In Raymond Carver’s short story, ‘Elephant’, we have the themes of dependency, security, struggle, acceptance and letting go. The story appears in the collection ‘Elephant and Other Stories’. Very early in the story, we discover that the narrator has a string of family members who are dependent on him financially – his mother, brother Billy, daughter, son and ex-wife. The story follows the journey of his growing frustration with the situation and his ultimate ‘letting go’ of the responsibility dependence (both of others depending on him, and from the validation he seems to have received for playing this role).
Ideas on Raymond Carver’s ‘Elephant’
What follows are a series of questions on the story along with very brief answers to those questions. The idea is for you to flesh out the answers provided with details from the text, as well as, suitable quotations to support the points you make.
- What kind of metaphorical meaning do we get from the story’s title? An elephant bears heavy burdens, it suffers, and it never forgets. This speaks perhaps to the narrator’s martyr complex.
- What is the narrator’s dependence or addiction? He’s dependent on people being dependent on him. He even lets his brother “play” him, like “play him for a fool.”
- What pattern of the narrator’s pathological behaviour soon becomes evident in the story? He’s giving money to everyone. Brother, mother, ex-wife, daughter, daughter’s bum who fathered his daughter’s children, his son, etc. Everyone is on the “payroll.” He needs to feel wanted. His self-esteem must be at a very low ebb.
- How much threat is there when he says he’s going away to Australia? None because everyone knows he’s a junkie giver, an enabler.
- What is dangerous about enablers such as the narrator? They reinforce the sloth, laziness, and helplessness of others. They do in name of duty and sacrifice when in fact they are needy people.
- Why can’t an enabler like the narrator “just say no” and establish boundaries with people? Because he knows the truth: If he cuts off the money, he will be lonely and he cannot stand loneliness. The story shows the depths of suffering loneliness causes and the lengths people will go to in order to stave off loneliness.
- In addition to giving or “loaning” people money, what other kinds of enabling behavior do we see? Teachers who let students walk all over them. People who let their boyfriends, girlfriends, or spouses repeatedly cheat on them. People who do their friends’ homework for them. People who put up with any kind of abuse but don’t establish boundaries because they are afraid of being alone.
- How does being a martyr feed the narrator’s ego? He feels wanted. He feels needed. He feels as if he is making enormous personal sacrifices for the sake of others. This in turn makes him feel morally superior. But he fails to see the truth: That he is being used.
- What is the bitter and ironic truth about enabling others? The people we enable do not appreciate our generosity. They hate and resent us because in part they know they will never repay us and our sick symbiotic relationship with them is forever a reminder of this gut-wrenching fact.
- How does the narrator break free of this dependent relationship? Breaks the pattern by not keeping to the script he has constructed for himself – breakfast, walk to school, taking a ride in a beaten up car, behaving recklessly.
Find a copy of Carver’s story ‘Elephant’ here in Stories of Ourselves, the Cambridge International collection of short stories.
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