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Spectacle of DeformityFreak Shows and Modern British Culture$
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Nadja Durbach

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780520257689

Published to California Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520257689.001.0001

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

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

(p.33) One Monstrosity, Masculinity, and Medicine: Reexamining “the Elephant Man”
Spectacle of Deformity

Nadja Durbach

University of California Press

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 It is argued that despite its inherent prejudices, Norman's interpretation of Merrick's life is a critical historical document as it insists that we interrogate the assumption that the freak show is always already exploitative, offering instead a more nuanced understanding of its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

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