The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1909)
This book has been sitting in my to-be-read pile for quite a long time. I have not seen any adaptations of the novel, but I have wanted to see the Broadway musical for a long, long time. When I picked up the book a week ago and started reading, I didn’t even read the summary on the back of the book. Although I haven’t seen the musical or film, I thought I had an inkling of what the story was about. Come to find out, I didn’t really know the story at all, and further still, when I finally see the musical, I’m going to be so glad that I read the book first.
I had about eighty pages left to read when a friend, who I had told I was reading the book, asked me what the book was about. I had a hard time answering the question. The story takes place in the Paris Opera house, and it is told to us by a “historian” who has pieced together the events that he is relating to us. At the beginning of the story, the management of the opera-house has changed hands, and at the time of the change, the old managers provide the new managers with a copy of the lease. The lease is standard with the exception of a few demands added by “O.G.” the Opera Ghost. “O.G.” demands a monthly payment of 20,000 francs and sole use of Box 5 in the opera house. Part of the story is the struggle between the new managers, who refuse to give in to the Opera Ghost’s demands, and the ghost’s retaliations. This part of the story moves the opera-house from orderly to chaotic, and as the story progresses, returning the opera-house to order is one of the things that propels the plot forward. The second part of the story is the love story between Christine, a singer in the opera, and Raoul de Chagny, a French noble. Throughout Christine’s life, her father taught her about music, and as childhood friends, Christine and Raoul sat and listened as her father told them about the Angel of Music. Christine’s father said that after he died, he would send the Angel of Music to her, and that the Angel would transform her into a musical genius. Not only is the romance between Christine and Raoul made impossible because of his status as a nobleman and hers as a singer/actress, but it is also challenged by the presence of the Angel of Music, who falls in love with Christine, abducts her, frees her, and then abducts her again. Resolving the romantic triangle and the fates of the three main characters propels the rest of the plot to its conclusion.
The only thing I really knew about the story were the two characters of Christine and the Phantom, and that the story took place in an opera-house. I thought that the Phantom was the protagonist of the story, with Christine being the second protagonist and heroine. He is, after all, the title character. Reading the story, it seems to me that instead of being the protagonist, the Phantom is actually the antagonist, and this was a real surprise. His character also brings in the supernatural and horror elements of the story (and before I read the back cover of the book, I didn’t know that this story was categorized as horror, a so-called “chilling tale”). On the other hand, Christine is clearly the damsel in distress and in line with the ideal of the 19th century heroine (another misconception of mine was that the story was written in the mid-1800s, so Christine’s characterization was expected). Raoul is also the typical French male aristocrat who seeks to marry for love, regardless of his social position. This isn’t to say that the characters aren’t likable–that is, that Christine and Raoul aren’t likable. They are. What is challenging about the characters is that it was difficult for me as a reader to become attached to any of them. Further still, at the end of the story, I know that I am supposed to feel pity and sympathy toward the Phantom, and yet, he’s kept at such a distance from the reader, it was hard for me to feel those emotions.
I did like the novel. The villainy, genius, and madness of the Phantom were compelling, and thinking about it, I realize that I would have liked him to have more time on the page; and yet, it’s his elusiveness, his ability to seemingly be everywhere but not there at all is part of what makes him such a terrifying and formidable foe. I come back to the fact that he is the title character, and that the tragedy of the novel is his tragedy. What I mean to say is that I wanted to feel more invested in his tragedy, and this is the only real complaint that I have with the book.
From what I’ve read after finishing the novel, many of the elements in the book in terms of the architecture of the opera-house are factual, and Leroux had actual knowledge of the Paris Opera that informed his writing. This book was a welcome change of pace, especially within the realm of “classic” literature. I enjoyed the inclusion of music in the story, and can imagine similarities between the progression of the plot of the novel and the progression of an opera–both sprinkling in light, comic notes even as the tension continually builds, steadily moving toward the final climax. I also loved the way the historian/narrator intertwined the power of music to convey every human emotion, just as the novel possesses the same power. I loved that The Phantom of the Opera wasn’t like everything else. If the opportunity ever comes my way, I am certain I would find a way to teach this book in a future class. I definitely recommend this book to other readers.