Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

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The historical Merrick was born with Proteus syndrome (not the inherited disorder neurofibromatosis as has been suggested). Although never named by his doctors or mentioned in the play, the disease is central to Merrick’s biography and Bernard Pomerance’s drama. Proteus syndrome created the extreme deformities of face and form that gave Merrick his cruel nickname and led to his virtual enslavement as a sideshow curiosity.

Throughout his tenure at the hospital, Merrick builds an elaborate scale model of St. Phillip’s Church. The model is the play’s dominant symbol, for it represents Merrick’s attempt to reconstruct himself in a form that will be seen as beautiful by those he hopes to please. Merrick recognizes himself and others as actors, all playing roles. He plans his social role as carefully as he plans his model. Merrick says of himself and the model: “I did not begin to build at first. Not till I saw what St. Phillip’s really was. It is not stone and steel and glass; it is an imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud. So I make my imitation of an imitation.”

Another theme, the arbitrary distinction between deviance and normality, is brought home in scene 12, titled “Who Does He Remind You Of?” In this scene, the main characters comment on the character traits they recognize in Merrick. Mrs. Kendal sees him as gentle, feminine, cheerful, honest, a serious artist, “almost like me.” Bishop Walsham How proclaims Merrick religious and devout, while Gomm thinks Merrick a practical man, like himself. Treves describes Merrick as curious, compassionate, and concerned about the world, “rather like myself.” The scene ends with Merrick adding a piece to his model of St. Phillip’s, as if adding another stone to the fragile edifice of normality and acceptance he is building for himself.

Throughout the play, Merrick’s inner nature emerges. In sharp contrast to those around him, he is kind, patient, loving, and sympathetic. He is a deep thinker and philosopher, seeing what others cannot and expressing what others dare not. For example, when Gomm fires a hospital porter for staring at Merrick, Merrick considers the punishment harsh, but Treves insists that Gomm is a merciful man. “If your mercy is so cruel,” asks Merrick, “what do you have for justice?”

The themes of vulnerability and exploitation pervade the story. Merrick is victimized but escapes the scars of victimization through the strength and beauty of his inner being. Ross, on the other hand, is greed personified. He exploits any person or situation that he can, without concern for the toll his avarice takes on himself or others. Treves, by far the most complex character in the drama, is both exploiter and exploited. While he takes advantage of Merrick, he himself is taken advantage of by a society that rewards those who play by the rules with fame and success, while at the same time stripping them of their integrity and conscience.

On the surface, the play is about Merrick, but the lesson the audience takes home comes from Treves. He despairs that his society is sick with the social “deformities” brought on by “unlimited resources and the ruthlessness of privilege.” His own success in such a milieu plagues him, and he is sick at heart. He recognizes that his charity is self-serving and patronizing. His angst makes the audience wonder whether they, like Treves, wear a mask of civility to conceal their own contorted souls.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

Alienation and Loneliness
On account of his disease, Merrick is completely isolated from normal society: first in the freak show, and later, in his quarters in London Hospital. When Treves meets him, he is treated as a freak and in dire need of friendship.

Although Treves has kind motives, Merrick remains isolated in the hospital; Treves often treats him as a subject to study; and the burgeoning friendship between Kendal and Merrick is ruined when they become too close. When she is banished, Merrick is left even more lonely—now he knows what he is missing, and it breaks his heart.

Beauty
In a society that values beauty, Merrick is an outcast: his appearance is so deformed and hideous that people run from him in fear. He serves as an interesting contrast for the beautiful Mrs. Kendal, whose humanity is far greater than her beauty. She is able to look past the deformity and perceive the beauty of Merrick’s soul.

Creativity and Imagination
In his artwork, Merrick finds an escape from his problems. Alone in his room at the hospital, he begins to sketch St. Phillip’s. There is a beauty in his art that Merrick thinks is missing from his life. Although he is trapped in a body that has betrayed him, Merrick’s mind reveals hidden talents.

Fear
When Merrick arrives at Liverpool Station, mobs of people attack him out of fear—scared of what they might become and scared of a disease they do not understand.

Treves has his own fears. Like so many other Victorians, Treves fears sexuality and what it represents: loss of control and the embracing of emotion.

Freedom
Because he is so obviously different and he inspires fear in public, Merrick’s movements are severely restricted. The hospital is supposed to be a safe place, but Merrick gives up freedom for that safety. When Mrs. Kendal is thrown out, Merrick is powerless: he cannot make choices and is dependent on Treves to invite her back. True freedom for Merrick only comes with death, when he becomes free from his bodily constraints.

Human Condition
Treves perceives Merrick as a reflection of his own humanity and seeks to impose his values and beliefs on him. In the process, he ignores that Merrick is a human being with needs of his own. Each of the people who visit Merrick views him as a reflection of his or her own values.

Mrs. Kendal relates that Merrick is gentle, cheerful, honest, almost feminine—just like her. The Bishop thinks Merrick is religious and devout— just like the bishop. Gomm thinks Merrick is practical and thankful for his blessings—just like Gomm. The Duchess thinks Merrick is discreet— just as she is. Even Treves falls victim to this game and thinks Merrick is curious, compassionate, concerned with the world—just as Treves is.

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