Water for Elephants Summary,Themes,Charactres & Synopsis [Sara Gruen]

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Water for Elephants Summary,Themes,Charactres & Synopsis [Sara Gruen]
TitleWater for Elephants
AuthorSara Gruen
Publication Year2006
GenreHistorical Fiction, Romance, Drama
SettingThe novel is set during the Great Depression and takes place
primarily in a traveling circus called the
Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
ProtagonistJacob Jankowski, a young veterinary student who becomes entangled
in the circus world after a personal tragedy disrupts his life.
The story alternates between Jacob as a young man and as
an elderly man reflecting on his past.


The themes of “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen are:

  1. Love and Relationships The story explores romantic love, friendship, and complicated relationships, showing how they can both strengthen and challenge individuals.
  2. Illusion vs. Reality The circus presents a glamorous illusion, but behind the scenes, there are harsh realities and struggles. This theme highlights the contrast between appearances and truth.
  3. Loyalty and Betrayal Characters face choices between remaining loyal to their loved ones or betraying them for personal gain, revealing the complexities of trust and loyalty.
  4. Cruelty and Kindness The novel showcases both the cruelty of some characters and the kindness of others, emphasizing the moral choices people make in difficult circumstances.
  5. Survival and Resilience – Set during the Great Depression, the characters must adapt and find ways to survive, highlighting their resilience in the face of adversity.


The main characters of “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen are:

  1. Jacob Jankowski The main character, a young man who joins a circus during the Great Depression. He becomes an animal caretaker and falls in love with Marlena.
  2. Marlena Rosenbluth A beautiful circus performer who rides horses. She’s married to August but develops feelings for Jacob.
  3. August Rosenbluth Marlena’s husband and the circus’s animal trainer. He can be charming but also very controlling and temperamental.
  4. Rosie An elephant in the circus who seems stubborn but has a special secret that Jacob discovers.


“Water for Elephants” follows Jacob Jankowski, a young man who joins a traveling circus during the Great Depression.

After his parents’ death, Jacob abandons his studies as a veterinarian and hops aboard a circus train.

He becomes involved with Marlena, a talented equestrian performer, and her volatile husband, August, who also runs the animal acts.

Jacob’s compassion for the mistreated elephant, Rosie, helps him uncover her surprising abilities, leading to the circus’s success.


The tale in this book is conveyed through a collection of recollections by Jacob Jankowski, who is 93 years old. The personnel at the nursing home where Jacob resides dictate every aspect of his life, including what to eat, what to do, and how to spend each day. When Jacob’s recollections start, we meet him as a 23-year-old Polish American preparing for his exams at Cornell University, where he studies veterinary medicine. He learns tragically that his parents had perished in a vehicle accident. 

After graduating, Jacob intended to work with his veterinarian father in the clinic. When Jacob finds out that his parents had heavily mortgaged their home to pay for his pricey Ivy League education, he breaks down since he will not inherit the property. He departs Cornell just before graduating by boarding a train at night. The Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth owns the train. Uncle Al, the owner of the Circus, hires Jacob to take care of the animals after finding out that he has veterinary expertise. Jacob is forced to live with Walter, a midget known as Kiko by the Circus, and Queenie, Walter’s dog.

A few weeks later, Jacob is asked to visit Camel, a guy who has been unable to move his arms or legs due to years of using Jamaican ginger extract. Jacob conceals Camel in his personal space because of concern that he’ll be “red-lighted” or punished by being tossed off a moving train.

The Equestrian Director, August, is a cruel guy who abuses the humans in his presence and the animals entrusted to his care, notably Rosie, the new elephant. August may also be friendly, giving, and charming when he chooses. Despite having a cautious connection with August, Jacob falls in love with Marlena, August’s wife. 

As his suspicions about their romance increase, August beats both his wife & Jacob. When Marlena is not onstage with the Circus, she relocates to a hotel and remains there. Uncle Al warns Jacob that August is a paranoid schizophrenic & threatens to have him and Camel red-lighted if he doesn’t get Marlena and August back together in a relationship.

Jacob sees Marlena at the hotel & consoles her after learning a few days later that August had attempted to see her. They share a bed while publicly professing their love for one another. Marlena goes back to the Circus to perform while continuing her covert meetings with Jacob. The fact that she won’t let August get close to her infuriates Uncle Al. Additionally, she learns out she is pregnant.

One night, Jacob jumps from car to car on the moving train while holding a knife between his teeth, making his way to August’s room. He has the blade on August’s pillow to kill him, but he changes his mind and walks back to his car. However, only Queenie is waiting for him in his car, which is empty. As he would have been if he had been in his automobile as planned, Jacob notices that a red light has stopped Walter and Camel.

Following the performance, numerous red-lighted circus employees return to free the animals, starting a stampede. Rosie, the elephant who has endured August’s excesses of savagery, grabs a spike and slams it into August’s brain as fear and mayhem break out. Only Jacob saw what happened as the stampede crushed his corpse. 

Uncle Al’s body is discovered shortly after the Circus is shut down with a handmade garrote around his neck. Rosie, Queenie, and Marlena’s horses are among the circus animals Marlena and Jacob take with them when they depart. Together, they start a new life by joining Ringling’s Circus. Years later, Jacob accepts a position as the zoo’s veterinarian in Chicago, where they eventually make their home and start a family.

Jacob is still in the nursing home, waiting for one of his kids to bring him to the Circus. We find that Jacob & Marlena have five kids together. Marlena passed away a few years before Jacob was sent to the nursing facility. Jacob reluctantly concludes that no one will be coming for him after all, so he sneaks out of the nursing home and heads to the Circus that has been established nearby. He approaches the kind-hearted circus boss Charlie and requests permission to continue working as a ticket seller. Charlie concurs, and Jacob is convinced that he has finally returned home.


What is the message of the book Water for Elephants?

Water for Elephants conveys the resilience of human spirit in adversity, and the bond between humans and animals, amid the captivating backdrop of a 1930s circus.

What is the meaning of Water for Elephants?

It explores love, resilience, and the unexpected bonds formed in the midst of a 1930s circus, highlighting the beauty and cruelty of human-animal connections.

What is the tragedy in Water for Elephants?

The tragedy involves a horrific accident during a circus performance, resulting in a devastating loss and altering the characters’ lives forever.

What is the moral of the elephant story?

The moral of the elephant story is that kindness, understanding, and respect can reveal hidden strengths and transform even the most unlikely individuals into something extraordinary.

What happens to Rosie at the end of Water for Elephants?

Rosie is revealed to understand Polish commands. She plays a key role in the circus’s grand finale. After the circus closes, she lives happily in a sanctuary.

About the Author-Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Full NameSara Gruen
Birth DateAugust 7, 1969
GenreFiction, Historical Fiction, Contemporary
Notable Works“Water for Elephants,” “Ape House,” “At the Water’s Edge,” “The Flying Change”
Debut Novel“Riding Lessons” (2004)
EducationBachelor’s degree in English from Carleton College
Writing StyleDescriptive, emotionally resonant,
often exploring themes of human-animal relationships and the complexities of life
BackgroundSara Gruen was born in Canada, raised in the United States,
and has a passion for animals, which often influences her writing.
Notable ThemesHuman-animal relationships, historical settings, love, survival, family dynamics
Adaptations“Water for Elephants” was adapted into a successful movie in 2011
ImpactGruen’s books often resonate with readers due to their
emotional depth and exploration of human connections with animals and each other.
Personal InterestsAnimals, horseback riding, travel

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