Water for Elephants Water for Elephants question

Symbolism: What is the "Water" and who is the "Elephant"?

This may be a totally amateur answer, but I totally thought the book was titled "Water for Elephants" because of the old man in the book that Jacob despised. His lie (telling the old ladies that he used to carry water for the elephants) is what triggers Jacob's memory about working with the circus. But I am sure it is definitely more deep than that.

Billie Humphrey I think that the water (as in astrology) represents our emotions and the elephant represent all people who are misunderstood by others. That we all ne ...more
Feb 02, 2014 10:41PM

Petergiaquinta (last edited Jan 27, 2014 08:42PM ) Aug 11, 2011 08:02PM   4 votes
The title is curious, and I believe it holds the key to what occurred during the circus stampede. That shocker at the end where we discover what "really" happened is a fascinating twist for a first-time reader, but my second time through I'm certain we need to question what we are told by our narrator.

Think about the title--it refers to what Rosemary the nurse tells the elderly Jacob. She tells him not to be so hard on the old man at his dinner table; Rosemary tells Jacob that McGuinty isn't lying when he claims he carried water for elephants. Rosemary wants Jacob to understand that as we think back on our pasts, especially as we think back on a distant past, our memories sometimes can change to the point where we truly believe something happened when perhaps it didn't. And so, she tells Jacob, McGuinty really believes he carried water for elephants, and he shouldn't be accused of lying.

And she's right; this happens with memory all the time, but what's the connection to the book as a whole? Why has this phrase become the title of the book? Obviously there has to be something more to the title and if so, then what "water for elephants" is Jacob carrying as he tells us his story of the Benzini Brothers Circus?

I would suggest that Marlena actually kills August, and that's the real twist to the twist at the end, that Jacob is carrying water for elephants and in his mind he creates a past that frees Marlena from murder. My idea may seem far-fetched at first, but I think a re-read of the book supports it, especially when the title of the book is given more thought.

And that idea leads us to our aged narrator, Jacob, who in the first sentence lets us know that his memory isn't that sharp when he admits he no longer knows his exact age. He also cannot keep track of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and at one point in the story demonstrates that his faculties are slipping when he has no recollection of speaking out loud at length to Rosemary about his experiences in the circus. Thus, our unreliable narrator could certainly construct a past memory that saves his beloved wife of the stigma of murder, and this unreliability also brings into question the fairytale ending of the novel. Does our 90 or 93-year-old Jacob really flee the home with his walker and inch his way down the street to the big top? Does he really run away with the circus at the end? It's pretty to think so, but I'm not so sure...

Im going to give this a shot...anyone ever hear how well of a memory elephnats have? I agree with previous thoughts in that the old man telling the gorup people that he used to carry water for the elephants. This triggered Jacob's memory and in his story telling he is quite detailed (even down to when he is carrying the knife in his mouth). So I believe that the symbolism of the title is the water story triggersa flood of memories for Jacob and he remebers everything is very good detail..much like his pachyderm friend (Rosie). Hence she never forgot August's temper.

The biblical Jacob draws water for the sheep while he waits for Rebekah at the well. I think the title plays on this parallel.

I have a different take on this. I think that the "elephants" in this story are most of the characters. They joined the circus because they are "thirsting" for more out of life. They are missing something. And for Jacob and Marlena, "water" is actually love and hope, which is something they are both "thirsting" for and find in each other. And let's not forget the other characters in story. Are they not searching for a purpose as well?

deleted member Jul 07, 2011 04:37AM   1 vote
The title is about people pretending to be more than they are.

Jacob is the real deal. The other old man is a poser.

In his anger, Jacob tells the story that justifies his judgement. It is a story he has never told before. He is no angrier than any other old man in his condition would be, but he longs for the opportunity to show he is better than the poser who set him off.

I worked for Ringling for a very short time. Elephants drink a lot of water.

I think the title has to do with the difference between what you see when you go to the circus, versus the actual making of, and behind the scenes of a circus,and the abuse that the animals often are subjected to. Elephants do not belong in a circus and are so often severely abused and or killed. Their needs can never be fully met, when confined by man and forced to perform. The title, I believe discloses this. When Rosie triumphs at the end of the book, I believe that represents the disclosure of the truth, Rosie's own statement.

In the book, when Jacob is looking for a job with the circus, he's asked what he wants to do, and someone (Uncle Al, August?? can't remember) says something in the lines of 'and what d'you have in mind, carrying water for elephants?' sort of mocking him. At the time there was still no elephant with the circus so it must have been symbolical, not so literal. I figured it meant to do a useless or hard job, since elephants are huge.
As for the title, it might be about the way we do things the hard way in life, and complicating when it's not necessary. But I'm more keen on the idea of it being literally about circus life, about how Jacob was doing his job in the circus and taking care of animals as well as people, but he still couldn't stop the cruel way the animals (and people) were treated. Even though the cruelty ended (with Uncle Al's death) - he got the water for the elephant - there was still damage done along the way.

