Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 351
In “The Elephant Vanishes,” as in many of his other stories, Haruki Murakami explores the impact of extraordinary and even inexplicable happenings on an ordinary life. In this case, the ordinary life is a decidedly lonely one, and one made worse by the story’s pivotal event. Within the framework of the story, the narrator spends most of his time alone, engaging in solitary activities. His only direct encounter is with another isolated individual, the magazine editor. He is single and childless, as is she. Although he finds her attractive, which almost makes him reach out to her, he finds himself unable to break out of his deepening isolation.
The old elephant and its keeper, Watanabe, are another pair of childless individuals. The animal was brought from a distant land to live out its last years in a cage, isolated from others of its kind. The old keeper, by choosing to live within the elephant house, makes it plain that he, too, has no family and sees no other place for himself in society.
When the narrator reveals to the magazine editor how he had regularly perched on the dark hill to watch Watanabe and the old elephant being affectionate together, he inadvertently reveals his fascination with the idea that these two individuals, who otherwise appeared lonely and isolated, had found comfort in each other’s company. In witnessing their apparent happiness, the narrator found a degree of meaning for his own life. He could look forward to spending evenings on the hill. At other times, in his apartment, he could work on his scrapbook.
The narrator, however, then witnessed the unlikely pair becoming closer to each other, even if only in terms of their relative physical proportions, on the night of their disappearance. When the lights went out, the narrator found himself confounded by unexplained mystery and, later, deeply disturbed at the removal of this source of comfort from his life. The narrator’s loneliness also results from his life as a company man. Externally, he appears to have found success, but internally he wishes he could find personal happiness.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706
One of the major themes of the story is the idea of things being out of balance. This theme is introduced when the narrator tells the editor about the importance of unity in kitchen design, as he states, "Even the most beautifully designed item dies if it is out of balance with its surroundings." The narrator later emphasizes the importance of balance between a creature and its environment when he talks about witnessing the change in the elephant's size in relation to the keeper's size. He states that the balance in size between the two has become more equal, because the elephant has shrunk or the keeper has gotten bigger, or both. Following the disappearance of the elephant and the keeper, the narrator again expresses the idea that "things around me have lost their proper balance." He is no longer able to take action on his own behalf, as he is haunted by this sense that the urban world is out of balance, and he feels that a kind of natural balance has broken down inside him.
Appearances and Reality
Related to the theme of imbalance is the difference between appearances and reality. The narrator points out that the article covering the story of the elephant's disappearance is strange, because the reporter tries so hard to maintain that the elephant escaped, when the facts indicate that the elephant had to have almost magically vanished. The characters in the story try to maintain an appearance of normality in the face of an event that defies logic, leading to pointless acts that do not address the nature of the situation. The discrepancy between reality and appearances also arises in the narrator's job as he basically just goes through the motions, trying to maintain a professional, pragmatic approach although he does not personally believe that a kitchen has to have unity or any of the other maxims his company invokes to sell its products. The narrator finds that he cannot reconcile the differences between appearances and reality, and as he questions his own perceptions, he experiences a sense of disorientation and confusion.
Another theme of the story concerns how modern developments have supplanted old ways of life. The story takes place in an affluent Tokyo suburb during the 1980s, when Japan was experiencing an economic boom. The event that sets all the other events of the story in motion is the construction of high-rise condos, which literally take the place of the old zoo, forcing the elephant to be relocated to the new elephant house. The old elephant and its aged keeper are emblems of former times, ways of life, and longstanding intuitive relationships, which have been pushed aside by commercial ventures. Throughout the story, Murakami lightly satirizes the absurdity of modern life, particularly when the narrator describes the town's reaction to the elephant's disappearance. The reactions of various townspeople such as the mayor, a "worried-looking" mother, the police, Self-Defense Force troops, an anchorman, and the reporter show how inept and illogical conventional urban responses can be. As the narrator puts it, the newspaper articles were all "either pointless or off the mark." Police response is ridiculous and futile. In all, the absurd civic response to the bizarre situation of a misplaced elephant shows, in almost a comic way, how urban mindset fails to imagine, much less comprehend, the fantastic or intuitive.
Throughout the story, Murakami subtly reveals how the vanishing of the old ways leaves people feeling disoriented and how the new ways of being create a sense of disconnection and unease. The narrator, for example, performs his job as a public relations executive successfully by espousing the commercial viewpoint that "things you can't sell don't count for much." Because in truth he does not necessarily believe this statement, saying it and operating from this pragmatic mode seem to confound the narrator, confusing him about his purpose in life. Like other Murakami characters, he is also a loner, a single person, living alone with no apparent ties to family or friends. The narrator watches the elephant and the keeper and marvels at their closeness, their special bond. In the wake of the elephant's disappearance, the narrator feels despondent, more isolated and alone than ever.