The Elephant Vanishes

by

Haruki Murakami

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The titular animal of “The Elephant Vanishes.” The elephant was displaced from its native habitat in East Africa twenty-two years before the story takes place and comes to live at the zoo in a Tokyo suburb. By the 1980s, the elephant is elderly, feeble, and lonely, spending months isolated in the town’s abandoned zoo after it closes due to financial problems. The mayor of the town agrees to take ownership of the elephant despite the townspeople’s general view of the animal as a financial burden and safety liability, which they refer to as “the elephant problem.” The elephant does not seem to truly belong anywhere and is generally ignored and mistreated by the townspeople. It is kept shackled in a repurposed school gymnasium and fed leftover lunch scraps. Though alienated, the elephant has a deep friendship with old the zookeeper, Noboru Watanabe, who looked after the animal for many years at the zoo and continues to live alongside it and care for it at the elephant house. The two bear a striking physical resemblance to each other and share an elusive method of communication in private. The elephant is also greatly admired by the narrator, who often comes to the elephant house to watch the animal and its keeper interact. As the story’s title suggests, the elephant mysteriously vanishes along with Watanabe. Beyond the narrator’s observation of the size imbalance between the elephant and its keeper on the night before the disappearance and his speculation that the animal vanished (rather than escaped), there is no conclusive evidence of what happened to the elephant.

The Elephant Quotes in The Elephant Vanishes

The The Elephant Vanishes quotes below are all either spoken by The Elephant or refer to The Elephant. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of The Elephant Vanishes published in 1994.
The Elephant Vanishes Quotes

Without the elephant, something about the place seemed wrong. It looked bigger than it needed to be, blank and empty like some huge dehydrated beast from which the innards had been plucked.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Elephant
Page Number: 309
Explanation and Analysis:

The longer the elephant problem remained unsolved, the more interest the developer had to pay for nothing. Still, simply killing the thing would have been out of the question. If it had been a spider monkey or a bat, they might have been able to get away with it, but the killing of an elephant would have been too hard to cover up, and if it ever came out afterward, the repercussions would have been tremendous.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Elephant, The Mayor, The Townspeople
Page Number: 310
Explanation and Analysis:

On its right rear leg, the elephant wore a solid, heavy-looking steel cuff from which there stretched a thick chain perhaps thirty feet long, and this in turn was securely fastened to a concrete slab. Anyone could see what a sturdy anchor held the beast in place: The elephant could have struggled with all its might for a hundred years and never broken the thing.

Related Symbols: The Shackle
Page Number: 312
Explanation and Analysis:

Riddled as it was with such perplexities and labored circumlocutions, the newspaper article as a whole left but one possible conclusion: The elephant had not escaped. It had vanished. Needless to say, however, neither the newspaper nor the police nor the mayor was willing to admit—openly, at least—that the elephant had vanished.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Elephant, The Mayor, The Townspeople
Page Number: 315
Explanation and Analysis:

It seemed that people were beginning to shove the elephant case into the large category of “unsolvable mysteries.” The disappearance of one old elephant and one old elephant keeper would have no impact on the course of society. […] Amid the endless surge and ebb of everyday life, interest in a missing elephant could not last forever. And so a number of unremarkable months went by, like a tired army marching past a window.

Page Number: 318
Explanation and Analysis:

“I’m finding this a little hard to grasp,” she said softly. “You were carrying on a perfectly normal conversation with me until a couple of minutes ago—at least until the subject of the elephant came up. Then something funny happened. I can’t understand you anymore. Something’s wrong. Is it the elephant? Or are my ears playing tricks on me?”

Related Characters: The Woman at the Party (speaker), The Narrator, The Elephant
Page Number: 322
Explanation and Analysis:

What struck me immediately when I saw the elephant and keeper alone together was the obvious liking they had for each other—something they never displayed when they were out before the public. Their affection was evident in every gesture. It almost seemed as if they stored away their emotions during the day, taking care not to let anyone notice them, and took them out at night when they could be alone.

