The Elephant Man is the true-life tale of John Merrick, a man who, due to various genetic mutations, had a rather unseemly figure. His mutations led to the title of the Elephant Man during a career as an exhibition at a freak show.
Though the film is about Mr. Merrick, and centers on him, we do not see his face until about 30 minutes into the film. This, is likely the deliberate choice of director David Lynch in a successful attempt to make Mr. Merrick even more of a sympathetic character. Throughout the first 30 minutes of the film, we watch countless people’s horrified reactions to Merrick, Treves’ sympathetic reaction, watch Treves put Merrick on display in perhaps a much crueler way than Bytes, and watch Merrick be beaten by Bytes without doing anything wrong.
By the time we finally see what this man looks like, we feel we have begun to know Merrick and have made up our minds to like him, even if no one else does. This technique allows us to empathize with Merrick more than if his appearance were sprung on us in the beginning. We also are not exposed to the whole of Merrick’s appearance at once, another way of easing us into seeing Merrick for the man he is, rather than the “freak.” It is at the hospital, that we first see Merrick’s face, and that we begin to see the man behind that face.
After taking up residence at the hospital, John Merrick begins work on a cardboard replica of the cathedral. He constructs the church largely from his imagination, as he is not able to leave the hospital to see the church in person. All he can see is the steeple, rising over the other buildings, out his window. Throughout the film, he constructs this church with a skill and gentleness that, due to his upbringing, one might not expect.
The church, and its construction, plays a crucial role in the film. It is one of Merrick’s connections to the outside world, and yet a constant reminder of his isolated state. Furthermore, it is symbolic of his fortunes and life at the hospital. The church becomes nearer and nearer to completion as Merrick’s life becomes better and better. When Merrick’s life takes a disastrous turn for the worse and he isabducted, the church is shown broken on the floor along with a few flowers (a symbol of life and innocence – both of which Merrick in one sense possesses, and in another has lost). When Merrick returns to the hospital, he mends the church and, on the best, most full night of his life, finishes his cathedral.
Upon finishing it, Merrick signs his name, puts down the brush, and utters the line “It is finished.” This is the line that Jesus utters on the cross before dying and, in case we have yet to make the connection, the camera pans close to the cathedral, taking us through it and to a shot that is dominated by a cross. It is then that we understand Merrick is not simply talking about his cathedral. His life is also finished. As the church, the symbol of Merrick’s life at the hospital, is finished, so too, must his life be.
The symbolism in this final scene is not finished. We watch as Merrick looks to the picture on the wall of a sleeping child and we remember the line he confided to Treves: “I wish I could sleep like normal people do.” Merrick has chosen the most appropriate way he could end his life. He lays down on his back, and goes to sleep. The camera then pans to show his bedside table, which holds the pictures of the two most important women in his life, his mother and Mrs. Kendal, as well as the common book of prayer, which holds the psalm he recited to convince Treves and Carr of his intelligence. The camera continues to pan, showing us one last look of the cathedral before repeating, in reverse, minus the elephants, the opening sequence. The lack of elephants in the closing sequence reinforces the interpretation of the true John Merrick, an educated, gentle, well-mannered man, not the beast Bytes showed off.
The opening first shows and closing sequence ends with a close-up of his mother’s face. We see how beautiful his mother is, how, as Merrick put it, “she has the face of an angel.” The irony, of course, is that his mother was not an angel; she rejected her deformed son and refused to care for him. Merrick, the one who does not look like an angel, is the one who turns out to be good, caring, and innocent.
The sounds of machinery fade in to the opening sequence and the opening proceeds to illustrate the myth of “The Elephant Man” that Bytes later tells. We watch as Merrick’s mother is thrown to the ground by an elephant’s trunk and lies there, writhing, screaming, looking a bit like she is giving birth. We cannot hear her screams, however. All we can hear is the sounds of the elephants trumpeting and the mechanical sounds of industrial age machinery.
The opening sequence ends, and thus the ending sequence begins, with a puff of smoke against a black background. The opening smoke plays over the sound of an infant crying. This seems to say that John Merrick was born into a sense of mystery, of legend, into a puff of smoke, and when he died, retreated back into it.
The similarity in the opening and closing shot give a sense of balance to the film. They provide the viewer with a reference and help prepare the viewer for the film or, in the case of the final sequence, give closure. They prime the viewer’s emotions for the roller coaster ride this film takes them on. A life can never truly be known and the opening and closing also provide a sense of mystery to the tale of John Merrick.