Discussing “The Elephant Vanishes”

Use the comment section for this post to engage in a discussion of Haruki Murakami’s short story “The Elephant Vanishes.”

To see your requirements and parameters for our discussion, see our Reading/Discussing Short Stories guidelines. Strive for a vigorous exchange, including debating differing interpretations, but always strive for mutual recognition of each other, working toward enhancing our collective understanding of the story.

Watch your period’s group presentation on the story and see the DQs below, if you are looking for inspiration.

period 1
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period 2
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  • Can we really trust the words of the narrator?
  • What does the relationship between the Elephant and Zookeeper represent?
  • What really happened to the elephant at the end of the story?
  • What happened to the narrator’s “balance” since the elephant’s disappearance?
  • What does the story say about the relationship between balance and unity?

period 3
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  • How does the relationship between the zookeeper and the elephant contribute to the story? And how does their relationship contrast that of the zookeeper and other kids visiting the zoo?
  • How does the narrator’s conversation with the magazine editor woman alienate himself from both her and society?
  • What does the elephant symbolize?
  • The ending is very abrupt and does not solve the problem. Why do you think the author ends the story like this? And how is this a reflection of the narrator’s perspective?
  • What does the elephant represent to the narrator? What does the elephant represent in society?

13 thoughts on “Discussing “The Elephant Vanishes”

  1. Elijah J

    In “The Elephant Vanishes,” by Haruki Murakami, the and the narrator both serve as anomalies that don’t fit into the “Unity of design” of our everyday world. Throughout the story, the media and general population refuse to entertain the idea that the elephant could simply have vanished because it doesn’t make logical sense. The narrator’s acceptance and entertainment of that idea distances himself from others. This is symbolized when he gives his marketing pitch for his kitchen equipment to the magazine editor, saying that unity of design is key, but when pushed to give his honest opinion, he says, “A kitchen probably does need a few things more than it needs unity. But those other elements are things you can’t sell. And in this pragmatic world of ours, things you can’t sell don’t count for much” (138). The narrator notes that “the more pragmatic I try to become, the more successful I sell” (141), demonstrating the need for conformity to the norms of the practical world in order to be successful in it. As the narrator knows this, he also knows that bringing up the mystery of the elephant was a bad idea as soon as he did it. He eventually gives his honest telling of the story, which makes no practical sense, so he drives away the editor with his less sensible ideas. The actions of the external characters withing this narrative, all the characters besides the elephant, the elephant keeper, and the narrator, serve to reveal the close-mindedness of what is considered acceptable thought. Those not considered pragmatist are squashed by the “pragmatists” in the name of unity of design, because that’s what makes people feel comfortable. They refuse to see that sometimes the truth lies outside of their comfort zones.

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  2. Maggie Rose B

    I believe that in “The Elephant Vanishes”, the elephant does actually vanish. Regardless of whether or not the narrator is reliable, there is no realistic way the elephant could have escaped, so it must have vanished. The narrator goes into great detail about why there is no possibility of escape, describing the way that the elephant was locked up and the complexity and strength of the place where it was kept, ending by saying, “There was no way the elephant could have escaped from this fortresslike enclosure” (135). The impossibility of an escape is further emphasized by the fact that the elephant was never found, even after intense searching of the surrounding area. Although an elephant vanishing seems an impossible thing to happen, it is the only explanation, because there was no possibility of the elephant escaping.

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  3. Maggie Rose B

    Throughout “The Elephant Vanishes”, the nature of the narrator’s description of events offer a contrast with the events of the story. The narrator describes things in a very organized and structured way, using lists (“1. The town would take ownership of the elephant at no cost. 2. The developer would, without compensation, provide land for housing the elephant…”(133)) and detailed descriptions of what is occurring. This shows that the narrator thinks in a very analytical and organized way, establishing a kind of reliability that the narrator will have thought deeply about any situation before expressing his opinion. This offers a stark contrast with the events of the elephant vanishing. There is no good explanation for it happening, and it is impossible to understand exactly how it happened. Nevertheless, the narrator attempts to describe these indescribable events in his same organized and detailed way, despite lacking all of the details. This further emphasizes the strange nature of the elephant’s disappearance and how it does not fit with the rest of the narrator’s world.

