Our View From Here

Perspectives of Five Women

Troubling characterization

on April 26, 2011


This week, we’re exploring themes presented in Sara Gruen’s novel, Water for Elephants. Let me start off by saying I enjoyed this book immensely. It was also nice to read a real book again, as opposed to reading it on my Kindle. My Kindle is probably one of my most favorite possessions, but despite its convenience, I do miss the tactile connection to a book from time to time. Nicole lent me her copy of Water for Elephants and I enjoyed holding a book and turning its pages again. But enough of my tangential musings. On to the book!

One thing that struck me about the book is the character of August, the Superintendent of Animals and husband to the beautiful Marlena. Through the course of the novel, we witness August’s mercurial temper and violent tendencies toward man and beast. He is easy to hate, as he beats the circus’ elephant and treats circus workers with the utmost cruelty when they cross him. We find out later that August is a paranoid schizophrenic.

I had a bit of trouble with this character trait. Mental illness isn’t terribly well understood or tolerated now, let alone in the early 1930s when this story takes place. By explaining away August’s violence tendencies as a result of his paranoid schizophrenia, I felt Gruen just compounds the stereotype that those with mental illness are unstable and dangerous. While of course this may ring true for some, millions with a mental illness diagnosis are well-adjusted members of society with no penchant for violence. Though Gruen does make August charming at various points throughout the story, early in the story, the reader learns to not trust August and grows to hate him. While he makes a fine villain for the story, I was somewhat troubled by the implications of Gruen’s characterization. Unless she was just trying to portray August as he would have been perceived in the 1930s. Entirely possible, but the end result is the same.

Despite my discomfort with Gruen’s treatment of August, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The characters and situations are interesting and Gruen’s use of time enhances the complexity of the story. I could write more, but I want to be mindful of my fellow bloggers. They will be discussing their impressions of Water for Elephants as well this week and I want to be sure they have plenty of material left to talk about.


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