Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Elephant – Slawomir Mrozek

The Elephant Slawomir Mrozek
At the Surface level, ‘The Elephant’ is a simple story about how a small polish zoo attempts to cut costs by fabricating an elephant, rather than adding real elephant to the Zoo’s collection. But at another level, ‘The Elephant’ is satirical allegory. This is aimed at the communist government that controlled Poland at the time the story was written (1958).

Genre:                          Contemporary realistic fiction with traditional political features.
Language:                   Contemporary.
Technical device:        Satirical allegory.
Theme:                        Deception and its repercussions.
Conflict:                      Man versus Man, Man versus State.
Setting:                        Zoo in Poland/ A provincial town in communist Poland.
Type of Plot:                Fable, allegory, satire.
Principal Characters:             The director, a party of schoolchildren, teacher.
Point of View:                         The third-person omniscient narrative focuses on the ambitious and self-serving director of the Zoological Gardens in a provincial Polish town.

Satire: Literary works those critics/ridicules human follies, institutions, government by depicting it in a humorous, sarcastic, or scornful way. The purpose of satire is often to teach a lesson or encourage change.


A literary mode based on criticism of people and society through ridicule. The satirist aims to reduce the practices attacked by laughing scornfully at them--and being witty enough to allow the reader to laugh, also. Ridicule, irony, exaggeration, and several other techniques are almost always present. The satirist may insert serious statements of value or desired behaviour, but most often he relies on an implicit moral code, understood by his audience and paid lip service by them. The satirist's goal is to point out the hypocrisy of his target in the hope that either the target or the audience will return to a real following of the code. Thus, satire is inescapably moral even when no explicit values are promoted in the work, for the satirist works within the framework of a widely spread value system. Many of the techniques of satire are devices of comparison, to show the similarity or contrast between two things. A list of incongruous items, an oxymoron, metaphors, and so forth are examples

Allegory: An allegory is a simple story, such as a fable or parable, whose major purpose is to teach a moral lesson. An allegory can always be read on two levels – one literal, the other symbolic. The underlying meaning can be parallel to, but different from, the surface meaning.


A figurative work in which a surface narrative carries a secondary, symbolic or metaphorical meaning.


Allegory is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, animals, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy. Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning. Such a tale is said to be didactic in its style.

Point of View: The third-person omniscient narrative focuses on the ambitious and self-serving director of the Zoological Gardens in a provincial Polish town.

Third Person Omniscient:
This style is often frowned upon, and comes under fire from many writing style authorities. Third person omniscient is not to be confused with using multiple viewpoints. A writer can have multiple viewpoints in a piece of fiction and can be writing in third person without using third person omniscient. Third person omniscient is an older narrative style in which a single viewpoint contains all characters and perspectives.

The key point to remember in using third person omniscient narration is consistency. Narrative shifts shouldn't happen randomly; they should have a sense of order and rhythm that remains consistent throughout the story.

Points to Remember about “The Elephant”:
Ø  That Slawomir Mrozek, the author of this story, is a Polish dramatist and short-story writer
Ø  That ‘Elephant’ is a contemporary realistic fiction and a beautiful satirical (political) allegory.
Ø  That this story is satirizing the then communist government of Poland.
Ø  That the story has two levels of meaning – the textual meaning creating lots of humour and the symbolic meaning criticizing the corrupt officials and the government.
Ø  That the author is the ‘narrator’ in this story and the story has been written in ‘third person point of view’.
Ø  That ‘Deception and its effects’ and ‘criticizing the corrupt officials and highlighting the corrupt system and government’ are the most prominent themes of this story.
Ø  That a small zoological garden in the provincial town of Poland is the setting of this story.
Ø  That ‘the director vs his selfish motives’ is the internal conflict in this story.
Ø  That ‘the director vs other employees in the zoo’ and ‘the state vs the people’ are the prominent external conflicts in this story.
Ø  That ‘Satire’ is a form of literary work which intends to criticize or ridicule the mistakes, wrongdoings and follies of a person, society or institution in a humorous and sarcastic manner with a positive intention to bring in some positive change by creating awareness.
Ø  That an ‘Allegory’ is a story or visual image with a parallel and distinct second meaning hidden behind its literal or visible meaning. ‘Personification’ is the principal technique used in this kind of writing.


Surface level:

This third-person omniscient narrative focuses on the ambitious and self-serving director of the Zoological Gardens in a provincial Polish town. The zoo is substandard in this communist society in which appearances mean everything and in which major inadequacies are overlooked because they would, if articulated, reflect badly on the bureaucracy governing the country.

The story starts with a description of the zoo director. "He regards his animals simply as stepping stones of his career. He is careless about the educational value of his establishment." Being in a remote town the zoo is not funded and therefore was "lacking all the important animals". On the anniversary of the liberation of Poland, the zoo was informed that it was receiving an elephant. The staffs of the zoo were very happy but they were surprised that their director was preparing a plan for am more economical elephant. The director had written a letter to the higher authority suggesting an economical elephant made of rubber. Thus, money can be saved to buy a jet plane or to conserve some church monuments. His letter was officially sanctioned and the ministry had approved the idea.

