The nameless narrator begins with a long, careful, and reflective examination of the event that inspired the story’s title. He then continues in a more active vein, describing his personal encounter with an attractive, seemingly compatible woman at a business event. What transpires during this encounter reveals how deeply the mystery of the elephant’s disappearance has affected him.
When the story opens, the narrator is sitting alone in his kitchen, drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. He discovers a news article about the disappearance of the town’s elephant, which has escaped.
The narrator has closely followed the story of the elephant for some time and has assembled a scrapbook of news items concerning it. Originally an attraction in a private zoo, the elephant became a ward of the town because its original owner was unable to find the animal a new home when the zoo closed. Because much of the zoo property was to be developed, with condominiums taking the place of animal cages, the mayor decided the town would pay the animal’s expenses. These included maintaining the elephant keeper from the zoo, an old man named Noboru Watanabe.
The elephant’s disappearance is mysterious. It was shackled with a locked iron cuff chained to a cement anchor and was kept in an elephant house made from the former school gym. On the morning of its disappearance, the cuff was found empty but still locked, and the key remained securely locked up elsewhere. No footprints showing the path of escape were found outside, even on the hill above the elephant house. Perhaps more mysteriously, the emergency personnel called in to search for the animal turned up no traces of it, despite the town being a well-populated suburb of a major city. The old keeper had likewise disappeared without a trace.
The narrator adds new newspaper clippings about the search to his scrapbook, watches the elephant house and surrounding yard fall into neglect, and dwells on the fact that the elephant’s disappearance had little effect on society as a whole.
The narrator works in public relations for a manufacturer of household electrical appliances. At a promotional party thrown to announce the beginning of a new product line, he meets a woman who is the editor of a woman’s magazine. Their friendly encounter at the party continues afterward at a cocktail lounge. They find they have things in common and feel a comfortable sense of mutual attraction. Things go well until the narrator brings up the subject of the elephant.
Although he senses his blunder in bringing it up, the narrator feels a need to speak about the strange disappearance and reveals for the first time that he may have been the last person to see the animal and keeper before they vanished. For some time before the disappearance, he had made a practice of climbing the hill above the elephant house in the evening. From this vantage point, he could observe inside the house, and see the elephant and keeper going through their evening routines. He had noticed a distinct affection between the two when they were alone in the house, an affection not revealed at day, in public view. On the last night, he saw something unusual. The proportions seemed to be changing between the elephant and the keeper. The elephant seemed somehow smaller. Then the lights died in the elephant house. He saw nothing else. The next morning, he read about their disappearance.
The revelation of the narrator’s preoccupation with the elephant disrupts the incipient warm feelings between him and the magazine editor. He finds, in fact, that after witnessing the strange scene in the elephant house he cannot find personal satisfaction in his life and cannot restore his previous sense that the outer world made sense. Things now seem out of balance. Despite this, in his work with the appliance manufacturer, he is more successful than ever before. He attributes this to his ability to be pragmatic in his business life. His pragmatic outlook seems...
(The entire section is 2,301 words.)