Most of Murakami’s protagonists seem to lack meaning their lives. Explore the presentation of emptiness and ennui in The Elephant Vanishes.
Lack of fulfillment and meaning to one’s life is a recurrent theme through the majority of the short stories in ‘The Elephant Vanishes’. Nonetheless, the presentation of this listlessness or ennui varies from story to story. For example, in ‘The Dancing Dwarf’ there are symbols of confused identity that come from the amalgamation of various cultures in Japan. Conversely, the traditional image of a depressed Salaryman is used in the Kangaroo Communiqué while in ‘Barn Burning’ the protagonist appears dissatisfied with the reality of his marriage, and life in general. Therefore, although the meaning that Murakami is portraying is invariably constant, the delivery of this meaning changes.
Often, Murakami uses epiphanies in order to present the emptiness and ennui in his characters lives. For example, in ‘Lederhosen’ upon seeing her husband in lederhosen the narrator’s mother immediately understands that she has been living an empty life, with a lack of purpose, and that actually she has an “unbearable disgust” for her husband. Even though, Murakami often presents ennui as a difficult cycle to evade, the wife is one of the few Murakami characters that appear to force change in her life, as, she returns to Japan and divorces her husband. ‘Lederhosen’ also presents the idea of emotional emptiness through the wife’s daughter. She has witnessed the instability and break down of marriage and as a result is not willing to experience similar troubles. To fill this emotional void in her life she becomes involved in sports, “a sports fanatic”. Moreover, the reader is shown the full extent of her emptiness, as when it rains she has nothing to do, and is desperately bored.
In ‘The Kangaroo Communiqué’ Murakami uses the idea of ‘being perceived’ as a way to show the discontent in the central protagonist’s life. Murakami’s present the narrator as a single entity, which is noticed by no one, and listened by no one. He rights letters as a way to be heard, but inevitably he is “extremely dissatisfied with being who I am”. As a way to show how depressed the narrator is, Murakami makes him record a tape while sitting on the doorstep. His language represents the lack of confidence he possesses, “Okay, what the hell, let’s give it a go”, the motifs behind recording the tape are quite blurred, as he doesn’t appear to care if anyone even listens to it. Predominately, it seems as though he simply wants to talk freely, a skill that he obviously doesn’t own. The presentation of this narrator arguably shows the most extreme case of a protagonist that is unhappy with their lives. Indeed, the lack of fulfillment with his life has led him to desire company and assurance that isn’t even realistically possible, “I want to lead a general existence and yet be a distinct, separate entity…I want to be in two places at once”. From this protagonist it is apparent that Murakami is address a large portion of the Japanese workforce. They are stuck in a monotonous job, they have a desire to be perceived yet they don’t have the confidence to make change as their job supplies them with the only purpose and stimulus that they have in their boring lives.
‘Barn Burning’ is another example where the protagonist lacks excitement, purpose, and fundamentally is confused with his purpose in life. In this short story Murakami uses the figure of the girlfriend as a vehicle to show the emptiness in the narrator’s life. His initial meeting with the girlfriend provides the reader with an abundance of evidence that shows he has little or no contentment in his life. “I was married, but that didn’t matter”, the narrator does obviously not experience the assumed happiness that one gains from being in a relationship. However, perhaps more importantly, we see the amazement of the narrator at the girlfriend when she pretend to peel the “mandarin oranges” his desire to escape reality further provides the reader with proof that he is not content with his current life.