Water for Elephants Water for Elephants discussion

The role of memory in the novel

Comments Showing 1-25 of 25 (25 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

Sherry I enjoyed this novel. I'm still processing the role of memory in the novel & if anyone has any insights, please share... Is Jacob a reliable narrator? We know he is having problems remembering things at 90 or 93. Are his memories of his time in the circus accurate though? The narration if I am not mistaken is all in first person. Is it possible his reality is not quite what he describes? The other gentleman in the home has been called out as a liar because he obviously doesn't know how much water an elephant would need. He couldn't have worked in the circus. The nurse's aide encourages Jacob to tolerate his stories because the other gentleman truly believes what he is saying happened. Could this also be the case with Jacob? Could he really join a circus at 90 or 93? Could he really walk from the nursing home to the circus all by himself, when a trip to the window earlier in the book was an issue? I loved his story in the circus, and I'd like to take it at face value, but I think there is another layer there... An elephant is suppose to have a really good memory right? Why would Rosie "almost purr" after August had so violently abused her earlier in the season? The elephant who was never violet before or after killed her abuser, taking advantage of chaos to do so. Smart elephant right? But then why the short memory with August earlier? Any ideas...

Sawsee2 Hi! I just noticed your comment. Did you see my comment about the two, slightly different, recounts about the stampede?

Is Jacob being selective in his memory, protecting Marlene?
I am speculating that Marlene was the perpetrator and not Rosie.
If this is not the case, then why did the author re-write the details of Jacob madly trying to find Marlene during the stampede and seeing the demise of August?

Betelle We had a big discussion about the two versions of the stampede in my Book Club. I wish I had kept a copy of the book to explain our thinking in more detail. We thought the forward/prologue was deliberately vague with the author's use of the pronoun "she" and that in the actual scene the "she" ( the perpetrator) is Rosie, But, I am open to persuasion!

Sawsee2 Hi Betelle!

I returned the book to the library so I can't quote verbatim, however I do remember a few differences in the two stampede descriptions.

In the first description Jacob clearly locks eyes with the one he is most anxious to find. 'She' then picks up the tent peg...
My proposition is based on the fact that Jacob would be most concerned about Marlena and thus the first version 'she' is Marlena.

Does that Theory hold any water?

If it was Rosie then why did the author slightly change the two versions: in one the person he locks eyes with has a 'bemused' look, while the other version 'she' has a stoney (I forget the exact description) look.

My theory may help support Sherry's thoughts above; possibly Jacob does have a good memory but years of covering up the real truth causes him to blur a lot of facts. The author could have been highlighting Jacob's memory as a clue to August's fate.

Alea Until I read this I guess I didn't really think that Jacob's memory could be unreliable or that there were two different versions of the stampede. As I was reading the stampede as it was happening I kept flipping back and forth to the prologue and I followed what the author was saying about 'she' being Rosie. He never made eye contact with Marlena. When reading the prologue prior to the book it made it seem as if he was referring to a human, but I think she did that on purpose. I thought it was brilliant, and I loved it.

Crystal I just finished this book and loved it. I hadn't thought about the differences between the two recounts of the stampede until reading this, but thought it was brilliantly written. My assumption was that it was Marlena until reading the second version, and I was certainly surprised.

I believe it truly was Rosie who did the deed for two reasons - first, unless Marlena was taller than August she would have to be extremely strong to force a stake into his skull from a lower height. More importantly, Gruen talks about the reality of elephant executions, which contextualizes Jacob's fear of telling anyone the truth about August's death.

Just my 2 cents...

Annemarie I just finished the book and I really liked it. Having a relative in a nursing home I can tell you that recounts of stories do vary. Sometimes it's true and other times it's how they wished it was and therefore that is how they tell it. I think that is what I liked so much about the book. I could really understand why the two accounts of the stampede were different. The author did an excellent job of portraying Jacob as a 90+ man.

message 8: by Skylar (last edited Feb 08, 2008 09:09AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Skylar Burris He may well be an unreliable narrator, but what's the point of a story that may or may not have happened? It's easier just to read it and enjoy it as if he were a reliable narrator, since there are no external factors that equip us to judge which parts are reliable and which parts are not. I suppose we could speculate Marlena really killed her husband instead of the elephant, and he's remembered it in a way to spare her by the end; we could speculate all sorts of things, but we don't have any reason to.

