confirm or alter those expectations?
I figured they would join another show-- at least for awhile. I wondered though, if her pregnancy would cause a problem with this plan. I was glad to find that it did not. I knew that they had had many more loving years together. I am in awe of their love story!
11. At the end of the novel, Jacob exclaims, “So what if I’m ninety-three?...why the hell shouldn’t I run away with the circus?” (page 331). What would you project to be the elderly Jacob’s experiences after he runs away with the circus the second time? How does his decision reflect what we have learned about his early years?
First of all, I agree-- why shouldn't he run away with them? I like to imagine that he had many more fulfilling years as the ticket seller. And that he was able to regail many more younger circus folk with his fascinating take-- probably leaving Rosie's secret out this time.
12. In the words of one reviewer, Water for Elephants “explores...the pathetic grandeur of the Depression-era circus.” In what ways and to what extent do the words “pathetic grandeur” describe the world that Gruen creates in her novel?
I think it is certainly an apt description. Many thing during this era were certainly "pathetic." But what better entertainment during this dark era than the magical menagerie of a small circus? For people during this time, that small, desperate circus probably was the grandest thing they had ever seen. And I like to think that it gave people hope and inspiration. Of course, had they known the reality of that lifestyle-- the drinking, fighting, red lighting, even just the injustice if the social classes within the circus itself-- I'm not sure how hopeful the audiences would have been.