Elephant

by

Raymond Carver

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Elephant Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When the narrator’s brother, Billy, asks to borrow money, the narrator knows he should say no. But he doesn’t want Billy to lose his house, and besides, Billy swears he’ll pay it all back.
The narrator feels obligated to support his family, even though he knows it’s wiser not to lend money that he’s not sure Billy can pay back. Since Billy is at risk of losing his house, the stakes of this loan are high, and the narrator seems to feel that he can make a real difference by taking a risk on lending the money to potentially help Billy keep his home.
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Last year, Billy got laid off from the plant where he worked, and now he’s spent through his savings, exhausted his unemployment, and lost his insurance. His wife is diabetic, and he’s been pawning his things trying to make ends meet. So the narrator sends him $500. He feels that he has to do it.
Billy’s job at the plant was clearly providing him a middle-class life, as he owns a home and even had money saved before he was laid off. But the layoff has been destabilizing—it’s led to a desperate financial situation in which his wife can’t get medical care without him pawning his belongings to pay the cost. Billy’s situation shows that a simple job loss that wasn’t even his fault can be enough to bump someone from the middle class, emphasizing how precarious the lives of middle- and working-class people are.
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The narrator tells Billy to pay the money back not to him, but to their mother, who is “poor and greedy.” For years, the narrator has been sending her money every month, so he tells both her and Billy that he’s not going to send that money for a while, and Billy will pay it instead to take care of his debt to the narrator. Their mother is suspicious, so the narrator promises that if Billy falls through, he’ll still send her money.
The narrator’s attitude towards his mother is clearly resentful: rather than giving her money happily out of love, he calls her “poor and greedy.” This gives readers a clue about how heavily his family burdens weigh on him. The narrator’s mother also notably seems to lack compassion for Billy and the narrator’s financial situations—rather than being concerned about whether Billy will lose his house or whether the narrator can afford to support both her and Billy, she seems simply concerned about her own well-being, asking nervously about how she’ll get her money if Billy falls through. This demonstrates the extent to which financial concern dominates the family’s relationships.
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But in the next three months, Billy only pays her a fraction of the money, so the narrator has to keep sending her checks. When the narrator follows up with Billy, Billy says he’s a “goner”—he’s selling his house, he’s already pawned all his belongings except the table and chairs, and his tax refund got seized. He wishes he could sell his blood, but alas, the narrator’s money is gone.
When the narrator follows up about the money Billy hasn’t repaid, he’s met with a wild tale of woe. The story never reveals whether or not what Billy says is true—whether he has really lost his house and all his belongings and his tax refund, or whether he’s simply playing the narrator for sympathy. It might be a bit of both—clearly, the narrator’s family feels entitled to lean on him, but they also do seem to all be experiencing one kind of hardship or another, as the story will go on to show.
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Every day, the narrator works hard, comes home, and collapses into his armchair, too tired to even turn on the TV. He can’t feel too sorry for Billy because he’s got so many issues of his own: in addition to supporting his mother, he’s sending money to a few other people. One is his ex-wife, and another is his daughter and her two kids.
This passage makes clear that the narrator can’t really afford to support his whole family, even as they all demand his help. He’s not a wealthy man (he seems to be lower middle-class, as Billy was before losing his job), and working enough to support his family is physically exhausting to him. Having so many troubles of his own makes him less empathetic to Billy, since he doesn’t feel like he has the bandwidth to worry about Billy on top of all his own problems. Sending money seems to be all he has room for.
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His daughter’s husband refuses to work, which enrages the narrator—he once threatened to kill his son-in-law, but that was back when the narrator was drinking. Lately, his daughter sends letters asking for money to hold her over until she can find a job herself, so the narrator sends the money. He’s lucky compared to her and compared to his other relatives. He has a job, after all.
While the narrator currently suffers from the dependency that all his family members have on him, he used to suffer from a different kind of dependency: alcoholism. He admits that drinking made him violent, which hints at a possible reason that the narrator feels so obligated to help his family: perhaps he’s making amends. It’s also noteworthy that the narrator is so enraged by his son-in-law’s refusal to work. While the narrator may feel guilty about his past drunken behavior, he at least takes pride in earning a living and supporting the people he loves.
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The narrator’s son needs money, too. He’s in college in New Hampshire—the first in their family to go beyond high school—but he’s up to his ears in debt. After his son hit his credit limit financing a year abroad in Germany, the narrator started sending money—his son threatened to start dealing drugs or rob a bank if he didn’t. So what else could the narrator do? He already has “plenty” on his conscience.
The narrator’s son attempts to rise in economic position through education, yet this pursuit leaves him with an enormous amount of debt. Though it may be ridiculous that he threatens to deal drugs or rob a bank, it nonetheless suggests that he is out of options—he sees no legitimate way to get out of debt and join the middle class. The narrator admits straightforwardly here that he’s supporting his son out of guilt over his past actions—he has “plenty” on his conscience (possibly related to drunken behavior), so he feels obligated to try to keep his son afloat.
