Elephant by Raymond Carver

In Elephant by Raymond Carver we have the theme of acceptance, struggle, security, letting go and dependency. Taken from his Elephant and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story it would appear that Carver is exploring the theme of dependency. The narrator’s brother (Billy) is looking for five hundred dollars from the narrator to help him while he looks for another job. As the story continues the reader also realises that Billy is not the only person who is dependent (or relying) on the narrator. We also learn that he is supporting his mother, sending her money every month, his ex-wife (alimony payments) and his two children. Every character in the story appears to be reliant or dependent on the narrator for support and also appears to be struggling (just as the narrator is). What we also know as readers is that the narrator lives alone, spending much of his time sitting in his chair at home too tired after work to do anything. It is as if he is living his life, just to help his family. He is in essence their security, without him their lives would become more unmanageable if not impossible. What is also interesting about the narrator is the fact that he accepts his position in life. Even when he suggests to his family that he might move to Australia (to escape from his family’s financial demands) he soon realises that he will never do it and the fact that he remains at home highlights his acceptance of his role to help others.

Throughout the story the narrator’s family become more dependent on him. His brother asks him for a further $1000 and he continues to lend money to his daughter and his son, while still paying monthly payments to both his mother and his ex-wife. What is interesting about the narrator’s views of his mother and ex-wife is the fact that though he considers them greedy, he continues to send them money. To his mother because he pities her and to his ex-wife because the judge has told him that he has to keep sending money to her. Though it is not explicitly said, there is a sense that the narrator in some ways feels responsible for his family. This can be seen when he dreams about hitting his son in the car. It is something that actually happened and there is a feeling of guilt or regret on the narrator’s part. He longs for his son to be happy and as a result continues to send him money so that he can go to Europe. What is also important about the narrator dreaming about his son, is the fact that he also dreams that someone had given him some whiskey in the dream. For the narrator this is the worst thing that can happen to him, to drink again. He might be struggling in work and paying money to his family but he knows that drinking, ‘that was the worst thing that could have happened. That was rock bottom.’ By introducing the whiskey into the dream Carver may be highlighting a breaking-point for the narrator.

However the most important dream that the narrator has is the one where he is sitting on his father’s shoulders and he imagines that his father is an elephant and he is riding on top of him. This dream is important for several reasons. Firstly because it symbolizes support, his father telling him that things will be okay ‘You can let go, he said, I’ve got you. You won’t fall.’ It is the first time in the story where someone else is supporting the narrator rather than him supporting everyone else. It is also through this dream of his father that the reader realizes that the narrator is taking on the role his father had, of supporting others. The second reason the dream is important is because it is after the dream that the narrator begins to let go, just as his father had told him.

How much the narrator has let go can be seen the following morning (after his dreams). It is as he is walking to work that the narrator starts to think about his family. No longer does he view them as just people who want his money but he hopes that they are doing okay (his son, mother, daughter and brother). Despite the fact that the narrator is supporting them, he appears to have accepted his role (as a leader or supporter, like his father) and wishes all his family well. Money no longer being the driving factor in how he feels about them. The idea of change within the narrator is further explored when the reader finds him outside Smitty’s café. He stands there with his arms level with his shoulders, mirroring his dream of him sitting on his father’s shoulders. Not only is the narrator remembering his father again but more importantly he is letting go, as he did in the dream.

There is also a sense of irony in the closing section of the story. The narrator is standing outside Smitty’s and George, a work colleague of the narrator pulls up and offers the narrator a lift. What is ironic about this meeting is the fact the reader is aware that George’s car remains unpaid for (mirroring all the money which the narrator is still waiting for from his family, they remain in debt just like George). Despite this the narrator tells George to drive the car as fast as he can. Not only is there a sense of letting go (driving the car fast) but there is a sense of freedom now within the narrator. He is no longer tied down to his old ideals in which he begrudges supporting his family. Now the narrator appears to accept and embrace his role, understanding that there are more important things in life than money.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Elephant by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 15 Mar. 2014. Web.


  • I read this short novel in a more pessimistic way: his need for his father was driven by love and the fact that he was a child, while other people lie to him to get their money. I sense that Carver want to point at him as a good but not so clever man. Indeed, I think his friend gives him a ride only to get money to pay his car. He thinks he got out from a bad mood in the right way, but Carver strikes him at last.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I like your insight particularly with regard to the narrator getting into the car at the end of the story. I hadn’t thought of it like that at all but it works. I would also agree with you that the narrator is an easy touch who deep down is really searching for love.

  • It was good it was the funniest to read of all English class when I am eating cheese and ham sandwich.

  • 1.What is the symbolism of the second dream where the narrator is with his ex-wife and children, having as it seems, a bit of fun…?

    2.Why did the narrator go to Smitty’s and why did he get into the car of George, asking him to drive fast?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I’m sorry but I would need to read the story again and at the moment I have a backlog of stories I need to read.

  • I have a thought about the ending section of the short story, when he was outside the Smitty’s cafe .I want to share it with you. Please correct me if I have misanalyzed the things.
    “I raised my arms — raised them up level with my shoulders”. Since in the above paragraph, the narrator can be seen as a well wisher for his family, wishing all of them happiness and success in their lives, it may be said that when he raised his arms up level with his shoulders outside Smitty’s Cafe, the author may have been symbolizing his arms for his relatives. Meaning that he will walk shoulder to shoulder with his family members from now on. He will not heed to monetary crisis he is facing, but do his utmost to help them and stand with them shoulder to shoulder in the hour of crisis.

  • What is the symbolism of the second dream ?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I think it symbolizes support from the narrator’s father. Also the narrator has now taken on the role of the father, supporting others.

  • What would you say about that? Isn’t the author pointing out here that taking care of the family should not be a burden in any way? Or is the society here instructed to support the family? What is the message for the today’s materialistic society?

  • idk but yea could be about the giraffe and the shoes he was wearing.

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