Who are the main characters in The Elephant Man? How would you describe them?

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John (or Joseph, in real life) Merrick is the main character in the play The Elephant Man. He is a young man in his 20s who was born with physical deformities, including an abnormally large head. Though he is performing in a freak show in London and thought of as disabled, Merrick is a friendly and intelligent man who is lonely and longs for friendship and for recognition of his humanity. He has several health complications from his condition and can't sleep in a reclining posture, as his head will crush his windpipe and cause him to suffocate. He spends his days reading Shakespeare and constructing a model of a church.

Sir Frederick Treves is a prominent London surgeon who finds Merrick and who pays the owner of the freak show in which Merrick is performing to bring Merrick to the hospital for tests. Treves recognizes Merrick's intelligence and humanity, and he and his wife treat Merrick with kindness. He convinces the director of the hospital, Carr Gomm, to allow Merrick to permanently stay in the hospital. Treves is a moral man who begins to question whether bringing Merrick to the hospital is kind after Merrick becomes an attraction for people in elite society. 

Mrs. (Madge) Kendal is a famous British actress of the time who befriends Merrick and introduces him to Shakespeare. She is aware of the humanity of her friend and bears her chest to him when she hears that he has never seen a woman's body. However, Treves bars her from the hospital when he learns what she has done. Mrs. Kendal is a kind and open woman who sees Merrick as a man rather than as a freak.


jilllessa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The central character of The Elephant Man is John Merrick.  He suffers from a condition called Proteus Syndrome and he is hideous to behold with large growths growing out of his head.  John is intelligent and sensitive which is demonstrated in his ability to appreciate and discuss Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  Despite his deformity, Merrick has compassion, understanding, and depth.

The other major character in the play is Dr. Treves who finds Merrick and gives him a home in the hospital in return for the chance to study him.  Treves is a fairly shallow character who congratulates himself on doing good by helping Merrick.  He cares for Merrick but does not understand Merrick's depth of character.  Knowing Merrick changes Treves in ways that he does not quite understand as he comes to appreciate the fullness of Merrick's character despite his limitations.  Treves has no such physical limitations but he has limitations in his mind, which he sees in his dream in scene 18.  Treves greatly mourns Merrick's death.