Water for Elephants contains several very brutal acts of violence. The story of an idealistic but emotionally-closed vet who joins a circus is far more realistic than many similar tales.
The story, set in the Great Depression, opens with an act of (accidental) violence. Jacob Jankowski's parents are killed in a car accident just as he sits down to take his final exam. After he joins the Benzini Brothers Circus, he witnesses August, the animal trainer, inflicting harm on the animals as well as on his wife, Marlena. The latter violence brings Marlena and Jacob closer together. August's beating of the titular elephant, Rosie, has dire results for him, and near the middle of the book, two of the sideshow performers are thrown from the train in the night; an example of institutionalized, accepted violence for breaking the insular laws of the circus.
Every moment of joy and beauty in the book -- Marlena's performances, Rosie's gentle understanding -- is echoed by an act of violence -- Marlena's feet are damaged by a fall, Rosie is abused and finally retaliates. In the end, Jacob and Marlena escape the circus and travel with some of the animals, and although they find happiness, they are always haunted by the past.