The Elephant Man--A Few Questions, Possibly Spoilers

Just got done watching the whole movie for the first time, and I have some questions (and like the subject says, possible spoilers)

  • When Merrick is having tea at Dr. Treeves’ home with Treeves and his wife he asks about the pictures on the mantle. He points at one and inquires about it and Dr. Treeves says it’s a picture of their children. “Children! Where are they now?” asks Merrick. Dr. Treeves and Mrs. Treeves exchange a look and he says, “Uh…they’re out with friends.” I wondered about this glance between them. What does it mean? Are the children dead or is Treeves afraid that they’ll be shocked and scared of Merrick?

  • This is where the spoiler comes in. How come Merrick can’t “sleep like normal people”? Is it because if he lays down, he might suffocate because of the structure of his face, or did his master at the carnival tell him that (not to sleep on his back) to be cruel? In the end he takes off all the pillows and lays his head down on the bed, instead of sitting up and laying his head on his knees. Then it has a shot of the sky/clouds and stars and Merrick’s mother. Did Merrick die in the end?

Well, I found out the answer to my second question which is really so obvious (I haven’t felt that stupid about a movie question since Titanic when the old lady died). Of course he died from suffication. I’m still curious about the first question, though.

I always assumed that it was to protect the children from seeing the Elephant Man. Of course, in Victorian society, there was probably zero chance of seeing the kids anyway – even if they were in the same house.

It could be that the kid’s were there, but they did not want to bring them out.

I agree with KeithB, the glance exchanged between Dr. Treeves and his wife was meant to show that they were consulting between themselves on the advisibility of introducing the Elephant Man to the children and decided against it.

And of course, as you found out, the ending of the movie was Merrick deciding to end his suffering after having experienced one of the happiest moments in his life.

The David Lynch movie isn’t entirely accurate - they took quite a few liberties. For that matter, the Bernard Pomerance Play (with which the movie is NOT associated)isn’t completely accurate either. Both are based on Treves’ memoirs and on Ashley Montagu’s book “The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity”.

But there is another book – 'THe True and Tragic History of the Elephant Man" – that came out in 1980, the same time as the film. This book is meticulously researched (Penguin publshed it, but I forget the authors), far better than Montagu’s book. This all happened only a hundred years ago – many of the records still exist. Before this book no one seems to have looked them up.

Case in point: his nam was JOSEPH Merrick, not John. Treves got it wrong in his memoirs, and everyone has followed him, apparenty believing that Treves couldn’t be wrong on so basic a point. But he very clearly was. The workhouse records, the hospital records, even the obituary written by hospital director Carr Gomm (John Gielgud in the movie) give his name as “Joseph”, not "John.
I don’t think Merrick ever had tea with the Treves’ (and he probably never met the actress Madge Kendall, despite both the book and the film), so I think that the screenwriter is responsible for the line about the children – and I suspect they were sent out to avoid gawking.

As for his death, I think the jury’s still out on whether it was suffocation or dislocation.

An interesting point – for years peopl said that The Elephant an suffered from neurofibromatosis, also nown as Van Recklinghausen’s disease. The disease is still around and has no cure (when I saw he Bernard Pomerance play on Broadway there was an ad for the Neurofibromatosis Society).
But in recent years people have been saying that he suffered from some other disease. I must have missed a announcement in JAM or something.

In my Intro Genetics course, my prof told us he had neurfibromatosis, and that he died when he slept on his back because the weight of the neurofibroma on his head snapped his neck. Or, at least, thats what I remember the prof saying. Perhaps I misremember - I didn’t actually take notes on those details since they didn’t matter for the course. I haven’t seen the movie, or read much about “The Elephant Man” but his situation interests me. Perhaps I’ll go out and buy that book CalMeacham suggested.

The book I cited is The True History of the Elephant Man by Michael Howell and Peter Ford. Here’s a link to it on Amazon:

Wouldn’t you know, the best book on the topic and it’s out of print. I have two copies around this house somewhere, and I can’t fnd either one.

There are many copies of The True History of the Elephant Man at ABE Books. Several of the paperback copies are available for less than $4.00. Or, you could probably get it from your local library. It’s a great book – very informative and meticulously researched.

I have no evidence for this, it’s just something I thought of when I first heard this.

Merrick had serious deformities around his mouth. His own name–Joseph–might have been all but impossible for him to say intelligibly. “John” would be an easier name to pronounce.

It now seems that Merrick may have suffered from Proteus syndrome, which is far more rare than NF. The few pictures I’ve seen of other sufferers in medical books does seem to bear this out.