In Victorian London, Dr. Frederick Treves with the London Hospital comes across a circus sideshow attraction run by a man named Bytes called “The Elephant Man”. In actuality, the creature on display is indeed a man, twenty-one year old John Merrick who has several physical deformities, including an oversized and disfigured skull, and oversized and disfigured right shoulder. Brutish Bytes, his “owner”, only wants whatever he can get economically by presenting Merrick as a freak.
Treves manages to bring Merrick under his care at the hospital – not without several of its own obstacles, including being questioned by those in authority since Merrick cannot be cured. Treves initially believes Bytes’ assertion that mute Merrick is an imbecile, but ultimately learns that Merrick can speak and is a well-read and articulate man. As news of Merrick hits the London newspapers, he becomes a celebrated curiosity amongst London’s upper class, including with Mrs. Kendal, a famed actress. Despite treated much more humanely, the question becomes whether Treves’ actions are a further exploitation of Merrick.
And as Merrick becomes more famous, others try to get their two-cents worth from who still remains a curiosity and a freak to most, including to Bytes, who has since lost his meal ticket. The movie is loosely based on the real story of Joseph Merrick, known as “The Elephant Man”, who was thought to have suffered from elephantiasis and was perceived as being abnormal and different because of it. As portrayed in the movie, “The Elephant Man” was not classifyed as human but inhuman; a stranger to most. But who establishes what abnormal is? Do humans really believe they have that power? The Elephant Man” is just another example of someone different. To me he isn’t a monster, just misunderstood, and to label him like that suggest that there’s something within him that makes him less human that the rest of us. What I found hard to grasp was trying to understaning what lies in the concept of being abnormal in order to have an idea of what being normal means. I mean the notion of “us” suggests that there must be a majority to differ from; a range of normality that constitutes the abnormal. But who decides who’s normal and who’s not? What is normal anyways?
I mean all it does is overrule, distort, and oppress everything that cannot meet it’s certain demands and qualifications. I rather be anything BUT normal. The main reason “The Elephan Man” was shund out of society was because of his physical features and “deformities”. But why should a physical difference come to mark a psychological one? In the movie the audience/spectators come to represent normality or the unit of ‘us’, standing in opposition to John Merrick. Because of his difference they see fit to classify themselves as ‘normal’ and different from him. And in a way they are.
You see, unlike them, Merrick was highly capable of civilized behaviour. The characteristics of his physical appearance are not regarded as simple features but as deformities, as abnormal, even monstrous. Why do the spectators react so strongly towards something they find not to resemble themselves? Why do they, the unit of normality, need to point out that he is being different while they get to be normal? Why does the representation of normality feel an urge to define itself through what it is not? I believe that the process of othering in the movie could be explained by the simple idea that we don’t know what we are.
I mean it seems that there is an infinity of things we could be as human beings, so why does society try and control something it has no power over? Is it affraid of what we can achieve, or does it not want us to achieve in the first place? I mean in Merricks case he wasn’t really classified as either one thing or the other. Just… abnormal. In our world those we find not to fit into our group are left as objects of either exclusion, repulsion, repression, oppression; or of a kind of fetishism which nonetheless seems to limit the object of obsession. In “The Elephant Man’s” case he was neither desier nor wanted but feard.
No one wanted to be-firend him, love him, see what he was like or even just say the odd hello. He was a freak, a caged spectical for people to point and laugh at. Treves, a doctor at London Hospital, stumbles upon and discovers “The Elephant Man” at a circus sideshow attraction run by the cruel and repulise Bytes and appoints himself the his owner so that he could present him to the members of his medical society. He’s given many detailed, scientific examination before being returned to his owner, but, being subject to his frequent beatings, he falls ill and is hospitalized in secret where Treves works.
Treves discovers that “The Elephant Man” can talk and begins to referred to him as John Merrick. When the director of the hospital warns to have Merrick removed, Treves helps him and he is given permission to stay. Merrick’s stay in the hospital is mentioned in the papers, and soon curiosity leads a famous actress to visit him. The London nobility follows and Queen Victoria herself takes an interest in Merrick and starts protecting him. However, Merrick is not safe: his former owner forces Merrick back on the road with him and brings him to France.
The dwarves and other “freaks” of this show free Merrick from his abusive owner. After being freed Merrick finds his way back to England and collapses in a train station, chased by a mob attracted by his deformity. Treves brings Merrick back to the hospital, which is now his home, and an actress who earlier showed her interest in him arranges the most beautiful night of his life: an attendance to the theatre where she works. After this experience, Merrick deliberatedly goes to sleep while lying down, though he knows this will suffocate him because of his condition.
He dies in his sleep. From being “The Elephant Man” he’s turned into John Merrick, both characters who held the ability to frighten and horrify people by his mere look. In his appearance people recognize their own humanity, but apparently a distorted humanity. As the movie goes along, John Merrick is quietly humanized. He was dressed up, called upon by name (not nickname) and given conditions allowing him to show creativity. He read poetry, went to theatres, and drank tea like a true Englishman, you might say. Indeed, the monster more and more resembles a well taught pet.
The recognition of Merrick as a human being, the terrible necessity to identify with this deformed edition of a human, makes us turn him into a monster; something we do to make the identification less obvious. It leads us to conclude that he is not human. He cannot be human, and if he is human, than he must be dumb, as the doctor assures his colleague. The doctor in this way removes Merrick from the field of humanity all over again. The doctor bases his notion of humanity on the presence of intellect, while according to the public it has to do with physical features.
By saying this, the doctor distances Merrick from him just as the public does; there is only a small difference of procedure. But when Merrick starts talking and reciting the Bible he suddenly he belongs to our race again? How that makes sense, i’ll never know. Maybe, locked up behind the face of a monster, rests a human being. Reading Merriam-Webster dictionary defination of ‘normal’ it’s interesting to note how normality is also given a physical and mental connotation. And because of that we can therefore see how visible factors that differentiate an individual make him or her a possible target of othering.