Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Author: Gaston Leroux
Original language: French
Publication: 1910, Paris
Mr. Richard and Mr. Moncharmin are the two newly appointed managers of the grand Paris opera house in the late 1800s. Their predecessors, Mr. Debienne and Mr. Poligny, warn them about a certain “ghost” who lives in the opera house and requires a monthly allowance of 20000 francs. On top of these unreasonable demands, the ghost asks that he have full control of box 5 all year round so that he may be able to attend performances. Richard and Moncharmin quickly dismiss this whole affair and resort to trying to uncover who the ghost is. In the meantime, frequent opera goers Phillipe, Compte de Chagny and his brother Raoul, Vicompte de Chagny can often be seen at the opera house on packed nights, enjoying performances by La Sorelli, and old friend and prima ballerina, and Christine Daae, an angelic opera singer who is cursed to having only minor roles due to La Carlotta being the current prima donna.
As Richard and Moncharmin continually test the ghost’s patience by selling his box, dismissing his letters and firing his box keeper, the ghost exacts vengeance upon the artists of the opera house, namely La Carlotta where, in her place, he orchestrates a plan for Christine to take lead roles in major operas. One evening, after an especially otherworldly performance, Christine faints on stage and is sent to her quarters where Raoul, an old childhood friend attends to her. We soon learn that Raoul, being desperately in love with Christine, intends to marry her, much to his brother’s opposition, and without knowing about the curse that plagues his lady.
Christine reveals to be in contact with “the angel of music”, who is none other than the famed ghost of the opera house. While he coaches and trains her voice relentlessly, she is never once graced with his physical presence. Once, however, after the ghost takes notice of Raoul, Christine is kidnapped from stage during a performance and brought down to the basement of the opera house where the ghost, now known as Erik, has a house built on the side of an eerie subterranean lake. There he tells her of his masterpiece, “Don Juan Triumphant”, an opera entirely composed by himself which will require several years of writing before its completion. This is also where Christine, being curious at who her “angel of music” really is, removes his mask and sees his retched face. Afraid that she will leave him, Erik confines Christine to the lake house and refuses to let her go. Christine bargains with him that, if he lets her go, she will come back of her own free will to visit him. This arrangement is agreed upon and Erik, after giving her a ring to wear on her finger, let’s her return to the world above ground.
During her release, Christine and Raoul devise a plan to escape together, far from Paris and from the ghost’s reach. This however backfires when the ghost hears of Christine’s betrayal. He kidnaps her once more and this time, has no intention of letting her go back. She is forced to make a decision: either marry him and live, or refuse his hand and die.
During Christine’s disappearance, Raoul is frantic to find her and tries to convince everyone that the ghost is real and that he is the mastermind behind everything at the opera house. Naturally, he is dismissed as a lunatic, mad with love for pretty singer who will not have him. One man however, comes to Raoul’s aid and leads him through a series of adventures in between the walls, floors, trap doors and basement of the opera house. This man, known as the Persian, is a longtime acquaintance of Erik and knows well his secrets and how he moves about the opera without being seen or heard. On the ultimatum that Christine should either marry the ghost or refuse him, rests the fate of the whole opera house. Finally, Raoul and the Persian reach Erik and Christine in the lake house where, if not for Christine’s ultimate sacrifice, they and most of Paris would have been annihilated by the ghost. Raoul and the Persian are ultimately saved by the ghost who, upon hearing Christine’s plea, decides to spare their lives in exchange for her hand. After the Persian is found alive and well however, we find out that Raoul and Christine are still held captive by the ghost.
Several years later, in a little apartment in Paris, the Persian is visited by Erik, now haggard and dying “of love”. The ghost reveals how he released both Raoul and Christine from his hold and let them escape and live together, on the condition that Christine would come back one day and bury his body. Erik leaves and returns to his house underneath the opera house and dies. Christine hears of his demise and, as promised, comes back and dutifully fulfills his wishes.
Very short and easy to read, Gaston Leroux’s novel is the background work for the famous musical of the same name. The whole reads much like a report of historical events, rather than a fiction novel. The author is active in the story and narrates the whole by retelling each characters’ story via “writings” and “manuscripts” supposedly left behind and found by the author himself. Even though this is the original work, some things are very unclear to the reader such as, for example, the origin of the Erik’s disfigurement. This is in fact never explained and leaves the reader wondering how he became afflicted with such “ugliness”. I use here the word “ugliness”, as per the book, but I believe that that is not the case. Erik’s disfigurement, whether by birth or caused, should not be considered as such. Of course, keeping in mind the late 1800s France, it is quite obvious why people around him were terrified and disgusted by his appearance. Anyone who was not deemed “normal” in those days was cast aside and made the center of ridicule, as seen in other major works of the time such as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”.
Erik’s appearance aside, one of the major difficulties I found was in the last quarter of the book, when the Persian and Raoul go off in the basement of the opera house to try and save Christine. This whole arc becomes nebulous and hard to understand as Erik’s various contraptions illicit the imagination (and delirium) of the characters and readers alike. The final “battle”, which happens in a torture chamber, is a sequence of disjointed events that make it hard to follow the action. Nonetheless, this style brings forth feelings of excitement and wonder at what the outcome will be. The mirror room (aka the tropical forest) reminds us strongly of the mirror room at the Musée Grévin in Paris and, if anyone has been lucky enough to see it in person, one can understand the distress felt by Raoul and the Persian when they were trapped in it for hours.
The characters in this book have very high strung emotions that they are not afraid to display at any given moment. Raoul is childish and dependent, Christine faints at every occasion, Philippe is possessive, and, of course, the ghost is all but psychotic. Because of their common obsession with Christine, both Raoul and Erik display similar traits. Both are madly in love with Christine and would move heaven and earth for her and both are insanely jealous of one another. Unlike the musical adaptation, however, there is no great battle scene betwixt the two. In fact, Raoul never meets Erik until the very end of the book when he and Christine are released. Even then, their encounter is not described, but rather assumed. As far as what is known, 3 people have been in close contact with the ghost: the Persian, the maharajah and Christine. All three happened to see his face and, contrary to the legend, all three survived. Erik propagates that anyone who sees his face shall die however, thrice as he been unmasked, and thrice have the perpetrators gone unharmed.
In the end, the novel of “The Phantom” is as intriguing and entertaining as the musical, and remains a timeless classic that will forever spark the imagination of its readers. Was the ghost real? Was Erik really a mastermind architect, forsaken by society because of his looks, and forced to live in the depths of the opera house? The question however, that remains forever unanswered is surely, what of the subterranean lake and its house?
You see, the lake beneath the opera house is very real. In order to support the structure of the opera house, its architect Garnier used the flooding of the basement to his advantage and created an artificial lake beneath his construction. Another noted historical event that is recaptured in the novel is the fall of the great chandelier in the auditorium. It broke its chain and feel on stage, killing one member of the audience and injuring others. This scene is repeated in the novel where, the ghost is the one to blame for the accident. Maybe Mr. Leroux’s fantastical tale of a brilliant man who lived by the lake is not as far-fetched as one might think.