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As his financial obligations continue to grow, the narrator takes out a loan so he can continue to send his family money. He worries night and day, and he loses sleep over his growing debt. To save money he cuts back on personal expenses: he stops eating out and going to the movie theatre. He doesn’t buy himself new clothes, or get his teeth fixed, or fix the hole in his shoe.
This passage makes clear that supporting his family is taking a huge toll on the narrator. Sending the money isn’t an easy way to clear his conscience: it affects every part of his life, causing him great distress. The narrator clearly can’t support this many people comfortably, but he also hasn’t put a stop to it, which suggests that whatever is motivating him (perhaps his guilt) is incredibly powerful.
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Fed up with his family’s demands, the narrator fantasizes about moving to Australia. He writes his family letters in which he threatens to quit his job, change his name, and move across the world. 
The narrator thinks about his family’s dependency in starkly black-and-white terms: he can either submit to their demands or flee them entirely. Australia becomes a symbol of freedom for the narrator, a place that is far away from his family and his problems. But it’s also not a realistic escape, and it doesn’t reflect a realistic view of the situation: there are plenty of less extreme ways to stop paying his family so much money than moving to Australia.
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The narrator doesn’t think his family takes his threat to move to Australia very seriously. His mother writes him back first, saying that she’ll go out and look for work as soon as the swelling in her legs goes down. She’s seventy-five years old, but she can still wait tables. The narrator responds, telling her not to be silly. He’s happy to help her by continuing to send money.
The narrator’s mother is old and has a medical condition that prevents her from working. Yet, without the support of the narrator, she would be forced to wait tables to survive. This hints at how bad it would be if the narrator really did move to Australia—his family would likely be in a lot of trouble without his support, even if he’s not always happy to give it. 
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Next, the narrator gets a letter from his daughter. She knows that her dad needs a break, so she decides to take a job at a salmon cannery. She plans to work the twelve to fourteen hour-a-day shifts, seven days a week. She’ll need to find a babysitter willing to work long hours, though, and she’ll need to buy special boots and clothes.
The narrator’s daughter understands the burden she’s placing on her dad, and she seems to genuinely want to alleviate it. But her best option is a bad one: working long hours at a grueling job for low wages while also having to pay for childcare. It’s pretty clear that this job won’t lead to upward mobility. In order to earn money, the narrator’s daughter first needs to spend money on clothes and childcare, which highlights the trap in which working-class people often find themselves.
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The narrator’s son responds melodramatically, threatening to end his life to not be a burden on his father. His plan to deal drugs won’t work, he claims, because he’s allergic to cocaine. He includes with the letter a photo of himself standing under a big tree in Germany.
The narrator’s son got a college education but still has no clear pathway out of debt and into a good career, showing how trapped many members of the working class are. But here, the narrator’s son also seems a bit melodramatic and manipulative. Nonetheless, the narrator plans to keep sending money, which shows just how powerful his guilt must be.
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On a beautiful day in early May, as the weather is beginning to warm, the narrator sits in his home with the windows open and radio playing. The phone rings, and the narrator begins to sweat when he answers and hears his brother’s voice. They start talking, and the narrator tells his brother about his and his family’s financial hardship. In the middle of the conversation the narrator wonders who will pay for the phone call.
The narrator’s relationship with his family is hitting a low point: he can’t even hear his brother’s voice without sweating from stress and thinking about money. He seems unconcerned with his brother’s well-being—instead, his thoughts are consumed by worry and resentment.
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The narrator runs out of things to say. He stares out the window, waiting—he knows what’s about to happen. And then it does: his brother asks him for a thousand dollars. Bill collectors hammer at his door, he says, and threaten to take his house away. “Help me, brother,” he pleads.
Billy’s situation seems to have deteriorated, despite the narrator’s previous loan. That loan was supposed to keep Billy’s life from falling apart, but instead things have just gotten worse, meaning that Billy is back for more oney. The narrator clearly suffers because he has to spend so much on his family, but Billy is suffering, too.
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The narrator reminds Billy that he never paid their mother the money that he owes her. Why would he lend him even more money? They’re all going under, and they’re pulling the narrator down with them. But Billy promises that he’ll be good for the money this time. He’s got a job lined up; he’ll have to drive fifty miles roundtrip, but it’s worth it. He proposes that they should exchange checks, and that the narrator should wait two months before cashing his. The narrator laments that he’s “carrying a very heavy load these days,” but he finally agrees to his brother’s proposal.
