The Elephant Man Summary

Bernard Pomerance

The Elephant Man

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The Elephant Man Summary

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“The Elephant Man” is an award-winning play which is based on the real-life experiences of John Merrick, who lived from 1862-1890. The play is divided into twenty-one scenes that depict the last six years of Merrick’s life. Merrick lived in London during the latter part of the nineteenth century, which is known as the Victorian Period. He suffered from what is now known as Proteus Syndrome, though this was never mentioned in the play or even named as such by his doctors of the time. The disease caused Merrick to suffer from extreme disfigurement to his face due to growths on his skull, and resulted in his being showcased as a sideshow “freak” attraction due to his deformity.

Merrick is exhibited and exploited by a man named Ross, a crooked carnival manager, until he is eventually rescued by another of the play’s main characters, Fredrick Treves, a young doctor who initially pays to study Merrick’s strange condition. Though seemingly looking after Merrick, Treves’ interest and research regarding Merrick lead him to actually exploit Merrick in his own way, albeit under the guise of learning and progress. Treves uses Merrick as a model while giving lectures on his deformities, thus showcasing him much like Ross did in the carnival shows.

When Merrick is eventually abandoned by Ross in Brussels because he has become a liability, the police find Treves’ card on Merrick. He is contacted, and Merrick goes to live with the doctor back in London, where he is given shelter at the hospital and introduced to London society. Though Merrick wants to be an individual like any other man, he is pitied and sensationalized by the aristocracy and literati of Victorian London.

Given his disfigurement, and that he has no friends, Treves enlists the help of an actress, Mrs. Kendal, to act like she is perfectly alright with being friends with Merrick, despite his condition. Merrick eventually meets her friends, but none of them see him as anything other than the “object” everyone is fascinated with. Mrs. Kendal alone seems to understand that Merrick is a unique individual simply trying to fit in. At the same time, Merrick becomes deeply religious, and spends much of the play working on a model of St. Philip’s Church. He also confides in Mrs. Kendal one day by telling her he has never seen a woman’s body. Mrs. Kendal responds by taking off her clothes and showing Merrick her naked body. As the play is set in Victorian London, where conservative morals were greatly espoused, Treves becomes incensed at Mrs. Kendal’s behavior, and she is subsequently banished from seeing Merrick.

Ironically, Treves himself dreams that it is Merrick who is lecturing about him, thus showcasing him as a sexually repressed individual who is also self-centered. By the end of the play, Merrick’s body is failing him. At the end, he has a dream involving the Pinhead sisters, who are three disfigured women he met earlier on. He is sitting up while sleeping, as his head is too large at this point and this is the only way he can sleep. In the dream, the sisters pick him up and lay him down, and the reader then finds that Merrick has died in real life, presumably from the weight of his head crushing his breathing.

One of the strongest symbols in the play is the model of St. Philip’s Church that Merrick begins working on when he returns to London and is at the hospital. The elaborate model represents Merrick’s own attempt to reconstruct his own image into something beautiful and graceful. Merrick wants to fit in to society. More than fitting in, however, he wants to be viewed as an individual, and looked upon as a model individual much like the model of the church. Merrick sees himself and those around him as actors, and as such, he wants to imitate beauty and grace so that those around him will consider him a respectable part of society.

Merrick’s deformity itself suggests a larger issue in Treves’ Victorian London. Though Merrick is arguably the main character in the play, much of the thematic expression comes from Treves’ character. Though Treves both exploits and cares for Merrick, he is seen as a symptom of his time. In other words, the disfiguring social milieu of Victorian London resulted in greed and avarice, which in turn led to a ruthlessness due to privilege. This ruthlessness and privilege as disfigurement can be seen in the character of Ross, the cruel carnival manager who is willing to take advantage of anyone and everyone to further his own goals. The symbolic disfigurement can also be seen in London society, which is so intent on sensationalizing Merrick and his predicament at the expense of not seeing him as a human being.

Perhaps most tellingly, the moral decay as disfigurement is seen in Treves himself and his complex stance with Merrick. He furthers himself as a doctor by studying Merrick, to the point of showcasing him and “exploiting” him for his goals in society. He thrives off of Merrick’s predicament, and yet he also exposes how shallow and guilty Victorian London is by his actions. In order for him to succeed in his goals with Merrick, society must be willing to accept what he is offering, and the play shows time and again that society is, due its privilege and decay, almost a carnival in itself. By exploiting Merrick, Treves also shows just how corrupt and diseased society itself is.

“The Elephant Man” went on to win numerous awards after it publication in 1979, including a Tony, Obie, Drama Desk Award and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Perhaps most recognizable for many, the play was made into a movie by David Lynch in 1980.