In Water for Elephants the train tracks are a symbol of finding ones way, taking life day by day, and even running away. It is a symbol of how life is always moving forward, and you just have to go along with it when you're riding the train of life. You have no choice but to keep moving, for life isn't going to stop for you. In the novel, people from all over came to find work because the novel is set in the Great Depression. Many people felt lost and unable to find any means of employment and soon became homeless, such as the occupants of “hobo jungles,” who have nothing but a few articles of clothes, as shown in the quote , “some are lying on folded clothes (Gruen 196).” For the unemployed, the train tracks were a path to a possible job, a home, and a somewhat stable life compared to others wandering in the depression.

Others, like Jacob, used the tracks as a means of escape. When his parents died, he ran away out of shock and denial at the reality of his situation. His whole world shattered in the span of a few hours. When Jacob and his peers were taking their final exams to graduate college, he is overwhelmed by his situation and just leaves the room. As his instructor tries to stop him, “the door cuts off his final words. As I march across the quad, I look up at Dean Wilkins’ office. He’s standing at the window, watching” (Gruen 30). He followed the train tracks that eventually brought him to the traveling circus and thus a new life. Even those in the circus used the tracks to stay ahead of the ever growing depression. From town to town they witnessed people in failed circuses trying to get jobs in the Benzini Bros Circus. For example, when the Benzini Bros. took over what was left of the Fox Brothers Circus, Jacob describes seeing "The Fox Brothers employees who remain are lined up in front of the privilege car. A desperate hopefulness surrounds them" (Gruen 150). The faster you move, the farther you seem to be able to run from hungry bellies and empty pockets. If you stand still, you will be overwhelmed by reality. No matter who you are, where you come from, or where you’re going, if you follow the tracks, they’re bound to lead you somewhere new and give you a fresh start.



Throughout Water for Elephants, faint themes are made more perceptible as the story develops. These themes are represented by a symbol that is at the very center of the novel, the stake, which signifies both freedom and captivity, themes in which the book is soaked. Early in the book, there is a slight and playful hint at this concept of freedom as Rosie steals lemonade from the working men by outsmarting them, as illustrated in this quote from chapter 15, “‘She pulls out her stake, takes it with her, drinks the goddamned lemonade, then goes back and sticks her stake in the ground!’” This passage exemplifies how the stake can signify a sense of freedom because, despite the appearance of being chained, Rosie can go as she pleases.

Alternately, the stake also symbolizes the theme of captivity which is abundant within the novel. For example, August never fails to lash out at those he is closest to when everything seems to be going smoothly. This is most apparent when Marlena and Jacob host a surprise celebration for August. He is ungrateful and extremely mad, suspecting adultery. Marlena has to then flee after a fight to escape August’s imprisonment to a nearby hotel. In another instance, August lashes out on Rosie after an act does not go according to plan.

“‘She’s back in the menagerie,’ I say.

‘Good,’ he says. He rips the bull hook from my hand.

‘August, wait! Where are you going?’

‘I’m going to teach her a lesson,’ he says without stopping” (Gruen 218).

This quote best describes the captivity that the stake signifies in that August unleashes his full fury on the innocent elephant when it is most helpless and chained to the stake, firmly fixed in the ground.

However, the stake signifies ultimate freedom from captivity when, in the midst of a stampede, Rosie lifts up her stake and puts an end to August’s horrible supremacy with a single ponk. This is illustrated here in the final scene of chapter 22, “I see that Rosie has pulled her stake from the ground. She holds it loosely, resting its end on the hard dirt. The chain is still attached to her foot. She looks at me with bemused eyes. Then her gaze shifts to the back of August’s bare head” (Gruen 395). This quote demonstrates how something that was supposed to confine Rosie eventually set her free, which is not only relevant to Rosie herself, but to all the major characters in the Novel.



In the book Water for Elephants, there is a discreet and subtle but very significant symbol that prevails throughout the book and is the basis of the core of the novel. The symbol, water, represents purification and a clean start in this novel. It is a metaphor for redemption and cleansing, as well as a new beginning. This novel is saturated with the constant theme of mistakes, both dire and minuscule. For example, in the very beginning of the novel after Jacob finds out his parents have died, he abandons his graduation exam and basically runs away. After walking for a very long time trying to escape the tragedy, he chances upon a stream where he relieves his aching feet. He describes the seemingly unimportant event by saying, "When I first submerge my feet in the frigid water, they hurt so badly I yank them out again. I persist, dunking them for longer and longer periods. until the cold finally numbs my blisters" (Gruen 30). This quote actually embodies the symbol of water and its meaning to the novel. It is a metaphor for how people try to redeem themselves and thereby relieve their pain no matter how hard or how painful the process may be. People want to be free of pain, and so they try to purify and cleanse themselves to calm their aching souls and bodies. As shown in the end of the book, Jacob abandons the nursing home in which he suffers from belittlement and takes on a life of traveling with the circus once again. He paved a new road for himself, a new beginning or chapter in his life which he wanted to write.

The symbol of water is also present in the title of this novel, further implying a hidden and more deeper meaning to "water." Being part of the title of the book, it is representing the fact that the book and its characters are full of burdens. Elephants drink a lot of water, and it is practically impossible for one man to carry all of it. The burden the title is referring to is all the mistakes that Jacob had made that he has to carry around with him, such as being seduced by Barbara, the "cooch" girl, and also the fact that he never mentioned the murder of August by Rosie to Marlena. It is a measure of how much Jacob had to go through in the duration of his life. Water is a symbol of both burdens and also the opposite, alleviating them and creating a fresh start for people who seek it.