Monstrosity, Masculinity, and Medicine: Reexamining “the Elephant Man”

Nadja Durbach

in Spectacle of Deformity

Published by University of California Press

Published in print October 2009 | ISBN: 9780520257689
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520944893 | DOI:
Monstrosity, Masculinity, and Medicine: Reexamining “the Elephant Man”

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)


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This chapter juxtaposes two competing narratives of Victorian Britain's most famous freak—“Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man”—to offer a reappraisal of the place of the freak show within the social, cultural, and economic history of labor, charity, and the state. These narratives come from surgeon Frederick Treves's memoir, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, and Tom Norman's account of “the Elephant Man”—which appears not only in his letter to World's Fair but also in the showman's own memoirs. It is argued that despite its inherent prejudices, Norman's interpretation of Merrick's life is a critical historical document as it insists that we interrogate the assumption that the freak show is always already exploitative, offering instead a more nuanced understanding of its economic and social role in the lives of deformed members of the working poor. In addition, this analysis of “the Elephant Man” interrogates late nineteenth-century medicine's relationship to deformity—which Treves uncritically championed as purely scientific, objective, and explicitly redemptive—suggesting that scientific medicine's engagement with human anomalies was dependent upon and deeply enmeshed in more popular and commercial discourses and practices surrounding the display of spectacular bodies.

Keywords: John Merrick; Frederick Treves; Tom Norman; freak show; human anomalies

Chapter.  10426 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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