Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Author: Gaston Leroux
Genre: Fiction – mystery/horror
Publication Date: 1911 (first American edition)
Purchase Price: $7.00 (paperback)
Misc. Info.: Based on the (true?) accounts of the Opera ghost at the Paris Opera House
From looking at his photograph, Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) appears to be a rather handsome, if unremarkable, fellow — not at all the type to have written dozens of detective fiction novels and stories. Although he was an heir to a great fortune and a journalist for part of his adult life, and was supposedly very popular author in his native France, the novel for which he is best known in America is his gruesome epic, The Phantom of the Opera (Le Fantôme de l’Opéra).
Leroux worked for several years as an international correspondent for the magazine Le Matin; and possibly it was his time investigating at the Paris Opera (a dungeon in the basement at that time housed political prisoners) that gave him the creative inspiration he needed to conjure up the tale of the Opera ghost. Whatever the source of inspiration, by 1910 it had come to fruition in a tale of surpassing beauty and terror that has captivated readers, movie lovers, and theatergoers alike.
Both the introduction and denouement of Phantom are written in the first person of the author. The introduction is the author’s attempt to show proof that the Opera ghost was involved in “the most extraordinary and fantastic tragedy that ever excited the Paris upper classes.” The author quotes from various “primary documents” (journals, etc.), and it’s an extremely clever way to set the reader up. By establishing the following events as “true,” Leroux was able to make an already-crazy story even more fantastic and real. It is only in the novel’s epilogue (when the author is once again writing as himself) that we learn the real ending to the story. There is even a short appendix at the end–written as if by an editor, although it may have been Leroux, using a mask of his own–which contains a copy of an 1879 article; this article describes many aspects of the Paris Opera House that Leroux had previously stated as being real, such as the underground. The “article” may be no more than a further attempt by Leroux to convince the reader’s of the tale’s authenticity — and it works.
Le Complot (The Plot)
On the night of the retirement of MM (read: monsieurs) Debienne and Poligny from the Paris Opera’s management, the entire house is in an uproar. Joseph Buquet, the chief scene-shifter, has been found hanged in the basement (between two pieces of scenery), and several of the young dancers have seen the Opera ghost walking about the halls.
Stories of the ghost, who is known best by his death’s head and flaming eyes, have been thrilling and chilling the members of the opera for quite some time, and it is the regrettable task of the retiring managers to acquaint their successors—MM Moncharmin and Richard—of the ghost’s existence, as well as his requirements; namely that he receive a sum of twenty thousand francs a month, and that Box Five on the grand tier be left to his disposal at every performance. The new managers, having no experience with the ghost and his tricks, laugh and refuse to believe.
On that same night, an unknown (and previously unremarkable) young chorus girl, Christine Daae, has exploded onto the stage, surprising everyone with her inhumanly beautiful voice. The Vicomte de Chagny, who knew Christine when they were children, hears her and goes to her dressing room after the show, expecting to be welcomed warmly. But instead the young woman laughs at him, and he is made to leave. When he sneaks back later to try to speak to Christine in private, through the door he hears a man’s voice. The man demands of Christine that she love him.
It’s certainly possible to go on, but the plot is intricate, and discussing much more detail would leave too much room for spoilers. Suffice it to say that the lovers’ triangle leads to some pretty incredible storytelling.
La Revue (The Review)
[I wish that I were able to give a review of the book without drawing comparisons to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera (1986) but it was a performance of that show that originally got me interested in the story; I don’t think I was even aware at the time that it was an adaptation of a book which had been originally published many years ago. I will endeavor to keep this entry as more a review of the book, although I will draw comparisons between the book and musical.]
Phantom is a tricky read. If you happen to have seen Weber’s stage adaptation, or heard the music from it, the book will be a bit of a shock to you. Of course films and theatrical shows often vary quite a bit from the books from which they are adapted, but Weber was unable to capture 360 pages of Leroux’s novel into a two-hour show. This is not necessarily Weber’s fault, but it is a failing of the show that the audience never learns anything about the Phantom’s past.
For example, although it is known in the book that the ghost has a name—Erik—and is well versed in methods of torture and destruction, in the Broadway show all we see is a pathetic shadow of a man who is a hermit living underneath the Paris Opera House for no real known reason. See what I mean? A lot of the characterization is lost in adaptation.
