There are three main settings in Water for Elephants. First, young Jacob is found on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. His stay here is cut short by the death of his parents. Another setting is the interior of a nursing home, where ninety-year-old Jacob has been placed after the death of his wife. His children are all grown and are not willing to share their lives with Jacob.
The majority of the story, however, takes place in the traveling circus, where the setting is either on a moving train or under the big circus tents. The train takes the circus all over the United States, usually stopping only for a day or two. There are hints of the effect of the Great Depression on people in the cities the circus visits, thus expanding the setting to capture the history around the characters.
Ideas for Group Discussions
1. Discuss your feelings about Jacob and Marlena’s love. Do you think what they did was right? Do you think Marlena should have stayed with her husband? Was it wrong of them to have sex while Marlena was still married to August?
2. Why do you think Uncle Al had Walter and Queenie thrown off the train? What had Walter done wrong? Why do you think Jacob did not go looking for him?
3. What are your opinions about displaying people with unusual physical traits in the circus? Was this wrong or immoral? Would you pay to see these people if circuses still offered this kind of display? If these people agree to be displayed, do you think they should be allowed in the circus?
4. Do you think that Uncle Al has any saving graces? What are they? Does he help any of the people who work for him? How? Who do you think is worse: Uncle Al or August?
5. Do you believe that animals show emotion, as in the novel’s references to Rosie’s smile? Have you had a pet that displayed emotional reactions such as happiness or guilt? Do you think that elephants and monkeys might do the same?
Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research the Ringling Brothers or the Barnum and Bailey circuses. Were their dealings with the people who worked for them any better than the circus in this story? Compare one or both of these better-known circuses with the fictional one presented in this story. Present your findings to your class.
2. Take notes as you read this novel for a second time. What devices does the author use to keep readers wanting to turn to the next page? How does she keep the readers interested and wondering what might happen next? What kinds of suspense does she use? Write down all the devices that you recognize, then present a chart to your class showing where they occur. Ask if your classmates can point out other examples.
3. Research the Great Depression. What effect did it have on individual lives? What was a bread line? How did the government try to help people better their situation? Name some of the programs that were used, especially in the arts. Bring photos and statistics to class to share when you present your findings.
4. Visit a nursing home in your community. Find out as much as you can about the details of daily life there for the occupants. What is a normal day for the residents who are able to get out of bed? What does their diet consist of? How similar or dissimilar is this to the life Jacob describes in this story? Give a talk in front of your class, sharing the details you have uncovered.
5. There are rescue organizations in the United States for animals that have performed in circuses, animals that have been used for science experiments, and animals that have spent much of their lives in zoos. Find out as much as you can about these organizations as well as the history of the animals that they care for. You might also want to include information on wildlife preserves in other countries. Focus on monkeys, apes, and elephants. Put together a list of the organizations you discover and hand the list out to your class. Tell the stories of specific animals or an interesting organization that will help your class understand the plight of these animals.
(The entire section is 1,070 words.)