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  4. MAYA L

    Answering period one’s second question for Murakami’s “The Elephant Vanishes,” I don’t think the narrator is crazy, at least not initially so. The frustration of not knowing the answer may have begun to drive him crazy, but he himself isn’t crazy to begin with. The disappearance of the elephant was very suspicious, and his initial curiosity surrounding the case was very reasonable. Though he looked more into the case than most people would, this isn’t necessarily an indicator that he’s crazy, but rather an indicator that he’s very driven and smart. His belief that the elephant vanished isn’t baseless, since he believes to have seen “the elephant shrinking until it was small enough to escape through the bars” (141). Despite the fact that this seems very odd, he’s still reasonable about the memory, saying “all [he’s] trying to do is recall what [he] saw with his own two eyes” (141). All of his research is based on what he believes to be true, and because of his drive he hasn’t given up on his beliefs; none of this makes him “crazy.”

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  5. MAYA L

    Answering period one’s fourth question for Murakami’s “The Elephant Vanishes,” I don’t think it was humane for the elephant to be kept in town. The narrator said that “the elephant wore a solid, heavy-looking steel cuff… securely fastened to a concrete slab” (134), showing that the elephant is chained down. It is made clear from this description that the elephant isn’t being treated well. Though the elephant had its keeper, being trapped in a house isn’t the right place for an elephant to live. The town only kept it because, like the narrator, they “liked the idea of [their] town owning an elephant” (133). Keeping an elephant locked up in a town rather than letting it free just because they thought it was cool is inhumane.

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  6. NAKAYLA M

    I loved this story so much and thought it was interesting. The fact that the town’s animal was an elephant was very abstract. After reading the whole story I thought the decision to make the town’s animal an elephant was super intentional. I looked up what elephants symbolize on worldbirds.org and I found out that “elephants are revered as a symbol of good luck, prosperity, destroyer of evil, remover of obstacles, as well as strength, power, wisdom, memory, and vitality.”
    After that I then connected the fact that after the elephant disappeared the narrator becomes started smoking again, ” I took out another cigarette and lit it. I had quit smoking three years earlier but had begun again when the elephant disappeared”(139). It was as if the elephant was a protector/ anchor to the narrator.
    I also thought the narrator’s idea about the elephant and the keeper shrinking was out of this world. But I liked the idea a lot because no one knew where they went and there was no evidence of them “breaking out.” So shrinking clearly was the only reasonable answer.

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  7. Charles V

    Throughout the story, I believe that the Elephant does vanish, however, I believe that the keeper had something to do with it. The town came up with a strict plan in how the elephant would be kept and maintained. This plan seemed to be very good until the elephant disappeared. Their was much despair throughout the town in that the money spent on the elephant could be used other places in making the town better as a whole. The keeper would keep an eye on the elephant at all times and even sleep in the same house as it. This is what leads me to think that the keeper had to be involved in the vanishing of the elephant. The keeper is the only one with a key to gate in which the elephant stays and could have locked it back up afterwards. I think that the keeper wanted to give the elephant a better life and allow the elephant to be out in the wild while still caring for it. In this story we are only hearing the narrators point of view from the news paper so we do not know what happened but that is my best guess.

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  8. OWEN MCMILLAN

    In response to Period 3’s DQ 4, “The ending is very abrupt and does not solve the problem. Why do you think the author ends the story like this? And how is this a reflection of the narrator’s perspective?”

    The ending is abrupt and cuts the story off without solving the problem because the elephant incident does not have a concrete answer to begin with. Some stories are just left unanswered and unexplained. It would be unrealistic if this anomaly-like event was perfectly solved, wrapped up like a gift. Leaving the elephant’s disappearance unresolved only adds to the story’s unique intrigue. How can an elephant, as well as its keeper suddenly vanish without any explanation without the aid of some unexplainable force? As the narrator puts it, “The elephant and keeper have vanished completely. They will never be coming back (Murakami 327).” As the narrator cannot know the truth, the world will not wait for an answer, the world has to move on, as true for any other unexplainable event. The Elephant Vanishes, both as a real-world short story and as an in-universe event will be remembered for its mysterious unexplained circumstances and endless fuel for speculation. The story would probably lose its lasting impact if it were to have a concrete explanation.