The narrator does not focus on the fact that he’s helping members of his family who are in need, rather he laments that they are pulling him down with them. His remark about “carrying a heavy load” foreshadows a dream that he is about to have, and it further exemplifies the bitter feelings he has about his family. Finally, that Billy considers a job with a fifty mile commute a good opportunity suggests how desperate he is, and how few opportunities exist for him.
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The narrator waits the two months to cash his brother’s check. But right before he cashes the check, Billy writes and tells him that his job fell through at the last minute. He doesn’t have any money, and he begs the narrator to wait a while longer before cashing the check.
Just like last time, the narrator’s loan cannot stop Billy’s life from spiraling downwards. This shows just how hard it is for people to make a life—Billy is fortunate to have a relative to rely on, but not even that can help him.
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Then, during her first night of work at the cannery, someone breaks into the narrator’s daughter’s trailer and steals all her furniture. She doesn’t even have a bed for her children to sleep in. Even though he doesn’t have a job or any responsibilities, her husband was nowhere to be found when the crime was committed, and he still can’t be found. She hopes that he’s “at the bottom of a river.” She asks the narrator for money to replace the stolen furniture.
The narrator’s daughter had hoped to get ahead through her grueling labor at the cannery. Though she tried to earn money on her own, she continues to be hindered by forces outside of her control: it’s not her fault that someone burglarized her trailer, but now she’s even further in debt than she was before she started working. Her story emphasizes the difficulty working-class Americans face when trying to rise in economic position. 
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The narrator’s son asks the narrator to pay for a plane ticket to Germany— it’s essential that he move to Europe. He can’t stand to live in America any longer. He calls America a “materialist society” where people can’t “hold a conversation unless money figured in it some way.”
While the narrator’s son’s complaints about American materialism ring a little hollow (all he does is ask his dad for money—they never seem to have any other interactions), he’s also hitting on something that’s true. The narrator has been so consumed by his financial dramas that he has forgotten what’s at the core of family: love and support. Money has infected the narrator’s life, and as the story’s ending shows, he would benefit from remembering that other things are important, too.
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The narrator does not hear from his ex-wife. They both know how things stand, so there’s no reason for them to speak.
The narrator seems to be on the hook for alimony payments as a part of their divorce. Since he’s legally bound to pay her, they have no reason to speak—she doesn’t have to beg him for money every month like his other family members.
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The narrator’s mother can’t afford to buy support hose or have her hair tinted. She thought that this would be the year when she could finally save some money, but it doesn’t seem that way anymore. The narrator continues to send checks in the mail, holding his breath and waiting.
Though she’s ill and can’t work, there’s no government support system in place that would allow the narrator’s mother to save an adequate amount of money. As a consequence, she’s forced to be dependent on the narrator, which neither she nor the narrator likes.
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One night, the narrator has a dream in which he relives a childhood memory of riding atop his father’s shoulders. Though he’s high off the ground, the narrator feels no fear because his father has a firm grip on his ankles. Secure in his father’s grasp, the narrator lets go of his father’s head and extends his arms out on both sides. While riding like this he pretends that his father is an elephant.
In this dream, the narrator experiences a reprieve. Instead of carrying all the burdens of his family’s financial hardship on his own shoulders, the narrator rides on his father’s shoulders, feeling a sense of joy and safety. He compares his father to an elephant, which becomes a symbol of security and support: someone who can bear the weight of others in order to make them feel free. Having this dream helps the narrator appreciate the importance of his role, as the story will go on to show.
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When the narrator wakes up, he gets up to use the bathroom and decides to stay awake, since he has to get ready for work soon. He  lies down in bed to think about his father, whom he hasn’t thought about in a long time.
The narrator remembers his father as a man who could bear a heavy load. That he hasn’t thought about his father in a long time suggests that the narrator has forgotten what his father provided for his family. Remembering his father spurs a reframing of the narrator’s thoughts about his family’s dependency, as will soon be demonstrated.
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The narrator falls asleep again, having another dream. This one begins with an idyllic scene of his family on a picnic. The dream takes place before the narrator’s divorce—his wife and small children are sitting on a blanket by a river, eating potato chips. The narrator feels a sense of satisfaction and well-being.
This idyllic, pastoral scene depicts a point in the narrator’s life when he felt love for his family and when he was happy to provide for them. These feelings are what make the narrator experience satisfaction.
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Suddenly the dream shifts, and the narrator relives a time when he drunkenly kicked in his son’s car window, then threatened to kill him. He wakes with his heart racing and reflects that drinking in the dream was “the thing that scared him.” He calls it the worst thing that could have happened—“rock bottom.” Compared to that, everything else is a picnic.
This dream depicts a time when the narrator’s dependency on alcohol had intense consequences for his family. It’s a reversal: up until now, everyone has been dependent on the narrator, but here the narrator is the person with a dependency problem. This sets up the possibility for the narrator to develop an empathetic understanding of his family’s current financial hardship: he was at rock bottom then, and they are at rock bottom now. Finally, this scene explains the narrator’s feelings of intense guilt; he wrecked his family’s lives because of his alcohol addiction, so he perhaps feels compelled to support them financially in order to make up for what he did to the family.
