Set in the desperate times of the Great Depression, the narrative of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen attains even more poignancy with the tragedy in Jacobs's life which precipitates his jumping on the train that turns out to be a circus train. When Jacob discovers that he is not on a regular train, he remains because of the lack of options for work. For, things have been reduced to mere survival for Jacob.
Likewise, the others who work for Benzini's Circus tolerate their mistreatment because they have nowhere else to go. Instead of protesting their treatment, the men live in fear of being "red-lighted," or being discarded from the moving train. In their despair, to alleviate their feelings of depression and alienation, some of the men drink an alcoholic extract of Jamaican ginger adulterated by a pesticide, tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate which causes what is called Jamaica ginger paralysis.
Even the cruelty that Uncle Al exhibits towards the men and animals is, perhaps, in part due to his frustration about the economic situation in which he lives. For, extreme times often reveal formerly repressed tendencies that, then, become exaggerated. As Jacob witnesses the behaviors of others such as Marlena who compromises herself for the sake of maintaining peace, he finds that he must reassess what he himself values. At any rate, without the setting of the Great Depression, Water for Elephants would not be the intense narrative that it is.