In “The Elephant Vanishes,” Murakami recounts how a Tokyo suburb deals with the improbable disappearance of an old elephant that has been left in the town’s care. Through the narrator—the last person to see the animal before its strange disappearance—as well as the elderly zookeeper and the elephant itself, Murakami spins a story of isolation and meaningful connection. The central conflict in “The Elephant Vanishes” lies in its characters’ inability to form deep bonds with one another. Despite the mayor’s attempt to unite the community around the elephant, the townspeople ultimately ostracize the elephant and its keeper even before they vanish. The narrator’s obsession with the pair’s disappearance isolates him from the outside world and hinders his relationship with his romantic interest. This seemingly contagious sense of alienation that affects various characters throughout story serves to highlight the mystery and intangibility of the genuine unity that the narrator observes between the elephant and its keeper.
The story takes place in a suburb plagued by social unrest and disharmony, as the townspeople are suspicious of the mayor’s political motivations and unaccepting of the elephant and the zookeeper. This distinct lack of unity contrasts with the deep connection shared between the elephant and its keeper. When the town’s zoo closes and the land is sold to a high-rise developer, both neighboring zoos and the townspeople view the elephant as a liability and economic burden. An “opposition party” rises up to protest the town’s adoption of the elephant, reflecting the underlying social dissonance of the community.
The mayor’s effort to make the elephant into the town’s symbol fails to foster a sense of unity, as the narrator recalls that the empty platitudes (such as a poem dedication) given during the elephant house dedication ceremony are “virtually meaningless.” The elephant, bound by a shackle on its ankle, remains listless and indifferent to the townspeople’s contrived displays of appreciation. The narrator’s analysis of the dedication ceremony proves to be accurate, as the town quickly forgets about the elephant and zookeeper, relegating them to a secluded life in the elephant house. The mayor’s attempts to unite the town around the elephant’s presence fail, and the animal and its keeper are left to cultivate a friendship in lieu of the community that shuns them.
The alienation of the elephant and the keeper by the townspeople paradoxically makes them the only two characters in the story to find true companionship, as the pair’s mutual ostracization fosters a connection between them. Their bond reinforces the notion that meaningful relationships are organic and effortless, and that attempting to force unity only results in further alienation. The townspeople generally perceive the elephant and its keeper as old and feeble, and the pair are largely forgotten by the community. The elephant is shackled inside the old school gym and subsists on leftover scraps of school lunches, while the keeper is a “reticent, lonely-looking old man” who the town’s children “never really warmed to.”
In spite of how the town treats the elephant and its keeper, the pair are able to find solace in each other’s company. At one point, the narrator observes that the elephant and keeper are completely in sync and have the ability to communicate nonverbally. The pair are so fully integrated with one another that the narrator even notices uncanny physical similarities between the two, pointing out the large ears and leathery skin that they share.
The narrator finds a spot from which he can see into the elephant house and becomes captivated by their tight-knit relationship. On the night before the disappearance, the narrator looks into the house to see that the physical size difference between the elephant and keeper has inexplicably diminished. The narrator is left to believe that either the elephant shrunk, or the zookeeper grew until the pair were the same size. This seemingly magical event can be interpreted as a physical manifestation of the emotional intimacy between the elephant and its keeper, as their mysterious bond subverts what natural laws and human perception deem possible.
In the aftermath of the elephant and keeper’s vanishing, the narrator’s fixation on their mysterious relationship and the circumstances of their disappearance leads to alienation in his personal life. His inability to find a kindred spirit in his recollection of the event reflects the stark contrast between forced social connection and the true unity that he observed between the elephant and its keeper. The narrator becomes possessed by the disappearance, saving every article he can find on the event in scrapbooks. He identifies with the alienation that the elephant and keeper faced and becomes isolated in his obsession, as he was likely the sole witness of the private bond they shared and the last one to see the pair before they vanished.
Later, when the narrator meets an attractive, single woman at a business event, he attempts to move beyond their superficial conversation by confiding in her about seeing the diminished size difference between the elephant and the keeper on the night before their disappearance. The narrator regrets this, however, when the woman reacts with confusion and silence. He realizes, “I never should have told her about the elephant. It was not the kind of story you could tell freely to anyone.” This moment of misunderstanding extinguishes the blossoming relationship between the narrator and the woman entirely—the two awkwardly wrap up their conversation, go their separate ways after the party, and never meet again. The narrator’s sense of regret suggests the inherent complexity of human connections and the futility of trying to force depth and trust in social connections.
After this encounter, the narrator realizes that everyone else has forgotten about the elephant and that no one, including himself, will ever fully comprehend his uniquely intimate experience of the event. He is isolated by a lack of understanding, and by his own distrust of his memories and perceptions. Unable to foster a similar sense of intimacy in his own personal life, the narrator is haunted by the unanswerable nature of the elephant’s relationship with the keeper. Murakami uses the alienation of the pair from the town, and later that of the narrator from the world around him, to emphasize the intrinsic value and mysterious nature of the deep camaraderie that the narrator observes between the elephant and its keeper.
Alienation, Connection, and Unity ThemeTracker
Alienation, Connection, and Unity 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.
“The most important point is unity,” I explained. “Even the most beautifully designed item dies if it is out of balance with its surroundings. Unity of design, unity of color, unity of function: This is what today’s kit-chin needs above all else.”
“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?”
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.
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.