Literary Devices In Water For Elephants

Introduction to “Water for Elephants”

“Water for Elephants” is an incredible and thoughtful work crafted by Sara Gruen. The story was set in 1930 in the era of the black stone depression. The story raises the problem of the life scenario of Jacob Jankowski, who becomes a part of the circus troupe after tragic events. From Jacob’s point of view, the readers get a firsthand experience of the circus – the colors, its energy, the stunts and the glamour, not forgetting the unexpected twists and mysteries of love.

Short Summary of “Water for Elephants”

The novel begins with Jacob, a 90 years old man, looking back at his life. At a much younger age, he found himself at Cornell University as a veterinary student.

Life is really much impacted when his parents die in a car accident and he becomes a helpless lonely and homeless boy.

In an attempt to evade the situation, he leaps to a moving train that is the travelling circus of Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

Jacob is now getting used to the life that he is living in the circus. Here he encounters the character called August with animals, who in actuality is a trainer and the wife of August is also depicted as a beautiful woman, but she is a desperate woman and this lady also has the rights of the leading lady in the show.

After mastering in the techniques of circus, Jacob gets a job with the circus company and he is assign the duty to handle the animals including the like Rosie, an elephant.

When Jacob gets the high rank in the circus, he comes to know that there is a darker side of August: he mistreats animals and the people.

Jacob and Marlena are introduced as the characters in the circus, who come close to each other and their conversations develop to an affair that has severe repercussions.

The novel’s highest incidence of emotions can perhaps be described by the final action taken by the protagonist, Jacob, that alters his life dramatically.

Literary Devices in “Water for Elephants”

The author utilized the various literary devices in the novel. The significant literary techniques are as under:

1- Allusion

As I stood there, watching the chaos unfold around me, I couldn’t help but feel like I was living in a modern-day circus of the absurd, a surreal spectacle that defied all logic and reason.

The excerpt reflects the use of allusion in the phrase “modern-day circus of the absurd”.

It is the reference to the philosophical concept that alludes to the Theater of the Absurd. It reflects the illogical and ridiculous aspects of the life.

By comparing the ‘circus’ with absurd theatre, the protagonist transforms the situation into a theatrical and bizarre experience, indicating that every thing is illogical around the protagonist.

This allusion set the tone of the scene and enables the reader to get a feel of how wrong and creepy the situation is.

2- Simile

Marlena’s laughter was like music to my ears, a sweet melody that lifted my spirits and filled me with joy.

Here, the author employs a simile that equates the laughter of Marlena with music.

The use of simile effectively helps the reader imagine the joy and happiness by illustrating the beautiful laughter of Marlena.

Thus, by describing her laughter as a melody, the author stresses the protagonist’s emotions upon seeing Marlena and the positive effect of her personality on him.

3- Flashback

I can’t believe it’s been so long,” I say. “It seems like just yesterday we were…” But I can’t finish the thought. I can’t even stand to think about it.


In the excerpt, Jacob finds himself recalling a certain moment in his past which is quite memorable. The use of ellipsis (…) reflects a pause in his speech, as he tries to recollect his thoughts.

This specific type of flashback gives the reader a chance to know about Jacob and especially his past, by showing what he might feel or recall.

The usage of the present tense of the verb ‘I said’ also precipitates the feeling that this is a memory that Jacob tells in the first person as if he is experiencing it again.

This technique provides the reader with a richer and more personal experience so that they may identify better with the character.

4- Symbolism

Rosie is different. She is the misfit, the outcast, the elephant that nobody wants. But to me, she is more than that. She is a glimmer of hope, a chance for redemption in this bleak world of circus life.


Here, the character of Rosie the elephant represents hope and redemption. Though others in the circus takes her as a freak, an outsider, Jacob considers her in a different way.

To him, she symbolizes the hope to a better life and a fresh start with a chance to amend his previous mistakes.

The use of phrase “the elephant that nobody wants” highlights the symbolical meaning of the plot as Rosie symbolizes precisely how Jacob felt – unwanted and unappreciated.

By using the character Rosie, the protagonist impart the theme of strength that is present even in the worst situations in which one might find themselves in.

5- Foreshadowing

As I watch August lead Rosie away, I can’t shake the feeling that something is about to go terribly wrong.

The use of phrase “something is about to go terribly wrong” indicates the author’s feeling and apprehension about the future.

It foreshadows the tragic event in the novel which revolves around the characters August and Rosie.

This makes the events of the story vivid and thrilling to the readers, who are constantly anticipating that what will happen next.

6- Irony

August, the animal trainer, who is supposed to be skilled at handling animals, is the one who mistreats them the most.


In the novel, the August is a character who trains and takes care of the animals. His mistreatment with the animals has been described ironically.

This brings out the evil side of August and also showing the cruelty that he possesses and his selfishness as well.

Although he was a skilled man, who used to train the animals, but his abusive behavior contradicts this perception. Here, the irony has been used to contrast the appearance and the reality of the character of August.

See also: The Lady of Shalott Literary Devices

7- Imagery

The circus comes alive at night, the tents glowing with a warm, inviting light. The air is filled with the smells of popcorn and cotton candy, and the sound of laughter and music fills the air.

The vivid imagery has been employed to express the environment of the circus at night time. The glowing tents, smells of popcorn, cotton candy, the sounds of laughter and the music all invoke a sense of excitement and surprise.

This imagery engages the reader in the setting of the circus. It allows them to experience the sights, sounds and the smells alongside the characters.

He forms a vivid picture by using the words in order to bring the scene to life and make the circus magical.

8- Characterization

August is a complex character, charming and charismatic on the surface, but with a dark and violent side that he hides from the outside world.

The protagonist furnishes the characterization of August. August is considered as a charming man in the circus.

However, the subsequent events of the novel unfolds the dark and violent side of his character. This description adds depth to the character of August.

It shows that he is not simply a monster but a complex and complicated being. By portraying his character, the author expresses the complications of the human nature and the idea that people are not always what they pretend to be.

See also: Literary Devices in The Hunger Games

Themes in “Water for Elephants”

The novel contains various themes, including:

  1. Illusion vs. Reality: The circus has been taken as a world of illusion, where the reality is often twisted or keep secret. Jacob encounters with the difference between the attractive appearance of the circus and its tyrannical realities.
  2. Cruelty and Compassion: The novel expresses the cruelty and compassion that found within the world of the circus. August’s offensive behavior towards the animals and Marlena is contrasted with the kindness of the Jacob and sympathy towards them.
  3. Forbidden Love: The novel explores the the difficulties of love, especially the forbidden love between Jacob and Marlena. This relationship is full of challenges and dangers, however they cannot repudiate their feelings for each other.
  4. Freedom and Confinement: The circus imitates the freedom and confinement for its community. It provides them a perception of freedom from the societal norms.
Literary Devices Used In Water For Elephants
Literary Devices In Water For Elephants

To conclude, “Water for Elephants” is a well crafted novel that combines drama, romance and historical fiction. The themes and the usage of the literary devices makes the reader travel into the rather colorful yet cruel world of circus and the effects of the novel stays in mind, long after the reader has closed the last page of the novel.

See also: Literary Devices in The Lovely Bones

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