As in other works of magical realist literature, “The Elephant Vanishes” features surreal situations that seem to disrupt the fundamental natural order. The titular elephant, already a wild animal at odds with its surroundings in a suburb of Tokyo, appears to physically shrink in relation to its keeper just before the two vanish. Witnessing this surreal shift in balance has a profound effect on the narrator, who feels that his own life has been irrevocably disrupted in the wake of the pair’s disappearance. The imbalance of the elephant and its keeper directly parallels the narrator’s internal imbalance, highlighting the conflict between humanity’s gravitation toward order versus the unreliability of perception and reality.
Prior to the elephant and its keeper mysteriously vanishing, the narrator centers his life around routine and order. The narrator is rigidly tied to his daily rituals, noting that his alarm clock wakes him up at the exact minute of 6:13, and that “I’m one of those people who read the paper from beginning to end, in order.” The narrator’s routines are implied to be an anchor of balance and meaning in a life that is otherwise empty—his career is “not the kind of work that takes a great deal of intelligence,” and he is seemingly alienated from those around him. The narrator is also fixated on the notion of balance within his public relations job, espousing the necessary role of equilibrium and cohesion in modern life. He asserts that “Even the most beautifully designed item dies if it is out of balance with its surroundings.” This conviction reflects an intrinsic human inclination toward order as a way to cope with the tumultuousness of modern life.
The narrator’s artificially constructed sense of stability and dependability is disrupted when he experiences the elephant’s inexplicable shift in size and subsequent disappearance, forcing him to grapple with the tenuous nature of balance and the chaos of reality. The night before the elephant and its keeper disappear, the narrator peers into the elephant house from a nearby cliff and is shocked to see that the elephant has somehow shrunk down to the zookeeper’s size, wondering whether “my eyes were playing tricks on me” or if “town might have got hold a of a new smaller elephant.” But the elephant’s mannerisms are exactly the same, and the narrator can only assume that the elephant has somehow shrunk (or perhaps the keeper grew) despite the absurdity and surrealism of this realization.
Witnessing this moment of imbalance has a profound impact on the narrator, who until this point has been fully routinized into the natural order of his surroundings and usual rhythms of everyday life. He feels that “a different, chilling kind of time was flowing through the elephant house—but nowhere else,” and that the elephant and the keeper willingly “[gave] themselves over to this new order” of reality. The narrator’s life is thrown into imbalance by the incident of the elephant vanishing, as he is forced to grapple with the fact that reality is subjective and memory untrustworthy. His repeated use of the qualifier “probably” when recounting the diminished size difference between the elephant and its keeper suggests the narrator’s self-doubt and reluctance to accept the “new order” of reality that was ushered into being by this physical shift.
Though the rest of the townspeople quickly moves on from the disappearance, the event leaves a lasting sense of disorder and unease that affects the narrator long after the events take place. The imbalance is pronounced enough to take on a contagious quality as the narrator tries to explain his version of the mysterious circumstances to an attractive woman he meets at a business party. The woman is taken aback, telling the narrator that “You were carrying on a perfectly normal conversation […] until the subject of the elephant came up. Then something funny happened. I can’t understand you anymore. Something’s wrong.” The woman’s discomfort in the context of their conversation about the elephant mirrors the overwhelming paradigm shift the narrator experiences in the wake of the disappearance. She cannot reconcile the narrator’s seemingly impossible conviction that the elephant and keeper magically vanished with her previously-formed perceptions of him as a potential mate, and their budding relationship is stunted as a result.
On a similar but grander scale, the narrator feels that “things around me have lost their proper balance, though it could be that my perceptions are playing tricks on me.” After the elephant and keeper disappear, he is left adrift in a lingering blur of confusion and instability in which he lives “based on afterimages of memories I retain” from before the event. Reality has shattered the narrator’s dependence on order, and his life has been irreparably unsettled by the inexplicable magic he witnessed in the elephant-house. The randomness of the disappearance and the ease with which the imbalance of the elephant and the keeper disrupts the narrator’s life reflects the fragility of the order and certainty that serve as the framework for human perception. In creating this domino effect of imbalance within the story’s plot, Murakami shatters the façade of stability that people cling to in the wake of the underlying chaotic, entropic nature of the universe.
Order, Perception, and Imbalance ThemeTracker
Order, Perception, and Imbalance Quotes in The Elephant Vanishes
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.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.