Water for Elephants Chapter 1 Summary
by Sara Gruen

Start Your Free Trial

Download Water for Elephants Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Chapter 1 Summary

Jacob Jankowski is now ninety or ninety-three—he cannot really remember. He forgets things sometimes. Jacob is a resident at a senior citizens’ housing facility, and he is one of few men in residence; most of the residents are old ladies. But they are much younger than Jacob is, and they are in better physical condition; in his old age, Jacob is finding it more and more difficult to get around. He uses a walker for support because his feet drag beneath him as he shuffles about. But this does not bother the ladies, who chase after Jacob and ask him if he will be going to see the circus that has just arrived in town. Jacob cannot believe the circus is so near, and his heart thumps to hear of it.

The nurses help the residents to the dinner table, and Jacob sarcastically asks what is on the menu for the evening. He hates the bland taste and soft texture of the food at the center, and he longs for food into which he can sink his teeth. Everyone at the table is chattering about the circus. The nurses have placed a newcomer, Joseph McGuinty, across the table from Jacob. He does not know what he is supposed to talk to McGuinty about—Jacob was a veterinarian and McGuinty was a lawyer. So Jacob decides to ignore McGuinty while the ladies continue to talk about their childhood memories of the circus. Then McGuinty pipes in and says that he used to work for the circus by carrying water for the elephants. This statement sends Jacob into a fury, and he screams at McGuinty and calls him a liar. McGuinty takes offense, but Jacob cannot be controlled. He says, “Do you have any idea how much an elephant drinks?” Rosemary, one of the nurses, quickly wheels Jacob out of the room against his protests; she takes him back to his bedroom.

Rosemary promises to come to check on him later, and she actually keeps her word. She brings Jacob a bowl of real fruit, and Jacob savors every bite. While he eats, Jacob looks at his own frail hand, and he thinks “age is a terrible thief.” He is lonely and misses his wife, who died from cancer. After his wife died, Jacob felt like he was split down the middle. Even still, he is happy that he is the survivor—he does not think his wife could have handled being left alone for the rest of her days. Jacob is tormented by the ghosts of his past.