Friday, February 5, 2010

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

While I was reading this novel, I tried in my mind to separate it from the Andrew Lloyd Webber play, but had a difficult time of it. I kept thinking about how the play book really distilled down the plot and got rid of excess characters and scenes leaving only the most important parts. But the intent of this blog is to review the actual novel by Leroux.

The premise of the book is that Gaston Leroux turns himself into an inspector trying to gain some closure on the thirty-year-old case of the Opera Ghost’s alleged kidnapping of Christine DaeĆ©. He lists his sources at the beginning of the book, trying to give the inquiry as much credence as possible. Leroux uses outside source material like the journals of the Persian, police interviews, letters and articles.

I believe that his main point in doing this was to establish himself a reliable narrator to tell this fantastic story.

Leroux is taking a journalistic approach to the book, but this causes a viewpoint problem in parts, such as in Chapter 12 when we see Christine and Raul on the roof. The narrator would actually have no way of seeing this.

Some of the characters are a little flat, particularly Raoul, who is portrayed as an anemic shadow of his older brother, Count Philippe de Chagny. He can’t even rescue Christine on his own, he has to have the help of the Persian. Leroux describes him well at the beginning, giving us all of his background, but doesn’t develop him much as the plot progresses.

Christine sometimes acts in ways that don’t make any sense, such as when she tells Raul she would never marry him (without any good reason), or when she goes back to Erik’s underground lair even when she know that he plans to hold her hostage.

Eric is a fully realized character with a complete back story. Basically, he’s anguished by the dichotomy of his musical talent and the beauty of his voice against the ugliness of his appearance. He was so ugly as a child his mother forced him to wear a mask.

Eric is a tortured soul who feels incredible anguish in his circumstances. We can see this in his reaction to Christine’s revulsion of him. Christine said, "Yes, if I lived to be a hundred, I should always hear the superhuman cry of grief and rage which he uttered when the terrible sight appeared before my eyes.” And "He had let go of me at last and was dragging himself about on the floor, uttering terrible sobs…”

One of the things that struck me is that Erik has a definite character arc in this book. He goes from being a child who was abused due to his looks, to a youth who was victimized in side shows, to a person who took charge of his destiny when he used his skills to gain favor with the Shah of Persia. When he was forced to flee that country, he finally ended up in Paris as a contractor for the Paris Opera. Once he had access to the cellars, he created his own dwelling there. He becomes mad from that existence but then finds his love obsession with Christine. He shares has extensive knowledge of music with her. He wishes nothing more than to have an ordinary life and “take his wife out on Sundays.”

When he finds that Christine doesn’t quite feel the same way about him, he at first wants to keep her as his prisoner. He threatens to blow up the whole of the Paris Opera if she won’t consent to marry him. When Raul and the Persian go in search of her and end up in Erik’s torture chamber, Erik at first wants to kill them, but he later releases them because he wants to please Christine. Erik’s actions show great empathy when, even though he realizes that Christine doesn’t love him, he lets her go off with Raul, because her happiness is more important to him than his own. Eric comes full circle to show compassion. He’s not at all the monster everyone thinks he is.

Leroux seems to give Eric some supernatural powers. But at the end of the book, he goes back and explains how all of the seemingly supernaturally feats were actually accomplished by Erik by the use of trap doors, hollow columns and ventriloquism. For example, when the monthly sum to be given to the ghost was in one of the producer’s pockets then suddenly disappeared, Leroux later states that Eric reached his hand up through a trap door and pulled it out. I thought the explanations were a bit cheesy and not very believable.

The book makes a lot of symbolic use of mirrors. The phantom comes to her through mirror, and he bids her to look into the mirror to see him inside of her. His torture chamber is a room of mirrors. Perhaps Eric is tortured by looking at himself.

I have a vivid picture of what Garnier’s Paris Opera looks like, both from the play and from having visited the real opera house in Paris. But in reading Phanton, I found that Leroux describes it very little until the characters are in the underground. At that time he describes it in such detail that it begins to function as a separate character in the book.

The plot, for its day, was original and entertaining, even shocking and scandalous. I think The Phantom of the Opera stands the test of time for its true descriptions of the emotions felt by the characters, particularly Erik. It tends to melodrama, but that can be inherent in a Gothic story such as this.

Artwork is by Lehanan. My interpretation is that this is the vision of the Phantom's inner, beautiful spirit.

1 comment:

  1. Its interesting that you mentioned the fact the Leroux sets up the frame of the investigator. Since he was a mystery writer who actually announced that he would out Poe Poe. it is clear that he is very comfortable in this genre, and is well know for his mystery writing in France. However, I think his attempt to jump into this sort of story fell flat. Yes Erick does have an arc, as a matter of fact his appears to be the main arc making him the protagonist. One last comment, When you mentioned at the beginning how you couldn't help but be reminded of the play I think this is because of the way in which Leroux dropped the ball with this story. His lack of characterization is one main issue. This allowed others to remake his story, only better.

    Post by Craig