I think the only reason the two accounts of the stampede were different is because the author wants the reader to think Marlena did it at the beginning so the reader will read the whole book with interest to find out why and find out what happened to her for killing a man; and then we get the "details" in the second account that tell us it was really the elephant, as a "twist." If we knew it was just the elephant from the start, would we be so prodded to read on?

Alea Exactly! Thank you!

message 10: by Lisa (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa I think if you're going to pursue the idea that he was misremembering the event and Marlena was the actual killer, you have to look at the physics of it. Marlena had to be much smaller than August. She could not have come down from above with nearly enough force to kill him.

Betelle Skylar, I agree with all your conclusions. I don't think there is enough consistent evidence to indicate the narrator had a lapse in memory. Also, I think that Gruen made the stampede description in the prologue deliberately vague and open to interpretation. As you said, why read on if you know the outcome.

Kristy It certainly crossed my mind several times while reading this book that Jacob was an unreliable narrator. The differences in the two accounts of the stampede are interesting and just slight enough to make someone think it could have been Rosie or Marlena.

It very well could be that Jacob's shakey memory could account for the fact that he believes Rosie killed August. He may also claim Rosie killed August in order to protect Marlena. I think that it was in fact Rosie that killed August because Gruen never gave Marlena any character triats that would indicate that she would kill anyone let alone August. Throughout the whole book Marlena is one of only two people who really defend August and his violent behavior (Uncle Al only defends it by labeling his a paranoid schizophrenic). Marlena only stands up to August in the very end of the book. While we do see Marlena detach herself from August little by little thoughout the book, I just don't think she would do something as extreme as killing him, especially in such a violent way.

Also, thoughout the book Jacob makes many comments about how smart Rosie is. Several times Jacob makes comments about rosie's facial expressions. He expresses that he feels that Rosie forgave what August had done to her in the past. Elephants are known for their memory so perhaps Rosie did remember and was simply paying August back for the brutal treatment.

Another thing I found interesting was at the end Jacob expressed that he didn't think Marlena saw what Rosie did. He said that he never had the heart to tell her. I like to think that she did see what Rosie did and she never had the heart to tell him either.

message 13: by Lvmipossum (new)

Lvmipossum I just finished reading this book, and if you go back and reread the prologue, Jacob is referring to Rosie (Rosie also wears pink sequins). Except for the fact that the stake is described as an iron stake in the prologue, and August's head being split like a watermelon versa cracking an egg, the accounts are virtually identical. I originally just assumed he was talking about Marlena, but it was actually Rosie he was protecting so she wouldn't be put to death. Also, he never spoke of it because he didn't want Marlena to have bad feelings about Rosie.

message 14: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben I agree with Lvmipossum and Crystal.
Iron stake is heavy and I doubt Marlena had strength amidst the commotion. Also Jacob he didn't told Marlena because Rosie may put into danger. Elephant killing was common in those days.

Diane Another thing that points to Rosie being the killer is in Parade's quote on the cover of the paperback: "...love, murder and a majestic, mute heroine." I had been wondering up until the last few pages who the mute heroine was. Now it all makes sense.

As for the unreliable narrator, I never questioned his memory of the past. He said it was his memory of the present that was problematic. To illustrate this he said he never forgot his own children, just had trouble placing the grandkids and great-grandkids, etc.

The circus owner at the end of the book puts some credibility to his story too as he had heard of the stampede and wanted the first-hand account.

Jessica I have to say that I never considered the 'she' in the novel as possibly being Rosie. I always assumed it was Marlena because I felt like the entire story was a way of justifying her actions. But you all make a valid point.

