How is the building of the church by John Merrick a central metaphor in the play The Elephant Man?

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After John Merrick arrives at the hospital, he begins to build a paper model of the cathedral whose steeple he can see out of his window. He is able to glimpse only the top of the steeple, so he must construct the rest of the church from his imagination.

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After John Merrick arrives at the hospital, he begins to build a paper model of the cathedral whose steeple he can see out of his window. He is able to glimpse only the top of the steeple, so he must construct the rest of the church from his imagination.

The church model is a symbol of his imagination and his faith—not only in God but also in himself. As he flourishes at the hospital, so does his church grow. At the beginning of the play, he is without faith, but his humane treatment from Dr. Treves and others helps his faith flourish. As Merrick must create the cathedral out of his own mind, so he must contribute to his own faith. He works on building the model with only one good hand, symbolizing the way in which his faith is at times troubled, given his complicated and difficult life. Merrick completes the cathedral just before he dies, showing that his faith is intact when he dies.

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The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance is positively steeped in religious themes, making it something of a rarity on the modern stage. The central message of this Tony-winning drama is that, in the midst of all the ugliness and superficiality of life, salvation is still possible. In the case of Merrick, such salvation is achieved through the medium of art. Though hideously deformed by his genetic condition, the titular "Elephant Man" nonetheless possesses a gentle soul, and with it extraordinary artistic ability.

He sets about building a model of St. Phillip's Church, which is expressly designed to be an imitation of divine grace springing up and away from the muddy ground on which the real-life version is built. Merrick's progress in building the model church matches his spiritual progress. But, like the model church he so painstakingly constructs, he can only ever be an imitation; in his case, he sees himself as an imitation of a man. His genetic inheritance is such that he will never truly be accepted by the society in which he lives, never regarded as fully human.

He's left with no choice, then, but to bear his cross like Christ and continue on the path of spiritual and moral growth. Merrick's building of the model church is an important part of this process and symbolizes the building of Christ's church on earth.

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Merrick struggles throughout the play to find a normal life, given the enormous growths on his head that lead to him being part of a freak show for much of his early life.  He is taken advantage of frequently and struggles to have real friendships and a sense of purpose.

But he has very deep religious beliefs, and part of the way he expresses them is in the way he studies and eventually constructs a model of St. Phillip's church.  The model building coincides with his progression and the fact that he has finally found some human companionship and has found people who are willing to listen to him and consider him human.

As he continues the construction of the church, his understanding of and relationships with the people around him deepen and he appears to be moving towards a somewhat complete life including a sexual awakening through his relationship and conversations with Mrs. Kendal.

He finishes the model just before he dies, and in some ways the model might then be interpreted as a model of his life.  As it reaches a completed state, his purpose and the conflict are resolved and he is released from the difficulties of his mortal body and its disfigurements.

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