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The Elephant Man: The Power of Compassion

I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man! – John Merrick

David Lynch’s heartbreaking classic The Elephant Man (1980) is a beautiful work of art exhibiting the human condition, the power of love, and the repercussions of ignorance. A tale of immense compassion, starring Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt, The Elephant Man is based upon a true story of one spectacular man John Merrick and his life whilst suffering from severe deformities during the Victorian era. 

We first meet John Merrick as a circus show freak, utterly degraded to that of not even an animal, more like an inanimate object. Forced to live in horrible conditions, with absolutely no quality of life, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a surgeon, comes across this man and brings him into the hospital to study his deformities. Here is where the story and bond between John Merrick and Frederick Treves begins as we see Frederick Treves slowly break down barriers and bring out the man behind the deformities. Within The Elephant Man we see the problem with society in how we judge too quickly and have an intolerance towards those who are different, still completely relevant today. Whilst watching The Elephant Man it made me think of Michael Foucault’s essay History of Madness in which he uncovers and analyses the history of those outcasted and ostracised. History of Madness ultimately demonstrates how as a society we need something to point fingers at, we need a clear separation between the normal and the abnormal to function. Madness, or simply being different, was a key symbol within societies, placing certain outcast individuals within a liminal space, not being part of society, but still functioning as a symbol within it. The Renaissance Period birthed The Ship of Fools in which those deemed mad were literally sent on a boat to aimlessly wander the sea’s. Here we encounter madness, difference, outcasts, becoming a spectacle for society. This is where I find a link with Lynch’s The Elephant Man as we see John Merrick quite literally become a spectacle to society, being displayed as only something to gaze upon whilst completely disregarding this “spectacle” as a real human being. 

John Merrick demonstrates the power of love and the importance of compassion through his calm and eloquent speech and kind heart. John Merrick’s disfigured body is but only a bump in the road for him as we later see his ability to have tea with women, construct miniature cathedrals, and read and speak with great class to be unhindered by his deformity. The message I gather from The Elephant Man and particularly through characters such as John Merrick, is that we must learn to love, regardless of physical appearance as who we are is what we are within our core. It also exhibits the human condition, how yes we do judge but we must learn to change, to accept, and to help. Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves demonstrates the power of acceptance and through his acceptance we see John Merrick finally find the ability to be the real person he is. A fantastic film, beautifully directed, and wonderfully acted, demonstrating how we truly can judge a society by how it treats its vulnerable members. 

My life is full because I know I am loved. – John Merrick

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