Symbolism and Theme in Water for Elephants
Masterful symbolism and psychological themes contribute to Sara Gruen's literary success in her 2007 Algonquin Books historical fiction title Water for Elephants.
Symbolism Revealed Through Character
Sara Gruen's title Water for Elephants provides a symbolic study of the fundamental human need for love and acceptance. The primary symbols are revealed through unique characters who struggle to feed deep internal desires.
Rosie, the elephant referenced in Sara Gruen's title, is a powerful symbol. More than just a performing animal, Rosie reflects the desperation of so many Americans during the Great Depression. In the brutal hands of August, her mentally ill handler, Rosie lives a passionless life. When she reaches for more, drinking the sweet circus lemonade that she craves rather than the water that she requires for sustenance, she is beaten into submission. August's cruel message is clear: the circus is no place for independent passions.
In a more general sense, elephants are sensitive, strong and intelligent creatures. Like the grey and wrinkled older Jacob who narrates the story (sometimes through the memory of his younger self), elephant lore suggests that they never forget. Similarly, Jacob's memories of his youth are clearer than his failing short term memory.
Along with providing sustenance, water often symbolizes a cleansing or a baptism. In this novel, drinking water is often difficult to find, and the water for bathing is even more rare. In fact, at one point the young Jacob's only option is to shower himself in filthy water left over from the animals. Similarly, several characters find it difficult to find redemption for past mistakes:
The beautiful equestrian star Marlena cannot return home for the mistake of having eloped with her charismatic but cruel husband August. The young Jacob has difficulty shaking the guilty realization that his parents sacrificed financial security to fund...
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