In Sarah Gruen’s novel, Water for Elephants, the character “Uncle Al” plays a very
minor yet significant role. Uncle Al’s character is truly the backbone of the Benzeni Brothers and
essentially, the embodiment of American capitalism. This essay will illustrate how Uncle Al’s
character is reflective of the American capitalism ideology by examining the indifferent
relationship he shares with the workers and animals, his unregulated business tactics and the
social stratification of his circus.
To begin with, Uncle Al’s main priorities are for the Benzini Brothers Most
Spectacular Show On Earth to attract as many ‘rubes’ as possible, to outdo The Ringling
Brothers and for his performers and animals to take the stage at all costs. Uncle Al
attempts to make his circus “the most spectacular show on earth” by creating elaborate
and ostentatious acts with the hope of running out of tickets and overflowing the
bleachers with rubes. Uncle Al’s behavior is largely characterized by a capitalist
mentality. One of the main goals of capitalism is to create commodities at affordable
prices for people to buy. Similarly, the performers and animals in Uncle Al’s circus can
be identified as commodities because their skills are being sold in exchange for
entertainment and profit.
The Ringling Brothers are also seen as the leaders of the circus world and represent
strong competition for Uncle Al’s Benzini Brothers. For instance, before Jacob is first
introduced to Uncle Al, Camel warns, “Whatever you do, don’t mention Ringling in front
of Uncle Al” (Gruen, 2006, p. 52). Uncle Al has an unyielding desire for the Benzini
Brothers to be the greatest circus on the planet, hence the title of his circus: “The Benzini
Brother’s Most Spectacular Show On Earth.” In similar fashion, the conditions created by
UNCLE AL: A SYMBOL OF AMERICAN CAPITALISM 3
capitalism often result in keen competition in the marketplace. Companies and
corporations compete to provide the finest products at the “best” prices for people to buy.
The entertainment business (traveling circuses) can be recognized as the “marketplace”
and Uncle Al’s circus can be described as a “company,” trying to compete with other
circuses, such as The Ringling Brothers, to provide the ultimate form of entertainment,
which will result in the most profit.
Furthermore, Uncle Al’s character is very uncaring towards the workers,
performers and animals. He shows little to no compassion for his staff and animals even
while they are in severe pain or suffering from illness. For example, when Jacob told
Uncle Al that Silver Star’s foot was foundering and that the horse needed rest, Uncle Al
did not display any remorse and demanded Jacob to heal Silver Star: “Fix this horse. Nine
bucks a week. Lose this horse and you’re out of here” (Gruen, 2006, p. 74). Similarly,
the American capitalism system expects its workers to constantly be producing goods at
an accelerated pace. Any sort of conduct or...