What relationship does Princess Alexandra define in Scene 11 of Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man concerns the historical Joseph Carey Merrick, incorrectly referred to as John Merrick in the play, who developed extreme deformities after birth due to Proteus syndrome. As a result of his deformities, he spent most of his life as an outcast of society and enslaved in a freak show. One of the central themes in the play concerns Merrick's goal to build himself as a new person, not physically but socially. He wants to present himself as a socially acceptable person who can be seen as beautiful, just as he sees St. Phillip's church as beautiful, an important symbol and recurring motif. Scene 11 is fascinating because it shows him interacting with members of high society, and with each high society member he interacts with, we get a glimpse of how Merrick is reconstructing himself.

In Scene 11, various high society personages come to wish John Merrick a happy Christmas. The high society personages include a duchess, a countess, Lord John, and Princess Alexandra. Each character says he/she is "very pleased to have made [Merrick's] acquaintance." However, what's particularly interesting about this scene is the various Christmas gifts they bring Merrick. Even more fascinating is that there is a striking contrast between the princess's gift and the gifts of the others.

The gifts of the first few characters are all tokens of vanity meant to superficially improve a person's outer appearance. For example, he's given a ring by the duchess, and accessories like jewelry can be very attractive. He's also given a "silver-backed" brush and comb set by the countess, which can also be used to a make a person's physical appearance more attractive. He is further given a "silver-topped walking stick" by Lord John, and since such things are only used by the distinguished and the wealthy, using one can make a person feel more distinguished, more accepted by society. Merrick thanks all the characters for their gifts because he knows they are a sign of his becoming accepted by society.

But the princess's gift to Merrick is very different. She gives him a "signed photograph of herself," and Merrick says he's already written to thank her husband for the game birds he sent. Interestingly, her photograph is the only gift of which he states, "It is the treasure of my possessions." One might assume he is being sarcastic because he sees it as a token of her vanity whereas the other characters' gifts were meant to encourage his own vanity. Or, in keeping with the theme that he is trying to rebuild himself just like he is building the model of St. Phillip's church, one can also see he is being sincere about his gift because he sees it as a model. Just like he sees St. Phillip's church as a model of the beauty he wants to strive to achieve, he also sees her photograph as a model of the beauty, grace, and social acceptance he is striving to achieve.

Hence, it can be said that Princess Alexandra's photograph helps to underscore the theme of transformation and helps to define Merrick's developing relationship with society.