Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Elephant Man in Context: The Victorian Freak Show


According to Nadja Durbach's book, Spectacle of Deformity, many factors contributed to the rise in popularity of the freak show in Victorian England, such as its affordability compared to other forms of entertainment, the arrival of the railroad and steamship, which gave the shows an international appeal, and the rise in interest in medicine and natural sciences (20).

People with physical deformities were often displayed alongside exotic animals and people from far away lands so that the exhibits were sometimes little more than "extensions of British colonialism" (Kochanek, 229). The medical community was also responsible for commodifying people with deformities. In her article, "Reframing the Freak," Kochanek explains that the Victorian medical community transformed deformities into medical conditions and, "Freakishness becomes an effect of medical discourse rather than the product of sideshow ballyhoo. Each case history also constructs deformity as an appropriate medical subject (removing it from the realm of voyeurism), even while making deformity subject to medical practice, as rhetorical and clinical methods become the 'spectacle'" of deformity. The deformity, the freak, and their representations become valuable commodities insofar as they make teratological study possible" (234).

Kochanek also points out that the physician's rhetoric is often theatrical, referring to the deformities as "monstrosities" or "disturbing abnormalities," making doctors who put patients on display no better than showmen. She states, "Medicine, like sideshow barkers, brought deformity into view, substituting its own narratives for those of less methodical, less scrupulous and less forthright presenters of the same spectacles" (241).

Durbach argues that the story of the Elephant Man is a romanticized version of the truth and that Joseph Merrick, who suffered from neurofibromatosis, and profited from displaying himself in side shows, had more agency than history credits him with. Performers in side shows often achieved fame and became household names. However, when Joseph Merrick moved into the hospital, he was put on display and forced to strip down for medical shows on a regular basis and was treated little better than a circus freak. Even in death, he was exploited by his so-called medical protectors when his bones were put on display in the London Medical College’s Pathological Museum.

Based on historical information available about the treatment of people with physical deformities by side shows and by the medical community in the Victorian era, it is clear that John Merrick was just as much a spectacle when he worked for the side shows as when he placed himself in the care of the medical community. It appears that in both instances he was little better than a sensational commodity, which sheds a new light on his death. In David Lynch's 1980 film, The Elephant Man, Merrick lies down in bed and suffocates from the weight of his head. Although he seems to be treated kindly by the medical community and by all of the rich and famous people who visit him in the hospital, he realizes that he is and always will be a spectacle and a commodity, to be stared at, studied, and used, but never fully accepted or loved. This is made painfully obvious in the penultimate scene when he attends a musical performance and becomes the center of attention, stared at by not only the audience, but the actors on the stage. This information may lead one to believe that his death was not an accident.

Works Cited

Durbach, Nadja, Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture, University of California Press, 2010

Kochanek, Lisa A., "Reframing the Freak: From Sideshow to Science," Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Fall, 1997), pp. 227-243

The Elephant Man, Director David Lynch, 1980

1 comment:

  1. Very insightful comments and review. It's interesting that the medical world continues to be fascinated with Merrick's condition . An international team of researchers studied his fragile bones in a recent Discovery documentary, "Meet the Elephant Man." They used CT scans and CGI imaging, even animating him and giving him a simulated "voice." Their work has brought new interest and compassion for Merrick and shed light on Proteus Syndrome, his progressively terminal condition, yet has also put him on display once again. Each new generation finds something to learn from Joseph - he himself knew he would be preserved for posterity and was resigned to it. Ultimately, I do think he would want people to learn from his example of courage and dignity.