I dunno. Maybe.

This could be completely wrong and misguided, but I think that the other circus members, especially August, symbolise the elephants and Jacob is the water because even though elephants are huge and powerful creatures, they cannot live without the basic nessecity of water and without Jacob, the circus would have been unable to go on as they would have been without his vetinary expertise.

I believe the titles has significance on two levels. Firstly it refers to the moment in the book that seems to trigger a great deal of flashbacks for Jacob. But also Rosie and the other animals are the only reason that Jacob resolves to stay with the circus. He feels he must stay as a protector for the animals, especially Rosie who seems to be the object of a lot of August's aggression. Therefor water for elephants has a more metaphorical meaning that deals with Jacobs decision to stay with the circus, providing "water for elephants". Water is perhaps symbolic of love and nurturing. I believe that of all animals, choosing an elephant as the title animal was appropriate given elephants are known for their good memories.

As Bob Cherny can attest, he "worked for Ringling for eight months and can attest that you do not bring water to elephants. You bring them to the water unless you have access to a fire hydrant and a long hose."

What is the water and what are the elephants? Well it speaks to caring for others and even ourselves, and it speaks to life's needs and desires... The availability of resources. If you are an elephant, you require so much water that you have to remain near enough to it, dedicate your life to finding it if it seems out of reach, or you perish. ("In a day, an elephant can drink 80 gallons of water" from http://www.elephantconservation.org/s...).

Which elephants get their 80 gallons?

That's a deep question. At first I was like, "what are you talking about crazy person?" lol Now I get what your asking after I read the question again and thought about it more. I'm not exactly sure. I think maybe it's supposed to be irony in some way?

As we age short term memory becomes less effective but long term memories become very clear. People often think the elderly are living in the past. The elephant is memory represented by Jacob. The water is that human recognition that we all need. Jacob felt the most alive and effective when he lived with the circus. The best times of his life. So in the end of the book, and in essence the end of Jacob life, Jacob like an elephant seeks his special place, his life water, the circus.

F 25x33
Jared Johnson I agree but it was a simple book. And if it was indeed an allegory than the elephant would be the memory and the water that is what cures our thirst i ...more
Feb 14, 2014 08:10AM

I think the water was the economy (the depression)and the elephants the people that suffers. Everything that happend there was because of the economy problems.

Water for elephants...very simply put is another way of saying food for thought. Jacob's failing memory and shortening life is replenished and revived through his contact with the circus; something that makes him feel alive and rejuvenated again. An elephant again is a creature with great memory but is slow and ugly and big and fat to look at (similar to an ageing man) and has to be hydrated often...symbolism played out throughout the book!

No symbolism! Just enjoy the book as it stands.

Why's everything have to be symbolic... ?

I don`t understand the title at all, I get the elephant but not the water.

i guess you could say that the 'water' is the love that feed the couple (the 'elephants)... but, really, there is no meaning. I have read this book and the reason the name is 'Water for Elephant' is because the main character has a love for animals, and he has a specific bond with one elephants.

I've been looking around for the origin of the phrase "carrying water for elephants" since a couple of days ago when I heard it used on an old radio show from 1946 (some 60 years before the novel came out). In it, a character says "Normally I wouldn't go to the circus, even if the elephants carried water for *me*." From that I would guess that there's an old saying out there somewhere about providing elephants with water. I'm still looking, but at the moment I tend to agree with those who have suggested that it's a pretty big undertaking and that's why Gruen chose it. But I'm still looking. Anybody else familiar with such an expression?

I have trouble believing that there's absolutely no symbolism or purpose behind Gruen's choosing "Water for Elephants" as the title. No, not everything everywhere is symbolic, but I feel like an author doesn't arbitrarily choose three words for the title of her work.

I think some bigger themes in the novel relate to memory and how we tell our own stories (and the reliability of Jacob's story), which would then tie in with the use of "Water for Elephants" as the title (and the frustration that 90-some-year-old Jacob feels throughout the novel about the other guy in the nursing home).

I believe that water was the well being of the innocents of the circus; the animals, Marlena, and the workers, Walter especially, because they presented a very heavy burden to Jacob. Carrying the weight of how much an elephant drinks was what Jacobs was feeling when he began to realize he couldn't leave knowing the sadness of their situations. Walter would have been redlighted, Marlena would have been alone and abused for the rest of her life, and Rosie and the other animals would have been abused and under-fed if he left them at the mercy of August. I don't think the elephants good memory has much to do with the symbology because though it was in it's early stages, Jacob does suffer of Alzheimer's. I believe the lashing out at the nursing home wasn't as much anger due to the elephant aspect, but it was a reminder of the pain Jacob felt carrying the burden of caring for his lost loves. The memory thing could have been a good idea, but I just don't think it has much to do with the title.

