Hannibal Free Public Library

Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen

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 for survival.

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.


1.        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?

2.        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?

3.        To what extent do the chapters concerning the elderly Jacob enhance the chapters recounting the young Jacob's experiences with the Benzini Brothers circus? How 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?

4.        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?

5.        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?

6.        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?

7.        In what ways is Water for Elephants a survival story? A love story? An adventure?

8.        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 23)  In 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 account?

9.        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 represents?

10.     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?

11.     Water 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?

12.     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 the elderly Jacob's experience to be after he runs away with the circus the second time? Are you satisfied with the ending?

Adapted from book discussion questions found at http://www.readinggroupguides.com/guides3/water_for_elephants1.asp and http://bestsellers.about.com/od/bookclubquestions/a/waterElephantsq.htm