Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1507
John Merrick lived his last four years in the hospital, a man ennobled by his suffering—never bitter, always forgiving. His was a humanity that transcends that of normal society; yet, it is normal society that Merrick aspired to join.
In Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, the protagonist, Merrick, forces his audience to reconsider its definitions and expectations of what is considered normal. As Martin Gottfried observed in his review of the play, ‘‘Treves is trying to ‘normalize’ Merrick by making him like himself.’’
Yet Treves focuses only on the deformity, and he is unable to see that underneath the growths and protrusions there exists a real human being with desires and needs similar to his own. In this respect, Merrick is as ‘‘normal’’ as Treves.
The Elephant Man, although set 115 years ago and staged twenty years ago, is especially topical because it questions the rights of patients and their quality of life. In Merrick’s efforts to lead a normal life, the audience is able to project their own desires for normalcy. Merrick’s struggle, then, is akin to our own.
In her essay, which explores the ethics of medical technology on stage, Angela Belli states that ‘‘life in an age of ever-increasing dehumanizing forces’’ threatens to control twentieth-century man. Belli asserts that man has benefited from the technological advances in science and medicine but that these same advances raise concerns about the patient’s physical and mental well being. These advances eventually create the sort of ‘‘moral dilemmas’’ that Belli argues the ‘‘public is largely ill-prepared’’ for; she is concerned about the quality of life issues that people must now face as men seek to exert some control over their own destiny.
Belli’s focus on the contractual rights of patients to exercise control over their own lives is illustrated by Treves’s insistence that Merrick be denied access to Mrs. Kendal. Because Treves does not approve of the merest hint of sexual interest— and although nothing improper has occurred—Mrs. Kendal is banished.
Yet, Treves’s stated intent was always to bring some semblance of normalcy to Merrick’s life. What is more normal than sexual interest in an attractive woman?
Merrick’s repeated questions about Mrs. Kendal’s absence are ignored or rebuffed, as would be the questions of an inquisitive child. Treves ignores the contractual relationship and assumes a parent-child relationship with Merrick. He is reduced to a child-like state and is unable to assert his needs because Treves assumes total control over Merrick’s desires.
Treves’s goal is to turn Merrick into a proper Victorian gentleman, a reflection of Treves. In this respect, the doctor is seeking to use science—which as Belli notes—is unable to help Merrick.
Instead, Treves seeks ‘‘to prove that although his patient is beyond any medical cure, science can improve his life by transforming him into a reasonable facsimile of an upper-class Englishman of the Victorian Age.’’
Of course, this is an illusion since normalcy, at least in Treves’s eyes, is restricted to a non-sexual, superficially normal life. Merrick is a young man, and young men are interested in the sexuality of women. Yet when Merrick reveals his interest in Mrs. Kendal as a sexual woman, Treves is shocked and disgusted. Normalcy is the eunuch-like existence of a child.
Normalcy is an illusion in other respects. In the artificial world of his hospital room, Merrick eventually comes to understand that the ‘‘normal’’ life that Treves has constructed is only ‘‘an approximation of the life he longs for.’’ As Belli points out, ‘‘Merrick is confined within an environment where normalcy and freedom are merely a pretence.’’ That he can ever lead a...
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