The Phantom of the Opera has all the ingredients that appeal to the imagination: an enormous Parisian opera house, a mysterious apparition that lives in its cellars, the pretty and talented subject of the apparition’s obsession and her childhood sweetheart, a young viscount. When you add to all those visuals the music that plays a role in the story, you can imagine why it would be an excellent book to make a film or stage adaption of. Since its publication, as a serial in 1909 and in book form in 1910, there have been made dozens of stage and film adaptations. However, if you’re like me, you’ll be curious about the original story and I am here to tell you that it is well worth reading.
For most of the story, we follow Raoul, Viscount de Chagny. He is a twenty-one-year-old nobleman who lives with his older brother, the Count, who takes care of him after their parents died. He falls madly in love with Christine Daaë, a Swedish girl whom he has known since childhood and who has now become an opera singer in the great Paris Opera. But Christine goes inexplicably hot and cold on him. One day she asks him to come to her dressing room, the next she swears she can’t ever marry and he should leave her alone. Raoul is frustrated, jealous and increasingly desperate to discover what or who is on Christine’s mind.
Meanwhile, all the people working in the opera, but especially its new managers, are baffled by the mystery of a presence in the opera, who leaves notes demanding money and a private box to watch the operas in. If these requests are not fulfilled, the ‘Opera Ghost’, as he signs his letters, threatens that bad things will happen in the opera house. While the managers laugh off the notes as an elaborate joke at first, soon accidents start to happen to people that are somehow in the way of the Ghost. Sometimes, the accidents are fatal. The story of the Opera Ghost leads its own life among the opera employees. Some say he’s an invisible ghost, others say he has a ‘death-head’ that is terrible to behold, and someone even maintains that he has seen it with a head of fire. In the superstitious theatre world, you can never be sure what is true and what is merely a tall story. Raoul is gradually strengthened in his conviction that the Opera Ghost is real and wants Christine to himself. The second half of the story is almost like one thrilling action scene where characters chase each other through the depths of the opera vaults, while everybody wonders who is dangerous, who is real, who is a monster and who is lying.
The story is exciting and surprising: a book you want to read in a day. The main reason for this is the wonderful décor: the enormous opera house with its attics, cellars, trapdoors, secret pathways and scene pieces. And the best thing about it is that the place is real! Leroux based his opera house on the Palais Garnier, both as it is (and still stands) and on the rumours surrounding it, such as the story that the building was built over an underground lake. The opera house is so big that it wouldn’t surprise anyone if strange creatures were living in its corridors, nooks and cellars. A phantom is the least you would expect, which is exactly how the rumours that Leroux used arose in the first place. Leroux makes clever use of his knowledge of the place to build tension, playing on myths and superstitions that already were in the Parisians’ minds. His horror story only consolidated these whispers with its tone of historical research – like a report done by a thorough investigator. Who knows, maybe Gaston Leroux actually did find the evidence he claimed to possess. Maybe, long ago, there lived a Phantom in the Paris Opera house. The scariest horror stories are those you are willing to believe.
To us, modern readers, the notion of a ghost or monsters living in the cellars might not seem as plausible as it did to readers a century ago. In that case, the sceptic in you might be pleasantly surprised at how realistic the protagonists of the story are. Especially if you come to the story with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in mind, like I did. Raoul and Christine go back and forth between being brave and being scared, stubborn denial and pragmatism, jealousy and trust. Surprisingly, Christine is less of a damsel-in-distress in the 1909 book than she is in the 1986 musical! Sure, she’s an opera diva and she’s in distress several times throughout the book, but so are a lot of men and Christine holds up better than most of them. She makes her own decisions, for example when she shuts down Raoul for acting jealous and possessive. She has made it clear that, although she loves him, she can’t have a relationship with him and he will have to accept that without demanding that she tells him what she has been doing:
“I am mistress of my own actions, M[onsieur] de Chagny: you have no right to control them; and I will beg you to desist henceforth. As to what I have done during the last fortnight, there is only one man in the world who has the right to demand an account of me: my husband! Well, I have no husband and I never mean to marry!”
I don’t mean to say that it seems like the characters were written with a twenty-first century audience in mind. Many aspects look outdated to us – because they are. Christine, for instance, faints several times throughout The Phantom of the Opera. I have always wondered if women in history really passed out from emotion as much as they do in some books. I can imagine that you would faint easily when you were wearing a corset and permanently out of breath. On the other hand, many female protagonists in the older books are portrayed as somewhat fragile and delicate, so that the fainting might serve as a confirmation of those qualities. The question is: is it possible that women really fainted more because they saw it as a valid option? I’m sure I read somewhere that people’s behaviour is strongly dependent on their culture and what they believe their options are. This is even true for unconscious reactions that we think happen naturally and without our control, like fainting. If you think fainting is a normal thing to do when you’re emotional, you’re more likely to faint. Too us, women who faint in moderation – from low blood sugar or psychological distress – it seems a little excessive. These kinds of details make the book a bit outdated, which combined with the drama and theatricality can distract from the story: it tends towards the ridiculous.
Thinking about the fainting in particular, it does unintentionally point us to the central theme of the book: the power of suggestion. The Opera Ghost is a master of illusions, the opera staff create their own myths based on the smallest rumours and Raoul’s jealous mind convinces him of all kinds of nonsense. However beautiful and spectacular the visuals in the film and stage versions might be, the nuances of the power of suggestion come out better in the written medium of a book. Continue to love the films if you know them, but read Leroux’s classic as well!
Hunchback Award for posing the great question of horror stories: ‘Who is the monster and who is the man?’
Gaston Leroux, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (Paris, 1910)