Before the elephant vanishes, it is kept in a repurposed school gym that serves as the town’s makeshift elephant house. Whereas zoo animals are typically kept behind a barrier and given a relatively large area of land to roam, the elephant in the story is shackled to a concrete slab inside the elephant house. The narrator notes that the metal cuff is so strong that the elephant could never break free of it no matter how hard it tried. The shackle around the elephant’s ankle symbolizes humanity’s tendency to oppress and exert control over animals. Although the elephant is already held inside a building secured behind a gate, the townspeople’s paranoia over the potential safety risk that the giant animal could pose if it were to escape results in this inhumane treatment of preventing the elephant from simply moving around. In spite of this effort to control the elephant, the shackle is ironically found still locked on the floor of the elephant house after the animal and its keeper vanish—perhaps suggesting the ultimate futility of human beings’ attempts to exert control over animals and the natural world.
The Shackle Quotes in The Elephant Vanishes
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.