Hannibal Free Public Library
Water for Elephants
December 17, 2007
Though he may not speak of them,
the memories of Benzini Brothers Most
Spectacular Show on Earth still dwell inside
Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old
mind. It was the early part of the Great
Depression, and everyone in this third-rate
circus was lucky to have any job at all.
Jacob was there because his luck had run out
– orphaned and penniless, he had no
direction until he landed on this locomotive
"ship of fools."
Marlena, the star of the equestrian
act, was there because she fell in love with
the wrong man. And, Rosie the elephant was
there because she was the great gray hope,
the new act that was going to be the
salvation of the circus. The bond that grew
among this unlikely trio was one of love and
trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope
Surprising, poignant, and funny, Water for Elephants is that rare novel with a story so engrossing that one is reluctant to put it down. The author’s engaging characters continue to live long after the last page has been turned. Sara Gruen is also the author of the bestseller Riding Lessons and Flying Changes. She lives north of Chicago with her husband, her three children, four cats, two goats, two dogs, and a horse.
In the Author’s Note, Gruen writes
that many of the details in the story are
factual or come from circus workers’
anecdotes. These true stories include the
hippo pickled in formaldehyde, the deceased
fat lady being paraded through town, and an
elephant which repeatedly pulled out her
stake and stole lemonade. Gruen did extensive
research before writing Water for
Elephants. Was her story believable?
The book begins with a quote from Horton
Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss: “I meant
what I said, and I said what I meant…An
elephant’s faithful—one hundred
percent!” What is the role of faithfulness
and loyalty in Water for Elephants?
To what extent do the chapters
concerning the elderly Jacob enhance the
chapters recounting the young Jacob's
experiences with the Benzini Brothers circus?
would the novel be different if Gruen had
only written about the younger Jacob, keeping
the story linear and never describing
Jacob’s life as an old man?
When you first read the
Prologue, who did you think murdered August? What
effect did that opening scene of chaos and
murder have on your reception of the story
that follows? Were you surprised by who
the actual murderer was?
In chapter two, the
twenty-three-year-old Jacob starts his story
by telling us he is a virgin. From the cooch
tent to the erections the older Jacob gets
when being bathed, sexuality is woven into
the whole story. Why do you think Gruen added
these details? What role does sexuality play
in Water for Elephants?
After the collapse of the Benzini
Brothers circus, 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 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?
In what ways is Water for
Elephants a survival story? A love story?
Sara Gruen has said that the
"backbone" of her novel
"parallels the biblical story of
Jacob," in the book of Genesis. On the
first night after his leaving Cornell, for
example, Jacob – as did his biblical
namesake – lies "back on the bank,
resting my head on a flat stone." (page
what other ways does Water for Elephants
parallel the story of the biblical Jacob? How
do the names of many of the characters
reflect names of characters in the biblical
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? Why do
we crave the illusions that the circus
In what ways and to what degree do
Uncle Al's maneuvers and practices regarding
the defunct Fox Brothers circus reflect
traditional American business practices? How
would you compare his behavior with that of
major businessmen and financiers of today?
for Elephants has a happy ending for Jacob,
but not for many other characters. Discuss
Walter and Camel’s fates. How does tragedy
fit into the story?
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 the elderly Jacob's experience to be
after he runs away with the circus the second
you satisfied with the ending?
from book discussion questions found at http://www.readinggroupguides.com/guides3/water_for_elephants1.asp