The director began the preparation of the rubber elephant.

The director, who has 3000 rabbits but no elephant, thinks the most important thing is his promotion in his career. So he thinks it doesn’t matter what children are affected by their seeing a spurious elephant. He orders the zoo keepers to blow air into a rubber elephant and to make it as if a real one. He, who was indifferent to educational importance and cared about only his own career, planned to make an elephant out of rubber instead of having a real elephant for saving the cost significantly. He thought that they could fill it with air and place it behind the railings, and that nobody would notice it was not real because elephants are sluggish animals.

The elephant’s rubber carcass is filled with air by the two keepers who ‘blow into it from opposite ends’ locking themselves up in the shed, in the secrecy of the night air; however, they could not make it big enough to look like a real elephant. They got exhausted and came up with an idea that they can fill it with gas and they did. The zoo keepers regarded their duties in a purely bureaucratic manner and do not examine the heart of the matter, but followed only the directives of their superior. The director insisted on haste as he was expecting a bonus, should the idea succeed. Moreover, the people of the town had been informed that an elephant was joining the Zoo the following day.

In the morning, the rubber elephant is placed in a central position next to the monkey cage. Particularly sluggish, Hardly moves” proclaimed a notice. A party of children escorted by the teacher in-charge was amongst the first of the zoo’s visitors that morning. An object lesson about the elephant had been planned by the teacher. As the object lesson proceeded, the children took notes ‘with enraptured admiration’. The elephant did not budge to obey to the dictates of all its mammalian characteristics deemed by the children and the teacher. What astonished the children and the monkeys more was that the supposedly ‘nine and thirteen thousand pounds’ largest living land animal began to take flight as a gust of wind propelled it above the ground.
The descendant of the now-extinct mammoth lay punctured on a cactus in the neighbouring botanical garden. The children who witnessed the scene turned into hooligans and started to neglect their studies. The story ends with a sad note: "And they no longer believe in elephants."

As a Satirical allegory:

The story exposes the corrupt communist government and its officials in Poland. It reveals the struggle between the citizens and the policies of communist regime. ‘The Elephant’ can be termed as a satire on the follies of the communist government. It indirectly criticizes the drawbacks of communism and the policies implemented in Poland after the Second World War

The Elephant is a satirical short story about life under a totalitarian regime. A totalitarian regime is a government which controls every aspect of the life of the people. People living under a totalitarian regime generally also support it, sometimes almost cultishly. Citizens are also usually afraid to criticize the government, so they may be outspoken supporters to avoid closer scrutiny.

The elephant fabricated by the director of the Zoo symbolizes the manifesto of the communist government. Like the elephant the communist government is also beautiful when seen from outside with its almost utopian principles to provide everyone equality. But deep within the politicians themselves are corrupt and lead to the destruction of the state. These officials feel that they could fool the public by replicating the “real thing” but in reality they are only making fool out of themselves.

Mrozek's short fiction satirizes the Polish mentality, romantic heroism and grandiloquence, or the oddities of the Communist system, but his main target is the human behavior, human follies. In 'The Elephant' Mrozek parodied didactic tales. The director of the Zoological Gardens wants to reduce the costs of the establishment. He orders an elephant made out of rubber. Unluckily, it is filled with gas. Next morning children from a school visit the zoo. The teacher tells that "the weight of a fully grown elephant is between nine and thirteen thousand pounds." A gust of wind blows the elephant away.

Communism has brought only atrocities and corruption into Poland. It hasn’t brought relief to the majority as promised, nor has it ended oppression as purposed. The metaphorical symbol in the story symbols in the story gives us clear image of the leaders holding the absolute monopoly in power and thus using forces to keep it concealed. The underlying meaning attached to the different abnormal animals in the zoo could be a way to symbolize their acts – the short necked giraffe can be the officials cut off from seeing what exactly the communist politicians were up to. The badgers, who have lost their burrows, could be the officials who have lost their post for going against their leaders. The whistlers could be the revolutionist or the critics, who wanted to bring out the truth of the politicians but reluctantly whistled, because of their lives at stake. These short comings shouldn’t have been allowed especially as the zoo was often visited by school children.

The communist manifesto looks attractive and magnificent from outside, the way it is designed but internally it is hallow just like the rubber elephant which was inflated with air. The zoo represents the country, animals, and the defective policies of the government. The director represents the corrupt officials who are manipulative, self centered and least bothered about the well-being, sentiments and feelings of the innocent people. They were selfish and concerned about their own career rather than the welfare of the state.

The two keepers represent the lower working class. These innocent people have to carry out their duties according to the whims and fancies of the higher officials; they were also involved in the corruption and manipulation of the government policies.
The children represent the innocent citizens who have a lot of faith in the government as per the promises made in the communist manifesto. However, when they know the reality and motives of the government they are enraged, become violent and turn against the government.

Symbolism used in “The Elephant”:

Sl. No.