Page Number: 323
Explanation and Analysis:

It was a mysterious sight. Looking through the vent, I had the feeling that a different, chilling kind of time was flowing through the elephant house—but nowhere else. And it seemed to me, too, that the elephant and the keeper were gladly giving themselves over to this new order that was trying to envelop them—or that had already partially succeeded in enveloping them.

Page Number: 325-326
Explanation and Analysis:

I felt like this a lot after my experience with the vanishing elephant. I would begin to think I wanted to do something, but then I would become incapable of distinguishing between the probable results of doing it and of not doing it. I often get the feeling that things around me have lost their proper balance, though it could be that my perceptions are playing tricks on me. Some kind of balance inside me has broken down since the elephant affair, and maybe that causes external phenomena to strike my eye in a strange way. It’s probably something in me.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Elephant, The Woman at the Party
Page Number: 327
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Elephant Character Timeline in The Elephant Vanishes

The timeline below shows where the character The Elephant appears in The Elephant Vanishes. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Elephant Vanishes
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Order, Perception, and Imbalance Theme Icon
The narrator recalls the day he found out that the elephant housed in his town had disappeared. He goes through his typical morning routine of waking... (full context)
Order, Perception, and Imbalance Theme Icon
Humans vs. Animals Theme Icon
The narrator studies the article meticulously, learning that the elephant’s absence had been noticed the day before (May 18) by men from the school lunch... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Modernity Theme Icon
Humans vs. Animals Theme Icon
...of how the narrator’s town, an affluent suburb in 1980s Tokyo, came to acquire the elephant. When the town’s zoo closes due to financial hardship and the land is sold to... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Order, Perception, and Imbalance Theme Icon
Modernity Theme Icon
Humans vs. Animals Theme Icon
In the present, the narrator remembers his ongoing obsession with the “elephant problem,” noting that he kept a scrapbook of newspaper articles and attended town council debates... (full context)
Humans vs. Animals Theme Icon
...school’s gym is moved to a cleared plot of land and established as the makeshift elephant house. The narrator recalls the dedication ceremony for the building, including a speech by the... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
The elderly zookeeper, who bears a striking physical resemblance to the elephant, lives in a small room attached to the elephant house. The keeper is lonely and... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Order, Perception, and Imbalance Theme Icon
Modernity Theme Icon
After the town takes ownership of the elephant, a year passes before the animal and its keeper vanish. The narrator is captivated by... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Modernity Theme Icon
While the mayor assures the townspeople that the “malicious act” of stealing the elephant will be punished, members of the town’s opposition party are skeptical, believing the elephant’s disappearance... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Order, Perception, and Imbalance Theme Icon
Modernity Theme Icon
Humans vs. Animals Theme Icon
Meanwhile, the narrator obsessively follows newspaper reports and editorial cartoons about the elephant, filling multiple scrapbooks with clippings. He becomes frustrated with the reports that are all “either... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Order, Perception, and Imbalance Theme Icon
Modernity Theme Icon
In late September, about four months after the elephant and keeper vanished, the narrator recalls a misty night during which he feels that the... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Order, Perception, and Imbalance Theme Icon
...topics until the narrator decides to take the conversation deeper by telling her about the elephant. He believes he may have been looking for a good listener with whom to share... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Humans vs. Animals Theme Icon
The narrator realizes that the woman can sense that there is more to the elephant story than he is telling her. He admits that he is having trouble articulating the... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Order, Perception, and Imbalance Theme Icon
...(the night before the disappearance), he observed a sudden difference in the appearances of the elephant and its keeper. From his perspective, the balance between the two creatures had seemed to... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Order, Perception, and Imbalance Theme Icon
...way. He confesses that he often feels this way in the aftermath of the vanishing elephant—that things have lost their “proper balance” and that something inside him has fundamentally shifted after... (full context)
Alienation, Connection, and Unity Theme Icon
Order, Perception, and Imbalance Theme Icon
...story by observing that the media and the townspeople seem to have forgotten about the elephant and its keeper, that the two have vanished completely, and that they are never coming... (full context)