The Elephant by Sławomir Mrożek Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This third-person narrative focuses on the ambitious and self-serving director of the Zoological Gardens in a provincial Polish town. The zoo is substandard in this communist society in which appearances mean everything and in which major inadequacies are overlooked because they would, if articulated, reflect badly on the bureaucracy governing the country.

The zoo’s animals are distinctly inferior. The giraffe has a short neck, the badger has no burrow, and the whistlers seldom whistle. The director cares little about the educational function of the zoo, which is often visited by parties of schoolchildren. The facility lacks some of the major animals that zoos should have, most notably an elephant. As Sawomir Mroek observes, three thousand rabbits are no substitute for “the noble giant.”

On July 22, the anniversary of liberation, a letter from Warsaw announces that an elephant has finally been allocated to the zoo. The director, however, seeking to cast himself in a favorable light among his superiors, rejects Warsaw’s offer, saying that he can save considerable money by procuring an elephant on his own. After his letter works its way through the bureaucracy, his proposal is accepted.

On receiving this news, the director rushes his plan into operation: He has a fake elephant constructed from heavy rubber. This ersatz animal, painted an elephantine gray, is to be secured behind a railing far from visitors to the zoo. The descriptive material posted on the railing outside the elephant habitat...

(The entire section is 630 words.)