Themes and Meanings
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.