Through Mrs. Gruen’s book Water for Elephants, one is able to open their imagination to struggles and joys of life of circus kinker. While the book address many different aspects of early twentieth century American life, the focus of Gruen’s writing leans heavily on the gypsy lifestyle of a traveling circus; as well as, the coming of age of Jacob Jankowski. Although this is only Gruen’s second novel, she effectively develops a world of mystery and wonder as Charles Wilkin’s states, “Gruen is an old fashioned storyteller,” suggesting that the author was a part of a sideshow herself telling stories to patrons of the circus.
Within this lost circus world, she continues her theme of animals, which she contributes to her personal affection to all animals. The focus of this paper will not only be to review the opinions of other critics, but to analyze their views on the key social issues addressed by Mrs. Gruen in the novel. This love for animals is seen throughout the novel, as she uses various animals to add not only to plot, but creates integral characters out of them along the way. The first animal to impact the story is Marlena’s horse, Silver Star.
The loving relationship that Jacob observes between Marlena has with Silver Star exposes the hardship of losing a companion. Even though Jacob’s job was supposedly contingent on the horse recovering; nevertheless, he was not “red lighted. ” Witnessing this love allowed Jacob to commit himself to serve the circus because it gave him a sense of family at a time of great loss. Other important issues addressed in this novel include human rights, old age, prohibition and justice. In Charles Wilkin’s June 3, 2006 a critique aptly named, Two-ring circus, he favorably agrees with many aspects of Mrs.
Gruen’s description of circus life. An intriguing element to Wilkin’s qualification for a critique on this subject is the fact that he has had firsthand experience traveling with modern day circus in 1997, the Great Wallenda Circus. In his brief description of this experience, one almost feels as he was jealous he did not author this novel or somehow that he personally knows Uncle Al and Gruen’s fictional cast of crazy misfits. The disagreement that Mr. Wilkin’s focuses most centrally on is that fact that Mrs. Gruen neglects to develop any of her story inside the big top.
As title of Mr. Wilkins article Two-ring circus implies, his circus experience was focused more directly on the actual theatre and showmanship of the performers. I feel that Gruen did not neglect this aspect of her book out of lack of importance but as a means to develop a greater dialogue between characters. If she had wasted time explaining the intricacies of a performance, she would have disrupted her theme of hierarchy and class structure. By avoiding the clowns, musicians and performers as central characters; Gruen allowed the reader to stay engaged with lives of the workers.
In doing so Wilkin’s agrees that, “Gruen does an impressive job recording the rawness of the backlot… she delivers a compelling version of the circus’s prejudices and behavioral code. ” One must not forget the time period in which this novel is set. During the Depression of the 1930s, class warfare had escalated to new heights as a means to justify resource management. This discrimination was clearly seen in the chow hall was divided to separate the performers from the workers.