Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “The Elephant,” Mroek establishes himself as a master of literary satire. His entire story is a metaphor that represents the sociopolitical situation in Poland during the 1950’s. To achieve his end, he writes an overtly humorous account of an absurd occurrence. Readers are not expected to believe that such an event actually did or could take place. Nevertheless, once readers have overcome their incredulity, they quickly become aware that, like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729), “The Elephant” is about something much deeper than a fabricated pachyderm moored to the ground before a rock beside a monkey cage in a provincial zoo.

In his third-person narrative, Mroek is writing a story of ideas. His tale is short—about three pages. He spends little time developing any of his characters, the most fully developed of which is the director, but even he is merely sketched in as a political type rather than as a rounded person. The two attendants are just that: two elderly men doing the job to which they are assigned. Readers learn nothing about them aside from that they are old and tired. The bureaucrats with whom the director corresponds in Warsaw are called soulless; they are clearly faceless in this story, paper-shuffling types who deal impersonally with those doing business with them.

The basic absurdity of this story reflects a marvelous wit. The writing is consistently visual. Readers can visualize the barely inflated elephant skin. They see it rise rapidly as gas is funneled into it. They are given a clear vision of how it looks moored to the ground in front of the rock. They see it quiver tentatively when the gentle breeze lifts it from the ground, and they witness how it floats off into space, its columnlike legs projecting from its overinflated body.

Finally, Mroek’s ending the story with the disillusioned schoolchildren is vital to its political impact. The image of the great body filled with gas, suggestive of the political system governing Poland in the 1950’s, is bold, forthright, and provocative.