“The Elephant Vanishes” is the story of an elderly zoo elephant who mysteriously vanishes after being taken in by a suburban Japanese community when the town’s zoo closes, as well as this event’s lasting effects on the story’s narrator. The narrative shifts back in forth in time between the present (post-disappearance) and the past (pre-disappearance).
Before the elephant vanishes, the mayor’s initial decision to take ownership of the animal is met with opposition from the townspeople due to financial and safety concerns. After moving into the makeshift elephant house in town, the elephant is largely ignored by the community. The elephant leads a lonely existence shackled to a concrete slab, its only solace being the close friendship it shares with the old zookeeper who cares for the animal. The narrator is fascinated by the mysterious bond and system of communication that the elephant and its keeper share, and often peers into the elephant house to observe how the pair interacts in private.
One day, the narrator reads the morning paper and finds that the elephant and keeper have inexplicably vanished from the elephant house without warning. He realizes that he was likely the last person to see the pair before they disappeared, as he had been watching them from outside the elephant house the night before. The narrator becomes obsessed with the disappearance and, due to the lack of evidence suggesting a break-in or an escape, believes that the elephant must have vanished into thin air. This troubling conclusion frustrates the narrator and alienates him from his community, which believes the media’s narrative that it was, in fact, an escape. The townspeople soon forget about the elephant, but the narrator remains fixated on the mystifying event.
A few months later, the narrator meets a woman at a business party to whom he confesses his perspective on the elephant’s disappearance. He admits that he believes the elephant and keeper vanished, and that he was probably the last one to have seen them. The narrator also reveals a bizarre moment that he witnessed: on the night before the disappearance, he looked into the elephant house and saw that the size difference between the elephant and the keeper had somehow diminished. The narrator recalls feeling an unsettling shift in reality in that moment. The woman is confused and put off by the narrator’s strange account, and the two never meet again.
The narrator continues to be consumed by the inexplicable change in size between the elephant and the keeper, as well as by their strange disappearance. Although everyone else seems to have easily forgotten about the case, the narrator feels that his own perceptions can no longer be trusted. A sense of chaotic imbalance has disrupted the natural order and overtaken his sense of normality in the wake of the elephant who vanished.