Joseph Corey Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, lived with an extremely rare disease during the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It was a time before the medical diagnostics that we are so accustomed to now, such as blood tests, DNA analysis, X-rays, and MRIs. He suffered from the ravages of the progressive disease as well as the revulsion expressed by the people who encountered him.
Prepare for the discussion by first watching the documentary about Joseph Carey Merrick, watching David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man, and reading Merrick’s poem. It is important that you first see the documentary before the film. This activity aligns with module outcomes 1 and 4.
- Lynch’s film is the dramatization of Merrick’s life with a style (black and white, for example) that almost puts the viewer in his shoes. The documentary is about Merrick’s life, a history, as well as medicine’s quest for answers. Which of the two had the greater impact on you and why.
- The film and the documentary examine the different motivations of people who took an interest in Merrick. There was Dr. Treves who at one point questioned his own motives. There were the gawkers who came to see him in the “freak show.” There were the members of high society including royalty. To the best of your ability, examine what you think the motivations were for these people.
- Merrick used the poem by Isacc Watts (1674-1748) in the pamphlet that was used for his shows, and he often recited it. Now that you have gotten to know Merrick, how do you interpret this poem in relation to his life and experience?