ome forty years after the publication of Varney, a blatantly true-life monstrosity was indeed walking the streets of London in the person of John Merrick, the Elephant Man. Merrick, subject of the modern play and film The Elephant Man, is nearly as well known to us as to the Victorians. Exhibited in side-shows because of his hideous growths and shape, he was eventually rescued by Dr. Frederick Treves, who described his patient as "deformed in body, face, head and limbs. His skin, thick and pendulous hung in folds and resembled the hide of an elephant-hence his show name" (Howell & Ford, 129). Merrick was housed in the London Hospital where be remained until his mysterious death from suffocation. What he became was a kind of pet monster for upper-class Victorians, a man who took the fear away from strangeness and otherness by proving himself wholly domestic. Once saved from the savagery of exploitation, Merrick revealed a gentleness far greater than that of his persecutors. Eventually he entertained royalty, read widely, learned of the lively arts, and visited the beautiful countryside. They called him [103/104] "such a gentle, kindly man, poor thing!" (Lady Geraldine Somerset, 22 May 1887, cited in Howell & Ford, 129). Ugly on the outside but sterling within, Merrick seemed the perfect fairy-tale Beast.
Actually, he was a naive and ill man whose final years were not filled simply with ease and friendly callers. His disease was worsening, its crippling effect becoming more painful. For hours he would sit staring into space, despondently and rhythmically tapping at his pillow or the arm of his chair with his distorted right hand. Officially, however, Merrick gave his contemporary well-wishers what they wanted — gratitude and a sentimental feeling that theirs was a good world:
"Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.
"If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the occan with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind's the standard of the man."
(Howard & Ford, 189)
The second of these two verses appeared at the end of a pitiful document handed out at the freak-shows in which Merrick had been exhibited. Both verses capped a statement of thanks to his benefactors that was appended to an account of him published in the British Medical Journal. There Merrick confirms his inner goodness and, like Varney, accepts his God-given lot.
One wonders, however, if he did so to the end, for Merrick's death was unexpected enough to warrant an inquest. On the last day of his life he seemed quite as usual, so very usual that Treves found the circumstances of his death "peculiar." Merrick had chatted with his nurses and had accepted his lunch and yet two hours later was found dead, his food still untouched. He was presumed asphyxiated, the weight of his huge head having choked off his air supply when he lay down on his back to sleep. This was odd, because Merrick knew well how to live with his enormous head. He never slept recumbent but had always tucked himself into a fetal position and dozed sitting up. with the weight of the head supported by his knees. The "Report of the Coroner's Inquest" published in the Times for 16 April 1890, also contains a peculiarity: "The Coronor said that the man had been sent round the shows as a curiosity, and when death took place it was decided as a matter of prudence to hold this inquest." Surely there could not have been much precedent for an inquest based on these premises. The death of the Elephant Man seems shrouded in a mystery as impenetrable as the full-length cloak and strangely curtained hat that covered Merrick [104/105] from head to toe when he went out on the streets, Since there was no sign of a struggle, could Merrick have taken his own life?
Treves never says so directly, but he certainly implies as much in his 1926 pamphlet, "The Elephant Man." Written nearly three decades after Merrick's death, the pamphlet retrospectively strives to account for its circumstances. Treves claims of Merrick:
He often said to me that he wished he could lie down to sleep "like other people." I think on this last night he must, with some determination, have made the experiment. The pillow was soft, and the head, when placed on it, must have fallen back-wards and caused a dislocation of the neck. Thus it came about that his death was due to the desire that had dominated his life — the pathetic but hopeless desire to be "like other people. [Howard & Ford, 210]
Treves posits that the Elephant Man grew tired of being a Victorian other self. More practically, Merrick was also very insecure about his lodgings. Because of two successful, large-scale appeals by the London Hospital, he had been allowed to stay on in his hospital rooms until he died. Since he was not expected to live long, his stay was not projected as an impossible financial drain. But Merrick never got over the idea that he might be moved at any time, an obsession that Treves also focuses on in his narrative. This insecurity, coupled with his occasional despondency and his fear of people's gaze, might indeed have accounted for a desire to sleep forever. Merrick felt so deeply marked by the eyes of others that he told Treves he wanted his next move to be to an asylum for the blind, Perhaps he had been reading Frankenstein and recalled that the Monster's only gentle treatment came from an old blind man.
Thus there was darkness still in this man's new life. Gentle, spiteless, and uncynical he might have been, free from sadness and anxiety he was not. Earnestly, Treves acknowledges that darkness in the conclusion to his pamphlet:
He had been plunged into the Slough of Despond, but with manly steps he gained the farther shore. He had been made "a spectacle to all men" in the heartless streets of Vanity Fair. He had been ill-treated and reviled and bespattered with the mud of Disdain. He had escaped the clutches of the Giant Despair, and at last had reached the "Place of Deliverance," where "his burden loosed from off his back, so that he saw it no more. [Howard & Ford, 189]
Here his doctor rewrites Merrick's life not as that of a monster but as that of a pilgrim, echoing one of the Victorians' favorite stories. Merrick was converted by Victorian doctors, blue bloods, and show people from Elephant Man to Everyman. Small wonder his death was sentimentalized. Despite the inquest and Treves's concern over "peculiarity," there could be little official talk of suicide in Merrick's case. In [105/106] vested with Victorian projections of goodness and divested of all taint of the demonic or bestial, John Merrick had become a symbol of perseverance in the face of affliction. In the end, he came to embody the other self as angel, not devil.
Included on this site 10 April 2001; last modified 12 May 2023