Leroux’s Phantom does a much better job at keeping the characters (all of them) firmly within the gray areas of morals and behavior. Erik (the “ghost”) does truly love Christine, but his only way of keeping her close to him is through intimidation and trickery — two abilities that have brought him success, and saved his life, in the past. Raoul de Chagny is a 21 year-old hothead, who is in love with Christine and wants to be brave, but quite often he comes across as an immature child; usually his outbursts and crying are characterized as showing his ultimate love for Christine, but to me he just seems…whiny. Christine loves Erik—as much for pity as anything else—but it is with Raoul that she truly belongs.
As most people know, Christine does eventually end up with Raoul. Even though Erik does plenty of bad things, in the end I wouldn’t characterize him as “bad.” When he is finally made to see that Christine and Raoul do truly love each other, he is unselfish enough and good enough to let the couple go.
Yet I cannot bring myself to say that Christine’s decision is “easy.” As much as I hate to draw a comparison between Phantom and Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series, I think in this case it’s appropriate. Christine and Bella fall in love with two very different people, and each of these people fulfills different needs for each woman. In Christine’s case, Erik is her Angel of Music: he makes her sing in an almost supernatural voice, and she does love him — but just not enough. Raoul is better for her because, let’s face it, he’s not a murdering, tortured and torturing, codependent, tricking, crazy person (I calls ’em like I sees ’em).
In the end, I believe it is Erik’s behavior regarding his pretending to be the Angel of Music that seals my dislike of him. Christine’s father used to tell wonderful stories of the Angel of Music — and he told his daughter that once he was in heaven, he would send the Angel of music to her. When Erik’ appears to Christine as “the voice,” singing beautifully, she wonders if he is not the Angel of Music. And, in what I suppose is a desperate attempt to keep her near him, Erik deceives her and says that he is indeed the Angel. Rather than his murderous past, it is Erik’s willful deception of a still-mourning young woman that I cannot forgive.
“I went back to my dressing-room in a very pensive state of mind. The voice was there, spoke to me with great sadness and told me plainly that, if I must bestow my heart on earth, there was nothing for the voice to do but to go back to heaven.”
Remembering her father, and fearing that she will never hear the voice again, Christine is helpless to resist.
It is only in the final chapters, and through the eyes of the Persian, that we are given a window into Erik’s perceptions and past existence. Having been a freak all his life, and after having escaped a death sentence in Persia, Erik came to Paris. Convinced by everyone that he was unlovable, he believed that the only way he could ever have a wife was to take one by force. When Christine kisses him, he finally understands:
“I was only a poor dog, ready to die for her…but that she could marry the young man [Raoul] when she pleased, because she had cried with me and mingled her tears with mine!…”
In the novel, as well as in life, the true act of love is selflessness.
There are several side plots, including the rather comedic attempts of mangers Moncharmin and Richard to uncover the ghost as a practical joke. But mysterious missives—all signed “O.G.”—keep appearing, and it soon becomes clear that the ghost is not merely a mischievous prankster: he’s playing for keeps.
Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera is an epic tale of love, longing, tragedy, and choice. The characters are flesh and blood, and their stories echo in my mind long after I put my book down. Weber’s musical is a great way to understand certain aspects of the characters through song, and if you ever get the opportunity to see she show you shouldn’t pass it up; however, to get an excellent grip on just how agonizing and beautiful the story is, you should most definitely read the novel as well.
Music of the Night (from Weber’s Phantom) [I know that she looks totally bug-eyed and the entire video is very hokey, but the point is to listen to Michael Crawford’s singing, and nevermind the 1980s ridiculousness.]
” ‘Reputations are easily obtained,’ replied Moncharmin. ‘Haven’t I a reputation for knowing all about music? And I don’t know one key from another.’ ‘Don’t be afraid: you never had that reputation,’ Richard declared.” (pp. 49-50)
“The Angel of Music played a part in all Daddy Daae’s tales; and he maintained that every great musician, every great artist received a visit from the Angel at least once in his life. … No one ever sees the Angel; but he is heard by those who are meant to hear him. He often comes when they least expect him, when they are sad and disheartened. Then their ears suddenly perceive celestial harmonies, a divine voice, which they remember all their lives. Persons who are visited by the Angel quiver with a thrill unknown to the rest of mankind. And they can not touch an instrument, or open their mouths to sing, without producing sounds that put all other human sounds to shame. Then people who do not know that the Angel has visited those persons say that they have genius.” (pp. 69-70)
” ‘ She is wearing the ring again to-night; and you did not give it to her. She gave her soul again to-night and did not give it to you….If she will not tell you what she has been doing the past two days…you must go and ask Erik!’ ” (p. 143)