The Elephant Vanishes

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Haruki Murakami is acclaimed as the “voice of a generation” in Japan. His first two novels to appear in English, A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991), won high praise from American critics. The Elephant Vanishes, his first collection of short stories, again demonstrates that Murakami’s is, indeed, one of the most exciting voices in international literature.

In The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami intermingles reality with fantasy, memory with illusion, and the physical world with metaphysical contemplation. His characters are ordinary people. They are homemakers, store clerks, paraprofessionals, business people, and college students. Many of these characters suffer from the modem syndrome of angst, ennui, emptiness, and loneliness. Their ontological relationship with reality appears to be defined by their ability to create unreality. For some of these characters, the ability “to be in two places at once” is what compensates for an otherwise boring, stressful, and monotonous life and what helps create meaning for an otherwise meaningless existence.

In “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” reality convolutes into fantasy. The narrator quit his longtime job in a law firm, partly because he did not find the job challenging enough and partly because the job did not allow him to be who he wanted to be. After being unemployed for three months, however, he becomes bored with the domestic duties he has to perform at home. A woman’s harassing telephone call on a Tuesday ushers him into a world where the distinction between reality and fantasy is blurred. In his search for the family cat, he passes through an alley that looks like “some abandoned canal.” At the end of the alley, he meets a high school girl whose smile is as seductive as the woman’s voice on the telephone. When the narrator closes his eyes, he is thrown into an Orphean trance in which history and fantasy are made possible to converge with reality.

“The Little Green Monster” is another fantasy story. The narrator is a lonely housewife. After her husband leaves for work, she cannot think of anything to do but stare at and talk to an oak tree in the garden. One day, she sees a small green monster crawling out of the ground near the base of the tree. The monster is very cordial and friendly. In fact, he has come to the narrator to propose marriage. After discovering that the monster can read her mind, however, she uses her telepathic power to torture and eventually slay him.

“The Little Green Monster” portrays a very complex situation: Even though the narrator’s relationship with her fantasy world is more intimate than her relationship with reality, accepting the monster’s proposal would finalize her situation of loneliness and make it permanent. It is therefore not hard to understand why she fights the monster so resolutely and vehemently.

Some of Murakami’s stories are “memory stories”; they study the paradoxical relationship between fiction and memory and between the past and the present. The narrator in “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon,” for example, does not believe that there is a difference between memory and fiction:

Memory is like fiction; or else it’s fiction that’s like memory.… Either way, no matter how hard you try to put everything neatly into shape, the context wanders this way and that, until finally the context isn’t even there anymore. You’re left with this pile of kittens lolling all over one another. Wattn with life, hopelessly unstable.

Where the distinction between memory and fiction fades, imagination comes alive. “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon” starts as a story about the narrator’s breaking up with his girlfriend but turns into a moving description of two lonely- hearts’ search for understanding and companionship. After the narrator finishes mowing the lawn for a stranger, he is offered a drink by the host. A visit to a well-preserved room of the host’s absent daughter reminds the narrator of his relationship with his former girlfriend. The visit makes him realize that a person can shape memory the same way he mows lawns, for both involve deliberate and highly subjective choices: “All I wanted, it came to me, was to mow a good lawn. To give it a once-over with the lawn mower, rake up the clippings, and then trim it nice and even with clippers—that’s all. And that, I can do. Because that’s the way I feel it ought to be done.”

“Barn Burning” portrays a man’s struggle with a piece of a memory that has left an indelible impact...

(The entire section is 1900 words.)

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although writers often use first-person narration to draw the reader more directly into the narrative, Murakami uses it in this story to underline the main character’s isolation from the outer world. Not only does the main character spend most of the story in solitude, but also he does so anonymously, giving the reader no more than the pronoun “I” when referring to himself. The narrator also leaves anonymous other figures who appear in the story. The woman to whom he is attracted, the mayor of the town, and the people opposing the mayor all go nameless. The sole exception is the elephant keeper. The one person in the story who has found stable companionship and comfort in life, unusual though that companionship and comfort might be, is the sole possessor of a name.

The author uses images of the external world to deepen his portrayal of the narrator’s isolation. Especially important are images linking the narrator, age thirty-one, to children. When the elephant was present, the others watching it were primarily children. From the time of the opening of the elephant house, school groups made regular visits to sketch the animal. The elephant house itself had once been the elementary school gym. The elephant’s food was even made up of school cafeteria leftovers. In contrast, once the elephant disappears, the narrator continues his lonely vigil on its empty house but now without youthful company.

The elephant itself, often used in folklore as a symbol of long life and wisdom, carries some of its traditional trappings in Murakami’s story. More important, it represents a sort of stability in life, a stability that proves elusive to the narrator, more so once the elephant disappears.

In addition to images, Murakami resorts to having the narrator directly address his own situation through abstract concepts. In his first conversation with the magazine editor at the promotional party, the narrator speaks of people seeking a sense of unity when equipping their kitchens. Unity is linked to being in balance with the surroundings, he tells her. When he later talks of the elephant and its keeper appearing to change proportions, he speaks of a balance being disturbed. At the end of the story, he invokes unity and balance once again, only this time as elements now permanently removed from his life.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Murakami wrote and first published "The Elephant Vanishes" in Japanese during the 1980s, and the story is set in Japan during this time. At...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)


The short story takes place in a suburb of Tokyo during the 1980s, when Japan was experiencing an economic boom....

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

  • Read the scene in the story in which the narrator meets and talks with the editor. With a partner, re-enact this part of the story as a...

(The entire section is 336 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

  • The Elephant Vanishes was adapted as a play by Simon McBurney and performed at the Setagaya Public Theatre in June of 2003. A...

(The entire section is 86 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

  • Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle: A Novel (1994–1995) traces the story of Toru Okada, an ordinary Japanese man who...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)


Loughman, Celeste, Review of "The Elephant Vanishes," in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring...

(The entire section is 281 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, February 1, 1993, p.955.

Boston Globe. March 28, 1993, p.39.

Chicago Tribune. March 28, 1993, XIV, p.6.

Library Journal. CXVIII, March 1, 1993, p.111.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 4, 1993, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, March 28, 1993, p.10.

Publishers Weekly. CXL, February 1, 1993, p.74.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXIX, Autumn, 1993, p. SS130.

The Wall Street Journal. May 5, 1993, p. A20.

The Washington Post. May 28, 1993, p. G5.