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After he wakes up from his second dream the narrator sits at his kitchen table, has some coffee, and thinks about Australia. This time, however, he thinks about how it must have sounded to his family when he threatened to change his name and move. He recognizes that they were probably shocked and afraid at first, and then they must have laughed. Thinking about their laughter, the narrator laughs too.
The narrator begins to reconsider his notion of fleeing to Australia. For the first time he thinks empathetically—he sees things from his family’s perspective and realizes that it’s mean to threaten to cut them off, since he's the only person they can depend on, and his life is objectively more stable than theirs. Their laughter, though, hints at the absurdity of the threat in the first place. The narrator has never been to Australia and he has no reason to go there—cutting them off and moving was always an empty threat, which he realizes everyone else must know.
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The narrator realizes that he doesn’t want to go to Australia after all—he’s comfortable where he is. This realization makes him feel better. He pours himself some more coffee, and although he typically takes milk and there isn’t any, he doesn’t care. He can go without milk in his coffee for a day.
The narrator realizes that his black-and-white way of viewing his family’s dependency has been wrong all along. He failed to consider the possibility of reframing his own understanding of the situation; instead of choosing between submitting to his family’s demands or escaping them, he now sees that he can simply be happy to support his family through their difficult times, even if that means giving up small things like milk in his coffee.
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The narrator finishes his coffee and walks outside. He doesn’t bother to lock his door, despite what happened to his daughter, because he recognizes that the things in his house are expendable. He doesn’t actually need anything in there. He has a valuable television, but the idea of watching it sickens him. He’d be happy if someone stole it.
The narrator has reassessed his values and found that material possessions are less vital than he previously believed. He can go without watching T.V. or fixing the hole in his shoe if it means that he can continue to support his family.
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The narrator decides to walk to work. Not only would he save some money on gas, but also he’d be able to enjoy the nice day. As he walks, he thinks once again about his family. He hopes that his son made it to Germany and found happiness there. He hopes that his daughter is doing okay, and he decides to write her a letter to wish her well. His thoughts turn to his mother, and he feels lucky that she remains in good health.
The narrator’s attitude toward his family is no longer permeated with calculations about how much money they owe him. Rather, he recognizes the love that he has for them and genuinely wishes them well. He realizes that dependency is not necessarily a negative type of relationship—he wants to support his family through their difficult moments without bitterness or resentment because he loves them and because it brings his life meaning.
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The narrator’s path takes him next to the highway. He thinks about his brother and wishes him well. It doesn’t matter if his brother can’t pay the narrator back in time—he will when he gets the money. Finally, the narrator thinks fondly about his ex-wife. He remembers all the love he used to have for her and wishes her well too. Things could be a lot worse, he realizes. People’s luck has gone south, but things are bound to change soon.
The narrator’s recognition that his brother doesn’t need to pay him back reinforces that his attitude toward his family’s dependency has changed. Now that he has a more empathetic view of his family, his own problems no longer seem so bad. He also seems to have changed his notions of why his family is dependent in the first place. His resentment towards their needs suggested a view that their hardship was their fault, but now he seems to see that it’s simply bad luck, which allows him feel grateful for his own life and think about repairing the family’s relationships.
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The narrator pauses in front of Smitty’s, an old, boarded-up café. He stands still and lifts his arms up at his sides, level with his shoulders. While he’s standing like that a coworker of his, George, pulls into the parking lot of the café and tells the narrator to get into the car.
The pose that the narrator takes in the parking lot of Smitty’s is the same one that he took in his dream, when he was a child on top of his father’s shoulders. He’s letting go of the negativity that has characterized his relationships with his family and remembering a moment when dependency was positive and fulfilling. Rather than trying to escape, he’s accepting his role as a provider and finding a sense of balance within that role.
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The two begin driving towards work. George is driving fast, as if they are running late, but they aren’t late. The narrator tells George that they have lots of time before they need to get to work. 
The narrator demonstrates a new balance between life and work. Enjoying the time he has away from work will make him feel less miserable and less like he needs to escape.
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George tells the narrator that he recently borrowed sone money to have his car overhauled. He speeds down the road, toward the mountains. The narrator fastens his seatbelt and tells George to drive faster. George floors it, and the two streak down the road in a big, unpaid-for car.
George overhauled his car by going into debt. While this isn’t necessarily a responsible financial decision, it doesn’t make the narrator uneasy, judgmental, or resentful. In contrast to his old attitude towards his family’s financial woes, the narrator is now able to enjoy the fruits of George’s recklessness and let go of the worries about money that were ruining his life.
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