In the novel water for Elephants, The author takes characters with seemingly irredeemably miserable lives and gives shows the reader the small, fleeting moments of joy that keeps them going. Gruen does this to demonstrate to the reader that one of the main themes of the novel is that no life is completely without joy. The author does this primarily through the characters of Rosie, Jacob, and the character of Uncle Al.
Jacob the main character works as a vet in the Benzini Brothers Circus and hates it. In his life he feels like he has very little joy, and has said one of the only things keeping him at the circus is Rosie, the elephant. The other is Marlena, August's wife, who he has fallen in love with. "I hate him. I hate him for being so brutal. I hate that I'm beholden to him. I hate that I'm in love with his wife and something damned close to that with the elephant.
And most of all, I hate that I've let them both down."( Pg 170). In this quote Jacob talks about his extreme dislike for August (which reflects negatively on his view of the circus as a whole), and his love for Marlena and Rosie. The fact that Jacob says that he "hates" that he loves them means that he hates that they are the only things keeping him there. Rosie and Marlena are two of his small bit of joy is his currently unfortunate life. The author shows another bit of joy in Jacob's life when he when he is in a nursing home. He is old and dislikes being there. "I was twenty-three, and now here I am in this wretched, desiccated body." He mentions one thing he would really like is some fruit. : "Sometimes I think that if I had to choose between an ear of corn or making love to a woman, I'd choose the corn... Sometimes I substitute an apple for the corn." Jacob has gotten to a point in his life where he would prefer fruit over sex. Since sex is no longer a possibility one of the thin rays of happiness he has left is to dream about that slice of apple or piece of corn. When Jacob finally gets his slice of apple he is over come with happiness, despite his melancholy over what has become of his life. "I slip a piece of apple into my mouth, savouring its juices. The buzzing fluorescent fixture above me casts its harsh light on my crooked fingers as they pluck pieces of fruit from the bowl." He is no longer interested in obsessing over how much he has aged, not that he has his little piece of happiness. This proves the theme, by showing that his life is not completely without joy. These are the ways the author uses the character of Jacob to demonstrate the theme that no life is completely without joy.
Another way the author demonstrates the theme of the novel is through the character of Rosie. Rosie is the Benzini brother Elephant. Rosie's life is among the most miserable of all the characters in the novel. "Distraught listeners could still make out the hollow thud of bull hook hitting flesh, again and again and again. At first Rosie bellowed and whimpered. When she progressed to squealing and shrieking, many of the men turned away, unable to take any more." The elephant is constantly plagued by savage beatings from August. In the previous quote, the other members were unable to even listen to Rosie being beaten, not even to speak of imagine how horrible the beatings were. They even understand, before Rosie has been blamed for something by August, that she is going to get a beating, as demonstrated by the following quote: "'Shit. I'm sorry, Jacob. I really am.' He turns toward the door and takes a deep breath. 'But not half as sorry as... poor [Rosie's] gonna be.'"(p170). The character saying this line takes a deep breath before mentioning the elephant is because he understands what August has in store for Rosie. The character, despite his own poverty and unfortunate situation, understands the tragedy that is Rosie`s life. The author uses this tragedy to prove the theme; that no life is completely without joy. Another one of the ways that author does this is through symbolism. By putting a character with an unfortunate life in an unfortunate situation, and then naming that character "Rosie", which when spelt "rosy" means "cheerful" or "optimistic". While the Benzini brother's circus is plagued with despair, the author, through symbolism makes Rosie the bit of joy that brightens up the situation. Another way the author demonstrates the theme of the novel using Rosie is through the situation with the lemonade. ""It's your goddamned thieving bull!" screams Uncle Al, once again showering August with spit. "She pulls out her stake, takes it with her, drinks the goddamned lemonade, then goes back and sticks her stake in the ground!'". The Lemonade goes missing, and no one knows why. After a while they discover Rosie has been drinking it. This happens on page 209. At this point, the elephant had been in in the circus for quite some time. One could argue if she is intelligent enough to understand that she needs to put her stake back in the ground in order for people to not suspect her, she is smart enough to know that August will give her a beating if she gets caught. The only answer is, she does not care. She is more interested in drinking the lemonade now then worrying about the beating she will get later. Rosie's life is not completely without joy, she creates her own joy, part of which is drinking the lemonade, regardless of the consequences she will have to suffer later. Another way the author demonstrates the theme using Rosie is when Marlena and Jacob are dancing in Marlena's dressing tent. At this time Marlena and Jacob are happy and Rosie is watching them. "Marlena squeals with laughter. Rosie tosses her head and opens her mouth in a smile... As we twirl, I catch sight of Rosie's raised trunk and smiling face." Despite her unfortunate life, Rosie takes pleasure in other people's happiness, namely, the happiness of Marlena and Jacob. Rosie's life is not completely without joy, when she is able to feed off the happiness of other people. These are the ways the author uses the character of Rosie to demonstrate the theme of the novel that no life is completely without joy.