The zoo
The country Poland

The Director of the Zoo
Representing the communist government of Poland

Animals with different problems /deficiencies in the zoo
Government policies having defect and weakness of various kinds/The underlying meaning attached to the different abnormal animals in the zoo could be a way to symbolize their acts – the short necked giraffe can be the officials cut off from seeing what exactly the communist politicians were up to. The badgers, who have lost their burrows, could be the officials who have lost their post for going against their leaders. The whistlers could be the revolutionist or the critics.
The school children
 The common innocent people of the country

The Elephant
The constitution, the manifesto or the policy of the Polish communist government
The flying Elephant
The deceiving and deception involved in the government’s manifestos and policies
The officials
The corrupted officials in the communist government working foolishly
The two zoo keepers
The corrupted officials who support their boss blindly and irrationally
The teacher
The innocent victim of a corrupt system

Misbehaving students
Anger of the common men coming out in various violent manners

Conflicts (Plot):
Internal:                     The Director versus his own self and selfish motives.
External:                    The state versus people, the Director versus other employees in the zoo, the students versus teacher and school are some of the examples of external conflicts.

Justification of the Title:
The title story is a good example -- story of a zookeeper who, to save money and make himself look better to higher officials, buys an inflatable elephant for the zoo instead of a live animal. The workers inflating it with air switch to filling it with gas to save time, and predictably, it floats away during the first day of exhibition. A suitable story must be found to explain so as not to embarrass any party officials.

This story is a satirical and political allegory criticizing the follies and corrupt functioning of the then communist government in Poland. In this story every character is symbolical. For any country or for any form of government the constitution, the policies and the manifestos are the set of supreme law for governing the country effectively and judiciously.  And the author’s main intention is to satirize the manifesto and the policies of the government through this story which he does by using the symbol of the ‘Elephant’ as elephant is the symbolic representative of the manifestos and policies. Thus being satirical and being allegorical nothing could be better and more suitable title then ‘The Elephant’.

Deception and its repercussions emerge as the central themes of the story, especially the conflict of the state versus its people. The zoo is substandard in this communist society in which appearances mean everything and in which major inadequacies are overlooked because they would, if articulated, reflect badly on the bureaucracy governing the country. The moral of The Elephant by Slawomir Mrozek is that cutting corners and lying will have far reaching consequences in the world.

Being a satirical allegory ‘The Elephant’ deals at two parallel levels of meaning and understanding – one at the very surface and textual level and the other at its symbolical level. On the surface level and from textual point of view creating humour and comedy appears to be the main theme of this story. But when we delve deep into its meaning at symbolical level then we come across a different and very serious theme in this story. Symbolically the story criticizes the then corrupt and communist government of the country at large. Every character in this story is symbolically connected with something in the government or the country. So criticizing the government, its faulty manifestos and policies, and the corrupt officials working mindlessly is the main theme of this interesting story. Besides, creating awareness about the corruption among the common mass of the country and highlighting the follies and wrongdoing of the government and officials could be considered as its additional theme.

Study questions and answers:

1.      What are some of the specialities of the zoological garden in the provincial town?
This zoological park is located in a provincial town of Poland. The park does not have so many animals such as badger, giraffe, elephant etc. And those animals which are there in the park are having many shortcomings and drawbacks. Many animals in the park are made of rubber.

2.      With what intention did the Director write a letter to Warsaw?
The Director wrote the letter to Warsaw regarding the allocation of an elephant in the zoo. His intention was to forward a plan to obtain an elephant by more economic means. That is why he proposed to have a rubber elephant with appropriate size and colour. He sent this proposal with a satisfaction that he was contributing to his country in reducing the expenditure and use the saved money for some better purpose and cause for the country.

3.      What did they plan to address the problem of immobility of the elephant?
Very cleverly but stupidly at the same time they decided to put a board declaring the elephant particularly lazy and sluggish which hardly moved.

4.      The Director’s proposal was promptly approved. What does it symbolize?
This event simply symbolizes that not only the Director but even the superior officers and authorities were equally incompetent and stupid. They approved the proposal without analysing it properly. They did not even bother for the impact of such stupidity on the common men and children who used to frequent the park for educational purpose.

5.      “The Director of the Zoological Garden is not at all worthy of the post.” Explain the statement with supportive argument from the story.
From the very beginning of the story its evidently clear that the Director does not bother for anything else except his own benefit and promotion. Animals in the zoo are just the stepping stones on his way to success. This zoological garden is particularly meant for educational purpose but the Director is totally indifferent to this purpose and cause. He always thinks how to get promotion and bonus. For him educational purpose or society or children do not matter. Thus it’s very much clear that he was not worthy of the post.

6.      Explain the symbolical significance of ‘Rubber elephant filled with gas’.
In this story everything is symbolically used with a satirical intent in order to criticize something else at the political front. The rubber elephant filled with gas symbolically represents the artificial existence of fake and deceiving laws and manifestos of the communist government of Poland. It also symbolises the hollowness of these manifestos having very weak substantiality.