I feel that water symbolizes life, and I believe that the elephant represents a lot of the characters, but especially Marlena...Marlena was just as tragic a character as Rosie...and Jacob sparked a fire in both of them, rescued them, made them whole again...he carried them water--he nurtured them back to life, and in doing so, he awakened his own spirit.

maybe it's more like a leitmotif because the story clearly revolves around it. for example, it was the elderly lawyer that triggered the narrator's memory by claiming to have worked at a circus performing this particular task. also, when Jacob first came in contact with the circus, he was laugh at and told he could bring water to the elephants, although at that time the circus didn't have any. and, of course, then Rosie came along and she became the "great grey hope". and maybe the strenuous task of teaching her tricks and coping with her behaviour are also represented in the title. i don't know. it's a really pleasant book but the title can really confuse you.

To me, the water is a vital thing that the elephants need. It's hard labor bringing water to the elephants because they require so much. I think the water symbolizes love and how hard it was for Jacob to give Marlena.

Cyndi (last edited Dec 07, 2011 06:39PM ) Dec 07, 2011 06:25PM   0 votes
I think the title gently pokes fun at the hubris of humanity. As far as symbols, the water is the animal's basic need. Elephant, the powerful, magnanimous, ultimately irrepressible and thirsty animal. Who can carry water for an elephant? We (human beings) aren't that strong. Water isn't ours to provide, after all. And the elephant is much more capable than we imagine of meeting its own needs.

This "water for elephants" is a ridiculous proposition, yet it makes for a compelling story. (Remember all the old ladies so interested in the fibber's tale?) It is appealing because we would like to think that we could do so much. The truth is, we have some control of our destinies, but there is also much that is beyond our control. Life unfolds in unexpected ways, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Is it simply chance or is a deeper wisdom or higher power at work? The author doesn't really go there, but she surely makes the point that it is not all in our hands. It couldn't possibly be.

The title may be a suggestion that the whole book was a "lie" - a "borrowed" memory that Jacob wanted to make his own and became, for him, one and the same with the truth.

Not to hijack the thread, but why is jacob so darn angry as an old man? He got the love of his life and a dream job in chicago, but i couldn't figure out why he was so darn angry later in life.

Well you see, elephants need water right? So, just like water is to elephants, the circus was to jacob and all of the other benzini bros at the time of the depression. They needed the circus. It kept them alive. Also, in the same way, marlena needed jacob. "I need you now and always, like water for elephants". I made this up. Do you like it?... Why do I feel like noone is going to read this.

I'd say the only symbolism from the title comes from the phrase itself. Since "carry water for the elephants" is a joke for the circus workers, the title is symbolic more of the culture of the circus, as it keeps itself hidden from the rest of society even while it presents performances to society.

To carry water for elephants would be such a strenuous, nearly impossible task; elephants can drink enormous amounts of water. Jacob was given a huge secret to carry: Rosie's murder of August. Jacob, out of his love for Marlena and Rosie drove him to carry this gigantic secret, a feat nearly as impossible as carrying water for elephants.

I just think its a direct quote from the book. Many authors pull a significant line from the book and title it as such. Great story!

Symbolism in this book? This is one of the tritest novels I've ever read. Our book club clobbered the ageist views, the poor writing and the poorly developed characters not to mention that many had hoped to really learn something about the era it was set in. Unfortunately none of that was extant.

The novel had nothing symbolic in it, so I don't think there's anything symbolic in the title either.

I think it's titled that because carrying water for elephants is useless because they love whiskey. And in the book the old Jacob also feels as if he has lost his purpose.

And this is why I love discussing books. Symbolism can mean different things to different readers. We all bring our own life experiences and background knowledge to what we read. We all read for different purposes and interpret what we read according to who we are and what we bring to the novel. IT is so interesting to read (or hear) how others interpret a novel's symbolism and it always allows me to take a fresh look at a novel and think about it in a new way!I enjoyed reading the above posts!

I believe the question might be: why is the title "Water for Elephants" and the answer might be that like much of what we are told - much is wrong. I think it's an allegory to the "go to college and you'll live the American dream" story in that it doesn't always follow that one thing leads to another.

Rosie is the elephant silly!! the water is the stuff rosie drinks

Okay. We might be on to something. The symbolism in the title is about the aging mind? Perhaps its in where the other gentleman begins to imagine his earlier dreams were a reality... or something. I am not an eloquent writer at all, I'm a reader! but maybe someone else can expand on that.

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