Water for Elephants: Jacob Jankowski and the Biblical Jacob?
Sometimes I think that if I had to choose between an ear of corn or making love to a woman, I’d choose the corn. Not that I wouldn’t love to have a final roll in the hay—I am a man yet, and some things never die—but the thought of those sweet kernels bursting between my teeth sure sets my mouth to watering. It’s fantasy, I know that. Neither will happen. I just like to weigh the options, as though I were standing in front of Solomon: a final roll in the hay or an ear of corn. What a wonderful dilemma. Sometimes I substitute an apple for the corn.
The above paragraph is taken from chapter one of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. The book is quirky and funny, demented and tragic. Such is the circus life, I guess.
I read this book for my book club and tonight is the meeting. I skimmed over the suggested discussion questions at the end of the book and in one of them, Ms. Gruen says she incorporated Jacob’s story from the Bible. Yikes! I did not see that coming. In fact, I was a total lidiot (my own made up word: literary idiot, the reader who JUST DIDN’T GET IT), saying to myself, well, his name is Jacob I can see that connection. But what else?
After giving it more thought, I have come up with these:
There’s the woman Jacob loves, Marlena. You could make the argument that Uncle Al is a sort of Laban, extracting unpaid work from Jacob, although there’s no promise of anyone’s hand in marriage. Also, what does that make August?
Jacob’s ladder. In Water for Elephants, the ladder is important to life on a circus train (as well as bootleg liquor, hey hey). The ladders enable one to jump atop train cars and move from one to another, which happens from time to time when you’re on a train as often as these fine folks. Maybe the circus people are like the angels ascending and descending the ladder.
If Jacob’s Ladder is to signify the Jewish exiles, then you might say the ladder of a circus train is symbolic of the exiles of the circus performers, like Kinko/Walter, who has nowhere else to go because his mother sold him. And really, one might consider the whole circus an exile, given the multiple occasions on which they are run out of town.
Jacob’s Ladder leads from earth to heaven, and since the circus train ladder leads from inside the stock cars to atop them, maybe that means both heaven and earth are the circus train? For these circus performer, life takes place, essentially, on the train. The train only stopped to put on the show, so when they were off the train, they were working to set up, put on, and take down the show. So earth is the insides of the stock cars, these people’s homes and livelihoods. Heaven is looking upon the train from atop the roof, like when Jacob Jankowski ascends the ladder:
I climb to the roof. He moves over and when I sit down next to him he claps a hand on my shoulder. “Turn around. I want you to see something.”
He points down the length of the train. It stretches behind us like a giant snake, the linked cars jiggling and bending as it rounds a curve.
“It’s a beautiful sight, isn’t it, Jacob?” says August.
In the case of the circus performers, I tend to think that heaven could well be the view of the train from above, because it is a home and employment during the Depression when both were scarce.
Camel. Well, the name alone works with the stretching muscle. There were camels in the Bible, right? Camel also has the problem of having done something bad that he hasn’t forgiven himself for, and though we never do find out if Camel’s family forgave him, we know they were willing to take him back. All that forgiveness talks seemed to have “Biblical imagery” written all over it.
I think the best parallel to Biblical Jacob comes when Jacob Jankowski realizes that it is up to him to protect the circus animals from the treatment they receive under Uncle Al and August:
I am their shepherd, their protector. And it’s more than a duty. It’s a covenant with my father. While I realize that Jacob is referring to his biological father, I think it’s safe to assume this sentence is meant to carry more meaning than just that.
We’ll see how it goes tonight at the book club meeting. In case I’m totally amiss with my interpretation, I’m bringing a copy of one of the books of circus photos that inspired Sara Gruen to write the book. “Wild, Weird, and Wonderful: The American Circus as Seen by F.W. Glasier.” I had to drive to not-my-usual library to check it out. Extra effort like that should count for something, right?
All I know is, parallel to Biblical Jacob? If she says so.
Good read? Definitely.
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