The Elephant Vanishes

by Haruki Murakami
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In the book "The Elephant Vanishes," in what way is the elephant a portent of disaster or transformation?

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The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami 's collection of short stories, is a lesson in how to go to war with yourself. The protagonists are flawed: paranoid, obsessive, solipsistic, delusional. This renders them dissociated when circumstances conspire to rob them of common sense. They're taken outside themselves. It forces them...

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The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami's collection of short stories, is a lesson in how to go to war with yourself. The protagonists are flawed: paranoid, obsessive, solipsistic, delusional. This renders them dissociated when circumstances conspire to rob them of common sense. They're taken outside themselves. It forces them to occupy more than one reality, and it forces us to get to grips with the kind of angst or insecurity that accompanies profound soul searching. It's a wild, weird book, and you should read it. You should also check out the excellent study guide available on this website.

What's the elephant got to do with it? In the title story, the elephant shrinks as the zoo keeper grows. The animal isn't so much a harbinger of disaster or transformation; rather, it's a metaphor for the declining importance of our selves. That's "our" and "selves," as in, "our concepts of who we are and what we are." The narrator tells us he feels broken after the elephant disappears, not because he's sad about the animal's loss, but because its departure changed him.

The same is true in each story. Why does the woman torture the green lizard who wants to marry her? Why does she fight it with mind-power? The lizard in "Little Green Monster" functions the same way as the elephant which vanished from the zoo. It represents the woman's sense of self. In doubt about her marriage, feeling trapped at home, and stultified by housework, she engages in a test of wills with a creature which crawls out of her garden as a proxy for the fight with her husband that she will never summon the courage to start.

The non-human characters in these stories, the elephant, the lizard, the TV men, a kangaroo; they're all devices that separate people from themselves. They give the people the narrative distance necessary to reflect on their lives, their selves. They give us the chance to examine what happens when characters are uncoupled from their existences. It's like having out-of-body experiences on behalf of someone else. We watch them work out their emotional baggage, but because that process takes place outside the characters in these stories, we feel it too. It's as if the emotional trauma has been set free by Murakami's use of the elephant and the other creatures, and being free it alights on the reader.

So, the elephant is a portent of sorts, but not in the way your questions makes us think. It's less of a signpost than "the elephant in the room," a symbol of some big issue that wants resolving.

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