Another way the author demonstrates the theme of the novel, that no life is completely without joy, is through the character of Uncle Al. In the novel Uncle Al is the antagonistic ringmaster. He is ruthless, goal oriented and extremely determined. Uncle Al's greatest dream, as much as he tries to deny it, is to be like The Ringling Brothers Circus, as shown by this quote: "'Ringling has a vetÃ¢ÂÂ¦and being like Ringling makes Uncle Al happy.' 'I thought he hated Ringling.' 'Darling, he wants to be Ringling.'" The Benzini Brother's circus often has no money, most of the time not enough to pay its workers, and then, when times get tight, not enough to pay its performers ."For the first time in the show's history, there is no money for performers. Only the bosses are getting paid"(p.179). Uncle Al had previously been the manager of another circus. "Years ago he was the manager of a mud show: a ragtag group of pellagra-riddled performers dragged from town to town by miserable thrush-hoofed horses." (p.99). The author purposely describes how miserable the previous circus had been, in order to show the reader the positive situation that follows it. This circus crashed, and Uncle Al was able to buy some train cars "for a song", and start his own circus. This has always been a dream of Uncle Al's, to own his own circus. His life with the previous circus was miserable until it crashed, and he finally got his wish. This is one way the author proves one of the main themes of the novel using the character of Uncle Al. The Benzini Brothers circus did not turn out to be the perfect circus. Times were tight, they were in a depression after all, and Uncle Al had no money. Throughout this stressful, unfortunate situation, Uncle Al is still able to find his moments of joy. On page 114, Uncle Al decides to take the circus on a detour to another city in order to find a "Freak" they are looking for a specific person who with odd characteristic. When they arrived, they found that the Ringling Brothers circus had already employed the man and that they were out of luck. Not only was Uncle Al's prize gone, but it was taken from him by the one circus he wanted to beat, the Ringling Brothers. Uncle Al could have been dejected, and gone home at this point, but the author wanted to demonstrate to the reader that no life is completely without joy, so Uncle Al found an alternative. "'The deal is done,' [Uncle Al] says ... 'So you got [the freak], then,' says August 'No, no, no, never mind about him.' ...'I thought he was the whole reason we came here. What happened?' [Says August]. ...One man makes the motion of slitting his throat. August looks at them and sighs. "Oh. Ringling got him."The other man with Uncle Al is sure he will get angry and throw a fit if August continues talking. Uncle Al's life is not completely without joy, so he does not. ""August-you have an elephant. Her name is Rosie, she's fiftythree, and she's perfectly brilliant. The best bull they had. I can't wait to see the act you come up with-" He closes his eyes, the better to summon up an image. His fingers wriggle in front of his face. He smiles in closed-eyed ecstasy."Despite not getting the freak he wanted, he is still able to be happy because he is not without joy. This is the little ray of happiness in an otherwise wasted trip. Another way the author demonstrates the theme is through the death of Lucinda. "IN TERRE HAUTE, the Lovely Lucinda drops dead. After Uncle Al recovers from his violent but short-lived bereavement, he organizes a farewell befitting "our beloved Lucinda." The lovely Lucinda, the 800-pound woman is one of Uncle Al's greatest acts. Now that she is dead, The Benzini Brothers circus could easily shut their doors. Uncle Al decides to bring as much positivity to the situation as he can, by organizing a parade. While Uncle Al is not honest in his intentions (he does not really care about the Lovely Lucinda, he is trying to make money off of her death), he knows how to make the best out of a bad situation. He profits off her one last time and after doing this is very happy. While it is the money that makes him happy, it is still his little bit of happiness in his otherwise unhappy life. These are the ways the author uses Uncle Al to demonstrate the theme of the novel; that no life is completely without joy.
Sources:Gruen, Sara. Water for elephants a novel. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2006. Print