In “The Elephant Vanishes,” the titular elephant is a displaced animal who is largely misunderstood and mistreated by the community in which it is forced to integrate. As a captive zoo animal, the elephant has no agency over its life—its whereabouts, housing, diet, and care are all placed under the control of a town that largely regards the elephant as a waste of practical resources. Rather than being treated with respect and proper care, the elephant’s primary role for the community is to advance the mayor’s political agenda upon its arrival and serve as a brief distraction after it vanishes. The only human to fully understand and care for the elephant is its keeper, who disappears along with it. Murakami contrasts the community’s indifference and disdain for the elephant with the zookeeper’s deep, loving relationship with the animal in order to criticize humankind’s tendency to control and manipulate animals for their own gain.
The elephant’s journey from the zoo to being adopted by the town is one that is motivated by political gain rather than genuine concern for the animal. The mayor aims to use the elephant’s presence in order to boost the town’s reputation, exemplifying the human instinct to exert control over animals for their own benefit. The elephant is taken in by the town under the pretext that its home (the town’s zoo) has closed and been taken over by high-rise developers. This reality in and of itself reflects the community’s indifference toward animals, as the zoo failed to thrive financially and most of the town is in favor of the urban development usurping it. The elephant “stayed alone in the decaying zoo for nearly four months with nothing to do—not that it had had anything to do before,” exemplifying the tragedy and emptiness of its life spent in captivity for human entertainment.
Before the elephant’s arrival, the mayor spins its presence into somewhat of a political platform. He argues that the elephant could “become the town’s symbol” and that “the adoption of a homeless elephant was a move that people could look upon favorably.” Despite this attempted exploitation, the townspeople view the elephant as a burden and soon forget about the animal after giving it a cursory welcome at the elephant-house dedication ceremony. After the elephant vanishes, the mystery of the event serves as a short-lived scandal in the town before quickly fading into irrelevancy. Neither the media nor the townspeople show genuine concern for the elephant’s whereabouts and wellbeing, suggesting that its significance in the town was more aligned with that of an inanimate attraction and less with a living creature.
By contrast, the elephant’s relationship with the keeper is one based on mutual respect and a deep valuation of one another. The close friendship that the narrator witnesses between the pair is a stark contrast to how the elephant is treated by outside society, suggesting that humanity’s inclination to either overlook or control animals is anything but natural. From a vantage point on a nearby cliff, the narrator is able to see into the elephant-house and observe the tight-knit bond that the elephant and its creatures share. Both are elderly and ostracized away from the community, with the keeper possessing the same “darkly ruddy, sunburned look” and ears that “stuck out on either side with disturbing prominence” as the elephant. This parallel between the two old creatures positions them as equals.
Despite being housed haphazardly in an appropriated school gymnasium, held captive by a shackle bolted to a concrete slab, and fed a meager diet of leftover school lunch scraps, the elephant is well cared for by the zookeeper. Beyond physical similarities, there is a deep understanding between the two—the narrator notes that “you could sense their closeness in every gesture and look.” This close relationship is the antithesis of how the elephant is regarded by the mayor, townspeople, and media—outsiders seemingly only concerned with the positive benefits the animal could reap for them and the entertaining, short-lived drama of its disappearance.
As the story unspools, Murakami uplifts the zookeeper as a role model of sorts, praising his quiet humility, genuine care, and affection toward the elephant, which exemplifies a mutual sense of respect between different species. Murakami juxtaposes this intimate companionship between the elephant and its keeper with the town’s mistreatment and neglect of the elephant in order to demonstrate how the inclination of humanity to control animals is inherently immoral and motivated by political power, financial gain, and entertainment value.
Humans vs. Animals ThemeTracker
Humans vs. Animals Quotes in The Elephant Vanishes
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.
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.
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.
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.