What is a good summary of "The Elephant Man?"  

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thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Elephant Man is a play about a young man named Merrick who suffers from severe physical deformities. A medical doctor, Dr. Traves, first stumbles upon Merrick on an advert poster outside a shop. He pays twelve pence to see Merrick but is devastated by his deformities. In his many years of practice as a doctor, he has never seen such a deformed face. In fact, he looks nothing close to a human being and the tumors as well as layers of skin on his face cause him to resemble an elephant. Curious to investigate the condition further, Dr. Traves makes arrangements with Ross, Merrick’s manager, to take him to the hospital for a checkup.

It is only after three years that Dr. Traves meets Merrick again after the police trace him through a card they find in Merrick’s pocket. Sadly, during that period, Ross had taken Merrick on money-making freak show tours to different destinations and, finally, abandoned him in Belgium after fleecing him of the little he had earned from the shows.

Merrick’s life transforms when Dr. Traves, through the hospital’s chairman, manages to secure him a lifetime residence at the hospital. Even though Merrick still attracts bewildered stares from people because of his appearance, he adjusts well to his new home. Dr. Traves, however, is not genuine in his gestures, as his sole objective is to advance his career through research on Merrick. He is no different from Ross, who used Merrick in freak shows to enrich himself.

Over time, Merrick makes friends courtesy of Dr. Traves and many guests visit him at the hospital—including Mrs Kendal, a famous actress. He even gets an opportunity to go to the theater, a memorable occasion in his life. Merrick is finally happy with friends and a place to call home, a state he never previously imagined possible. One day, unfortunately, Dr. Traves finds Merrick’s lifeless body on his bed. He broke his neck in his sleep and died.

dymatsuoka eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John Merrick, a victim of Proteus Syndrome, is considered a freak of nature.  He is being exhibited byRoss, a carnival manager when he is rescued by Fredrick Treves, who pays to study Merrick's condition.  Treves then exploits Merrick himself, using him as a model while he shows slides of his deformities at a lecture.  Merrick is abandoned in Brussels by Ross when he becomes a liability.  Alone in London, he is found by a policeman who finds Treves' card in his pocket, and puts him under the doctor's care. 

Treves gives Merrick a home at the hospital, but forces him to constantly express his thanks and follow his rules.  Treves brings an actress, Mrs. Kendal, to meet Merrick; she engages him in conversation and is impressed with his capability for deep thought.  Merrick meets her friends, but all of them fail to see that Merrick has a definite personality of his own.

Merrick develops a deep religious faith, and works on a model of St. Phillip's Church, representing his vision of perfection.  He is curious about his sexuality, and Mrs. Kendal shows him her body.  Treves dreams that Merrick is lecturing about him, exposing him as being self-centered and sexually repressed in a scene mirroring Treves' earlier lecture about Merrick.  Just as he is managing to achieve a somewhat normal life, Merrick's body begins to fail, and he dies.

There is a more comprehensive summary at the second link referenced below.