Mental Health Symbolism in “The Elephant Vanishes”

We started discussing the symbols in “The Elephant Vanishes,” especially with the elephant. Different people all had different theories, but what I want most to expand on is Murakami’s exploration of mental health, and potentially mental illness.

It is very clear in the story that the narrator’s mental health deteriorates throughout the story, as time goes on without the elephant being found. The narrator indicates that since the elephant disappeared, he started smoking again, which he had stopped many years prior. He also finds it very difficult to think or talk about anything besides the vanishing elephant after it disappears.

I have a few different ideas of what the elephant can symbolize. First I view as the situation with the elephant as perhaps an allegory for grief somehow. Obviously losing an elephant is losing something in itself, but I think perhaps Murakami was trying to illuminate a truth about grief. It may be obvious that someone is experiencing grief, and at first, everyone is attentive and compassionate to the people affected by the loss. But, eventually everyone moves on, and the people most affected by the loss still are going through the motions of grieving, while it seems that no one is there to go through the motions with them. Then, the grieving can start feeling isolated and alone.

Because the narrator was so invested in the elephant, its disappearance almost felt like he was losing a part of himself. Being involved in the search for the elephant might have helped him feel better for a bit. The media coverage may be similar to consoling family and friends as I mentioned earlier, and the way that the news stopped covering the elephant might symbolize how someone with mental health issues or those who are grieving can feel isolated like the world is moving too fast. This becomes clear when the narrator feels angry at this lack of coverage.

Another way of interpreting the elephant as a symbol for mental health, specifically mental health care, is the way in which the elephant might serve as a distraction to the narrator. At first, I wasn’t sure why Murakami included the information about the narrator’s job, because I found the details boring and unnecessary. It then registered with me that was quite possibly the point. The narrator was living such a mundane life, that the elephant was the only thing to distract him for a while from how perhaps pointless his life might have seemed.

I feel that if what Murakami was trying to make a statement about work-life, he made a very powerful one. No one should work their life away, and everyone should have something that they are passionate about outside of work. There should be a balance that many cultures don’t value.

One thought on “Mental Health Symbolism in “The Elephant Vanishes”

  1. julianbradford

    I like this analysis, especially because it’s an interpretation of the story I’ve never heard before. I always just thought that the narrator was creating his own world, but I never made the connection to the narrator having any mental health issues.


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