David Lynch’s 1980 black and white film depicts the life of a severely deformed man as he is brought to a hospital in Victorian-era London. Based on a true story, The Elephant Man film follows the later life of John Merrick, who suffers from extreme disfigurement and abuse at the hands of his freak show-handler, Bytes. He is rescued from the freak show by Dr. Treves, who pays Bytes to examine him and later gives Merrick temporary asylum at the hospital. After proving that he can read, speak, and function overall as an extremely intelligent individual, Merrick begins to live a more fulfilling life, integrating himself with London’s high society. However, it is called into question whether Merrick is simply being shown off once more, but to a very different crowd. Regardless, Merrick assures Treves that he is living an extremely rewarding and happy life, dying in his bed after deciding to sleep as a normal person does – something he knows will kill him.
The film effortlessly calls into question the idea of pity, and the goods and evils that come of it. By leading us through the film as one of the bystanders, or Dr. Treves himself, Lynch introduces us to ‘the elephant man’ blatantly, with one clean shot as his mask is taken off. No music, no slow motion, nothing. After building up his appearance and horrific features, the sight of his face is almost truly nothing terrifying to behold. No matter his deformity, it is the pain in his eyes that is quite clear. As Treves does, we experience pity, and even disgust for that pity. This is because we feel no better than the elite Londoners who take on Merrick as a charity case, though they put up the front of friendship. Treves himself questions his motives in his relationship with Merrick, calling into question whether or not his curiosity or friendship was misconstrued as pity, and if so, whether that makes him a bad person.
Is pity or sympathy always misguided; can anyone empathize with a situation they are so separate from? These are the questions that are emphasized in the film and are consequently asked in everyday situations such as homelessness, poverty, and disease. Where does pity cross the line into dignity’s domain? Can pity become the basis of a mutual friendship?
We see these contradictions every day, ones that lie between despising humanity while accepting its care, and respecting a man while exploiting his differences. As in Merrick’s case, we must trust that, even through the abuse, mistrust, misguided sympathy and friendship, he can still value his life and see himself as equal to those who deem him pitiful, perhaps deeming them as the pitiful ones. Though the film may construe these contradictions as black and white, the answers to these questions are in shades of gray. The Elephant Man asks us, for Merrick’s sake, to put our pity aside and to respect him as a human, not an elephant, and certainly not a monster.