Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, September 30, 2011


The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1910)

Here's a book that certainly is not forgotten, thanks to the long-running musical, but is one that is seldom read.  This seems to have been the fate of The Phantom of the Opera since it was first published.  The book was not a success; various well-known film and theater adaptations notwithstanding.  Yet the book still endured, like its title character, rising from the shadows, appearing now and again.  Now recognized as a classic, it is readily available to today's reader who wishes a gothic journey to Paris of the 1870s.

And what a Paris!  The Paris Opera House, once a prison, rising seventeen stories in the city, with a series of cellars seldom used or explored and with tunnels leading to a large underground lake where, on the opposite side of the lake, lay the magnificent lair of Erik, the deformed opera ghost.  Erik is a genius, skilled in architecture and music and death.  So hideous at birth that his mother hid his face, Erik grew up unwanted and unloved.  He became a sideshow attraction, soon known for his cleverness as he was for his deformity.  He was recruited by the Shah of Persia where he displayed his skills as an engineer and an assassin.  Condemned to death, he escaped with the aid of the mysterious "Persian",  the police chief to the Shah.  Erik soon made his way to Paris where he was employed to restore the old Opera House; on his own he added passages and trapdoors and hollow columns.  Erik took up residence beneath the Opera House, divorcing himself from most of humanity, and soon becoming the legendary Opera Ghost.

Erik had a deep appreciation for music.  He blackmailed the managers of the Opera House in setting aside a box for him for each evenings performance; he also received two thousand francs a month from the managers.  It was from that box that Erik, hidden in the shadows, fell in love with Christine, a minor member of the opera company.  Not only was Christine beautiful, but she had a magnificent voice that needed only additional training and confidence.  Ah, Christine...her soul was pure but her gullibility was that of a child.  She truly believed her dying father when he said he would send "The Angel of Music" to watch over her.  Erik became her Angel of Music, secretly training her while hidden in the shadows and passageways.  Then came the day when when Carlotta, the opera's prima donna, was ill and Christine was selected to take her role.  Her success that night stunned all of Paris.

Christine, naturally, did not love Erik, but she felt beholden to the Angel of Music whom she thought was sent to her by her dead father.  Christine's heart belonged to Raoul, Viscount de Chagny, who had been a close friend when she was a child.  Raoul also loved Christine, but was opposed by his older brother the Count because Christine was below his station.  Thus was set up an impossible triangle.  When Erik abducts Christine to force her to marry him, Raoul must face death to recue her.

The novel reads surprisingly well.  As you can tell, I was irritated by the character of Christine, who came across as a pure-dee idiot, certainly something that was not the author's intention and was typical of the time.  Erik was alternately (and effectively) displayed as a sympathetic character and as a cold-blooded murderer.  Raoul is noble and torn.  The other major character is the Opera House itself, large, imposing, mysterious.  There are chilling moments and (something I didn't expect) humorous ones.

The Phantom of the Opera moves slowly at times and the pages skip at other times.  A leisurely gothic novel may not be everyone's taste, but this one appealed to me.

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