On the subject of his memory, I don't think something as important and real as his love for Marlena is one of those things that could be changed with time and old age. The Notebook, anyone? :)

message 17: by Karo (new) - rated it 4 stars

Karo I think that there might be another reason why Jacob does not tell Marlena that Rosie is the killer: he has claimed ownership of Rosie (as Marlena did of the horses), so Rosie becomes part of their newly created family. Admitting that August's murderer is part of the family might put too much strain on the young relationship. I don't think that it even matters whether Marlena has seen Rosie kill August. They both love animals so much and know how August treated Rosie; they can easily ignore the facts as long as nobody speaks about it.

message 18: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben @Karo I agree with your claim. I guess there are no big deal if whoever killed August since Marlena never loved him. But of course she gave pity to August's body.

I think why Jacob didn't told Marlena was because she was afraid what it might do to their relationship.

Chrissy Butterbescotch wrote: "I agree with Lvmipossum and Crystal.
Iron stake is heavy and I doubt Marlena had strength amidst the commotion. Also Jacob he didn't told Marlena because Rosie may put into danger. Elephant killin..."

I agree. Wasn't there a point towards the end of the story where Jacob actually said that he didn't tell Marlena the truth because he didn't want her feelings for Rosie to change?

message 20: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Yes, Christine there was. :] He even said that is the only truth unsaid.

Agnes (BookBubbe) Memory? What is memory? How many times have we walked into the kitchen and asked, "What did I come here for?" lol.... I would love to reach 90 or 93 - The fact that he hadnt lost it all is amazing - and I was happy to see the ending in his favor, doing what he wanted...and not just waiting for his children not to show up! Bravo Jacob....and remember someone said "An elephant never forgets!"

message 22: by Nika (new)

Nika So glad you noticed this! I just finished the book last night, and I was haunted by Rosemary's emphasis on selective memory. She made it such a point to tell Jacob that a lie is knowingly misinforming, but when you truly believe in what you are saying it BECOMES your truth.. lines becomes blurred. We distort our memory, and then our distorted memory becomes our reality.

I had to re-read the beginning, since I didn't know where Rosie came from in the final retelling of the stampede. Jacob retold the story by stating that Rosie protected Marlena, that she was stood over Marlena during the stampede(convenient imagery). He also made it a point to justify "Rosie's" actions, since he was going to kill August, how could he hold it against "her".

I believe that Marlena killed August, and Jacob did not want to hold it against her since he intended to so the same. However, Jacob struggled with the killing. There is a clear difference between intent and action; they had the same intent but she took it a step further and acted. There are so many moral implications that he would have had to address if he admitted Marlena's culpability to himself (how could she be his wife, loving mother, a beautiful horse whisperer, and a killer), but morality is a non-issue with an animal. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Marlena would have shunned Rosie, had Rosie actually been her protector. It was simply Jacob painting and re-painting his beloved.

Diane I had glimpses of this idea too but didn't have the courage to think it all the way through. Well done!

message 24: by Victor (new)

Victor I have to agree with the Marlena as killer and Jacob as unreliable narrator theories - a few things I would suggest that have yet to be mentioned here that cast doubt upon Jacob's reliability and potentially take things into deeper psychological territory than suggested here thus far; is it coincidence that a "Rosie" appears as a best friend of sorts in Jacob's tale when the best friend (or , at least, his kindest benefactor) he seems to have in his present life is named "Rosemary"....especially when considering that in the same chapter that Rosemary explains the memory issues the elderly often have to Jacob, Jacob is remembering from the past a naughty magazine with a “horse-faced girl” while, in the present, a “horse-faced girl” tends to his needs. The mock liquor that inflicts damage on Camel is nicknamed “jake” – it causes signs of paralysis in the limbs and private parts….could this not be precisely what Jacob is inflicted with (thus explaining his immobility)? Does Jacob not tell us that he’s “never told a blessed soul” at the end of the Prologue (why should the reader feel so privileged as to be the only one he does tell in the end). What is more likely to have yielded the “guilty conscience” Jacob refers to in the second last sentence of the story - a long dead elephant’s secret or Marlena’s? Oh and how about that phallic peg that Rosie/Marlena smashes August with (ok perhaps now I’m getting carried away).

Cindy Tansin Sherry, to me it doesn't matter if Jacob's memory is faulty or not. What he remembers is his reality, and it's a beautiful and fascinating story.

back to top