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  9. OWEN MCMILLAN

    In response to Period 2’s DQ 1, “Can we really trust the words of the narrator?”

    No, we cannot trust the words of the narrator, in the sense that we can’t trust his account of the elephant’s disappearance. The narrator explains that he was probably the last person to ever see the elephant and its keeper, and that “The balance seemed to have changed somewhat. I had the feeling that to some extent the difference between them had shrunk” (Murakami 325). The narrator makes outrageous claims that the size balance between the elephant and its keeper shifted, causing the disappearance of the two to go unnoticed at the time of happening. While from his perspective, he is telling what he feels is the truth, it is highly unlikely that this story, so grounded in reality, could actually involve the crazy size balance shenanigans illustrated. Instead, we as readers are meant to not trust the narrator’s accounts at face value, and instead walk away with our own possible explanations. The narrator does not even trust himself anymore, as he states “Some kind of balance inside me has broken down since the elephant affair, and maybe that causes external phenomena to strike my eye in a strange way. It’s probably something in me” (Murakami 327). He cannot even trust his own reality anymore, his internal balance is skewed to the point of perceptual trickery.

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  10. Devin S.

    What happened to the narrator’s “balance” since the elephant’s disappearance?

    The narrator is disturbed by the feeling that there is no normal, logical explanation for what has happened to the elephant. Unlike everyone else, who seem to have forgotten about the elephant’s disappearance after a few weeks, he is left with questions about whether something that seems impossible– the elephant shrinking– could have really happened. This is what creates the narrator’s feeling of imbalance: while everyone else has moved on, he continues to believe in this magical occurrence that no one else will believe. He has lost the sense of “unity” discussed in the story, feeling like the issue of the elephant separates him from others, who view the world in a “pragmatic” way.

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  11. Devin S.

    Can we really trust the words of the narrator?

    I think that the narrator came across as trustworthy, because he reacted the same way any person might to the strange circumstances he was in. He questioned what he had seen, and was clearly uncomfortable and confused by this impossible sight of the elephant shrinking, saying “I had wondered at the time whether my eyes were playing tricks on me. I had tried closing and opening them and shaking my head, but the elephant’s size remained the same” (140). Like any person would, he reacted with disbelief, but he was forced to believe his own eyes. Other than this one somewhat magical experience, the narrator seems pretty normal and writes with lucidity, even making lists to express information clearly to the reader. Because of this, I didn’t feel I had any reason to distrust what the narrator said throughout the story.

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  12. SYDNEY R

    The first DQ that period 2 asked, “Can we really trust the words of the narrator?” My response to this is yes, we can trust the narrator. I would have reacted quite similar to the narrator in the story. He seemed quite human when he found out the elephant had shrank. On page 321, it states, “Then I told her about the elephant. Exactly how this happened, I can’t recall. maybe we were talking about animals, and that was the connection. Or maybe, unconsciously, I had been looking for someone—a good listener—to whom I could present my own, unique view on the elephant’s disappearance. Or, then again, it might have been the liquor that got me talking.” This quotation shows how amazed he was that the elephant shrunk and explains how he didn’t even believe himself. Overall, I feel as if we can trust the narrator due to his similarities to everyone I know personally. It would be hard to meet someone who was not phased by an elephant that has a huge change of size.

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  13. SYDNEY R

    As the story goes on, I do believe that the elephant vanishes. I am not sure what or if the narrator is responsible for anything involving the elephant vanishing, but I do know that there is no way that the elephant could have left without creating a huge disaster. On page 118 it states, “Peering inside, I could see the elephant house door had been chained and locked, as though the police were trying to make up for having failed to find the elephant by multiplying the layers of security on the now-empty elephant house.” This example shows how the doors were still locked up and the only way that would have happened is if the elephant vanishes. The elephant could have not gotten out with no destruction, otherwise this would have happened in a lot more places then this story. Overall, I do think that the elephant vanishes due to the evidence given in the text.

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