BIROn - Birkbeck Institutional Research Online

    Loving the monster: The Elephant Man as modern fable

    Biernoff, Suzannah (2021) Loving the monster: The Elephant Man as modern fable. In: Klecker, C. and Grabher, G.H. (eds.) The Disfigured Face in American Literature, Film, and Television. Routledge Advances in Sociology. New York: Routledge, pp. 133-50. ISBN 9780367743130.

    Biernoff, Loving the Monster (17 Feb 2021) BIROn.pdf - Author's Accepted Manuscript

    Download (291kB) | Preview


    This chapter explores the rhetoric and politics of ugliness in commentaries on The Elephant Man. When David Lynch’s film opened in cinemas in October 1980, Bernard Pomerance’s play of the same title was packing theatres in London and New York. Many critics took the opportunity to compare the stage and screen interpretations, noting their different approaches to representing deformity and pondering the contemporary relevance of this Victorian tale of cruelty, exploitation and human resilience. Across this contextual field, Merrick’s body is produced as a site of abjection: beyond cure and irredeemably repellent. This disavowal of the disabled/deformed body on stage, screen and page occurs at the very moment (1980) that disfigurement is recognized by the World Health Organization as a social impairment. The final part of the chapter identifies the emergence of a socio-cultural understanding of facial disfigurement in medical, anthropological, and journalistic discussions of “Elephant Man’s disease” (at the time a widely used term for the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis) and considers Joseph Merrick’s legacy for those living with the condition. Book synopsis: The face, being prominent and visible, is the foremost marker of a person’s identity as well as their major tool of communication. Facial disfigurements, congenital or acquired, not only erase these significant capacities, but since ancient times, they have been conjured up as outrageous and terrifying, often connoting evil or criminality in their associations – a dark secret being suggested "behind the mask," the disfigurement indicating punishment for sin. Complemented by an original poem by Kenneth Sherman and a plastic surgeon’s perspective on facial disfigurement, this book investigates the exploitation of these and further stereotypical tropes by literary authors, filmmakers, and showrunners, considering also the ways in which film, television, and the publishing industry have more recently tried to overcome negative codifications of facial disfigurement, in the search for an authentic self behind the veil of facial disfigurement. An exploration of fictional representations of the disfigured face, this book will appeal to scholars of sociology, cultural and media studies, American studies and literary studies with interests in representations of disfigurement and the Other.


    Item Type: Book Section
    School: Birkbeck Faculties and Schools > Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > School of Historical Studies
    Depositing User: Suzannah Biernoff
    Date Deposited: 21 Feb 2022 18:17
    Last Modified: 02 Aug 2023 18:15


    Activity Overview
    6 month trend
    6 month trend

    Additional statistics are available via IRStats2.

    Archive Staff Only (login required)

    Edit/View Item Edit/View Item