Elephant by Raymond Carver is a short story that explores the themes of codependency, struggle, acceptance, and responsibility within a family. The story shows that the only way forward in the vicissitudes of life is acceptance, and in the end, the narrator gets personal and spiritual satisfaction only by letting go. The title of Elephant is symbolic of the narrators’ qualities as a reliable and loyal character. The story was published in Carver’s final collection of short stories titled “Elephant and other Stories”.
Elephant | Summary
At the beginning of the story, the narrator admits that he regrets lending money to his brother. Billy, the narrator’s brother, is suffering financially and keeps asking the narrator for money, assuring him that he’ll pay back on time but then he makes excuses each time and ends up not paying back. We learn that the narrator’s mother is financially dependent on him as well. His brother asks him for five hundred dollars stating how he is on the verge of being homeless. Feeling sorry for him, the narrator agrees and asks his brother to pay back by sending the money to their mother. However, his brother fails to give the money back and the narrator has to send his mother money every month by himself again.
The narrator is frustrated with this situation as he has a long list of people relying on him. He has to pay his ex-wife money as the court demands it, his daughter and his son need his help as well. He lives alone and works very hard all day but doesn’t get to save any money for himself. His daughter is married to a good-for-nothing lout and has to raise two young children. Consequently, she asks her father for support. He feels sorry for her and decides to send her checks every month. His son goes to college but he doesn’t work and he’s burdened with student loans. So, he does what all good sons do – he pesters his father for money and threatens that he’ll become a criminal or kill himself if his father refuses to help. The narrator is fed up with everyone and decides to tell them that he can’t continue to write them checks anymore. He bluffs that he’ll change his name and move to Australia. He feels too exhausted and wants to escape everyone by moving somewhere far away.
He receives various responses to his letters, his son writes a letter stating that he will kill himself, his mother says she’ll go work at the age of seventy-five (knowing well that her son won’t allow it) and his daughter says she’ll stop asking for money but needs money one last time to start up a new job. Nobody believes that he’ll leave them; they apologize but continue to emotionally blackmail him for money. The narrator gives in and continues to write the checks to everyone. Even though he needs new shoes and wants to visit a dentist, he limits his expenses and tries to provide for everybody. He even resorts to taking loans to ensure that he provides for everyone. One day, he gets a call from his brother again. This time, his brother asks for a thousand dollars, promising that he’ll return the money on time. The narrator resultantly agrees and sends the money but his brother again fails to pay him back. His daughter gets robbed and again asks for more money. His son asks for more money and says he’ll move to Germany to start a new life. He is constantly worried about the whole matter with money and it takes a heavy toll on him.
The narrator has two dreams one night. He dreams that he is a child riding on his father’s shoulders and thinking his father is an elephant. He feels safe and sound with his father. In the second dream, he sees that he is back with his wife and kids living happily – but he then remembers attacking his son while he was drunk. He also sees someone offering him whisky, which he accepts and this wakes him up.
The next morning, he reflects upon his life and his bond with his family. He realizes that he’ll never move anywhere else and it eases his burden on him. He realizes that he loves his family and prays for everyone’s safety. Accepting his role as the provider of the family, he lets go of the weight on his mind and feels happier. Finding a new light, he decides to walk to his job feeling content. He runs into his colleague George who offers to give him a ride to work. George reveals that his car is not paid for as he drives the car very fast. The narrator is thrilled at the speed and encourages him to drive even faster.
Elephant | Analysis
Elephant is a story about greed, reliance and the emotional struggle that comes with having a dependent family. Every member of his family seems to be dependent on the narrator for financial support. The relationship they share is almost parasitic. The narrator is alone and he too needs their company to satiate his emotional urge to feel needed. They cure his loneliness and in turn, he provides them with financial security and leadership. They are co-dependent on each other. The story also focuses on acceptance; in the end, the narrator accepts his role as the provider. Once he makes peace with his responsibilities as the head of the family he feels at ease. Perhaps, this is what life is like.
All his family members are most likely are just parasites who are leeching off the narrator – or maybe all of them are in fact suffering and can’t manage on their own. They ask the narrator for help repeatedly but since we never see their point of view, it’s not clear if they were always being honest.
The narrator understands that his ex-wife and mother are greedy, his children and brother indolent yet he pities their condition and continues to supply them the money. Maybe there’s a reason he can’t say no to them. It is mentioned twice in the story that the narrator had drinking problems in the past so we can assume that at some point in his life he neglected his role as a father, husband, and son for which now he feels responsible and wants to make up for it. The narrator talks about how alcohol was his rock bottom and the worst that could happen is if he starts drinking again. He also tried to attack his son while he was drunk – for which he’s ashamed. It might be possible that it is the guilt that keeps him from cutting ties with his family members.
It’s also apparent that the narrator loves his family. He sees that his son is unhappy with his life and thus wishes to help him, he feels sorry for his brother’s struggles, he is thankful that his mother is alive, he understands his daughter’s battles in life and he still remembers how much he used to love his ex-wife. He helps them not only because he is guilty but also because he holds profound, almost paternal affection towards all of them.
The title represents the leadership, stability, and hard-working nature of the narrator. Just like an elephant, he is strong, hard-working, loyal, and reliable to his family members. He provides all of his family support and ensures that they live a proper life. The main significance of the title is revealed in the narrator’s dream where he sees his father – as a child, he felt safe with his father and used to ride on his shoulders pretending to think that his father was an elephant. The narrator trusted his father as his father told him ‘You can let go” and “I’ve got you. You won’t fall.’ He felt his father’s strong grip on his ankles and so he raised his arms high knowing that he was safe. The narrator’s dream in the story also provides a glimpse of his vulnerability and his need to feel cared for by another reliable person. Deep down, this father is also a child, still craving for a father figure in his life – something that reality doesn’t allow him which is something his psychological self seeks to fulfill by tapping into his childhood memories through dreams. The wishes and repressed emotions that we see in the narrator’s dream give way to another psychological element – the emotion of guilt. This is reflective of the way the narrator’s family looks up to him. He used to rely on his father the way his family relies on him now. The narrator is now carrying on his father’s role as the caretaker, providing support to all his family.
After this dream, the narrator beings to understand his responsibilities towards his family and embraces his role as the provider in the family. He admits that he’ll never abandon them and somehow this makes him feel light-hearted. He lets go of the tight grip that made him worry about money and finally he is out of the woods. He realizes that accepting the situation he’s in and taking up his responsibilities with shoulders straight is the only way of letting go of what bogs him down.
After letting go of his distressing thoughts about financial matters, he feels happier. When he is standing outside Smitty’s café, he raises his arms in level with his shoulders mirroring his dream, and thus it shows that he is indeed ready to let go. When George mentions that his car is unpaid, he understands that people have their problems and that he isn’t a lone-sufferer in life. George’s condition is parallel to the way the narrator’s family is in debt. The narrator urges George to speed up the car – showing again that he is finally letting go of the burden which tied him down, that he is accepting his family members as they are and forgiving them for their reliance on him.
Elephant | About the author
Raymond Carver Jr. (1938 –1988) was an American poet and writer. His short stories are often a reflection of his life – stories that have helped revitalize the American short story genre in the 1980s. He is often associated with minimalism and has received many awards, including five O. Henry awards. He is well known for his works “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (1976), “Cathedral” (1984) and “Errand” (1988).