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Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen: A Book Review/Analysis

Updated on November 24, 2017
angela_michelle profile image

Angela is an avid reader who studied English Literature in college. She has a passion for the written word and loves literature.


I absolutely loved Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen. It is a book I have recommended to everyone who has asked me what book I would recommend. It's one of the few books that everyone has come back to me saying, "Water for Elephants was so good!" I have to admit, when this was picked for our book club, I thought it was going to be long and boring. Even as I started it, I didn't have high hopes for Sara Gruen's book, especially as I learned that the setting was a traveling circus, that was filled with "freaks" and "midgets." Yet, Water for Elephants surprised me with its realism and rich history. Each of life's emotions fills this story as you go through a short period in one man's life, as he learns much about life, love, and himself.


The Beginning

The prologue sets the stage for the whole book, as you hear about the most tragic, yet somehow justified moment in young Jacob's life. Although the narrative states exactly what happens, there are details that are amiss that only become enlightened in the last few chapters of the book.

As the narrative truly begins you then meet Jacob. The story is told through his memories. Although the memories are being told from a cantankerous ninety year old (or ninety three year old) version of himself.

The memories begin with the most eventful moment in young Jacob Jankowski's life. He's a a 23-year-old penniless, down-on-his-luck man who is an Ivy League dropout studying to be a vet. After get getting devastating news he runs away and accidentally joins a circus.

The History

Something that astounded me most about Gruen's writing, was how much research she did for the book. After I read this, I started doing a little research myself, because some of it seemed too incredible to be real. It wasn't long before i realized much of what she wrote about was true to life in that time frame, and especially true for real live circuses.

Through her writing, some of the stories she writes about were taken from real life stories that she uncovered during her research. She also plays on how circuses before there were regulations on how animals or people for that matter were treated. Augusts abuse to the animals was not unusual during this time.

The book is set during the Depression where Jacob, yet somehow Gruen took a time period where prohibition and depression were very real terrible things, and showed how people persevered and found themselves as a result.

She has also done a lot of research on circuses. During the prologue she states that the band is playing stars and stripes. That was truly used as a code to all those in the circus that something has gone terribly wrong.


The Title

Water for Elephants is a very interesting title. The first time we hear Gruen reference the title in the book is when Jacob realizes one of his fellow nursing home patients is telling a white lie about working for the circus. He says that he used to carry water for elephants. People used to believe this was an actual job, but Jacob having worked for a circus knew better and called the man on it.

The title actually has little to do with the actual carrying water for elephants. An elephant drinks 25-75 gallons of water a day far more than any man would be able to carry at any given time. One person even stated that "carrying water for elephants" is a phrase that means carrying a heavy load, much like carrying a secret that you can't tell even someone you love wholeheartedly, just as in the end Jacob does for his wife.

The Characters

The book is filled with such fanciful characters as "midgets" and "freaks." I hate those terms, but that is how they were presented in the circuses of that period. Despite each of their unique talents and gifts, Gruen writes these characters with very vivid real personalities. She does such an amazing job developing each of these characters that your heart breaks for them, and feels joy for them at times.

Jacob, the main character, is by far the most interesting, despite being the most ordinary. He falls in love with a Marlena, but their love is star-crossed, what good romance isn't? Aside from the human love, he also finds himself falling for Rosie, an elephant who he is responsible for. Both of Jacob's loves are the subjects of abuse by the bipolar husband and manager of Marlena. August is very real in his outbursts and very similar to my experiences with people who have the disease.

It's a sad tale, though I will say it has a happy ending. I don't want to give too much away. Seriously though, it's a fantastic read!


Book Club Questions!

Taken from

Book Club Questions! Taken from

  • 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?
  • Did the chapters about the nursing home change how you think about older people? In what ways are the doctors and nurses condescending? How is Rosemary different? How do you treat older people?
  • 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?
  • When you first read the Prologue, who did you think murdered the man? Were you surprised by who the actual murderer was?
  • Why does Jacob get so mad about Mr. McGuinity lying about carrying water for elephants? Do you see and similarities of temperament between the young Jacob and the old Jacob?
  • There is an “us and them” mentality in the circus between performers and workers. How does Jacob bridge these two classes of people? Why does each group hate another group? Does the circus merely mirror society in an exaggerated way?
  • Are you satisfied with the end?
  • 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 who repeatedly pulled out her stake and stole lemonade. Gruen did extensive research before writing Water for Elephants. Was her story believable?

© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz


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    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 5 years ago from United States

      They are intended for a book club, and no two people are going to have the same answers.

    • profile image

      Sid 5 years ago

      Ya but where are thé answers

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 5 years ago from United States

      I am glad i could help, but there is no replacement for reading the book

    • profile image

      Kasper 5 years ago

      Thanks a lot Angela! I'm working on assignment for school, and this is the best analysis of the book I could find.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      Not exactly. It's historically accurate as far as the circus's that's really how they were, but the characters are not real.

    • profile image

      tieara 6 years ago

      is this story based on a true story?

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      I'm so glad you discovered that! You really should read the book. It is great!

    • wj-writingjockey profile image

      wj-writingjockey 6 years ago from Earth

      I have seen the movie 'water for elephants' and i never knew that a book of the same even existed until i read your nice hub. Now i know that the movie was actually based on the book 'water for elephant'. Thanks for sharing.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      Yeah, it really does. Especially circus life back then.

    • susannah42 profile image

      susannah42 7 years ago from Florida

      I read this book and really enjoyed it. It gives an insight into circus life that I never knew.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      Well, I guess you would, but that wouldn't be someone's sole job. I hope you enjoy it! It's a great book!

    • travel_man1971 profile image

      Ireno Alcala 7 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      If you're in the circus, you really have to bring water for the elephants being used as the highlights of the show.

      I'm eager to read the book myself. Thanks for sharing, Michelle! :D

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      Oh, that's great! You'll have to let me know what you think! Any suggestions from yourself for me?

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

      Angela, This sounds like a must have book and I probably would not have bought it if you hadn't written this hub. Thanks.