Rhapsody in Penguins — First Movement: The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera (1909)
by Gaston Leroux
translated by Mireille Ribiere

Apparently Gaston Leroux is due a lot more credit than we give him for. Although he started out as a lawyer, he switched to journalism in 1894 and then started writing in his spare time. He published one of the first locked-room mysteries and went on to create a string of highly successful detective novels. In France, he’s just as well-known for his “Mystery of the Yellow Room” (no pornographic jokes please) as he is for this book.

Maybe it’s because of his previous career as a journalist, but he writes things with a certain flamboyance, and this inevitably takes our emotions for a roller-coaster ride. The story is familiar to anyone who’s see the 1925 film or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical (hi Alison). In those adaptations (and every one in between), it’s always very theatrical (like the mob that kills the Phantom in the aforementioned film, or the final showdown in the musical). In a sense, I suppose, it replicates the sensationalism that one finds in the original work. As you read through The Phantom of the Opera, there’s a gossipy touch. For instance, the fall of Carlotta is described with a lot more exclamation marks than is really necessary (the italics are also not mine — I really must stop using these brackets):

For her very mouth had just produced… a toad! And what an awful, hideous, scummy, slimy, venomous, hoarse toad it was! Croak! Croak! Croak! Oh! What a dreadful sound! The toad in question was, of course, a metaphorical one. It could not be seen, but in Hell’s name, it could be heard!

Dear God, he uses a string of SIX consecutive adjectives. I am shocked.

It’s this sensationalism, though, that sets the tone for the whole book, and the way we see Erik. Having been introduced to events like these, our impressions of Erik have been formed. These horrifying words, somewhat exaggerated in nature, lead us to believe that Erik is not human, he’s SUPERhuman. Leroux hammers down the horror in these parts, making you think “OH MY GOSH HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE how would a normal person be able to achieve this”? From there on it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to using the nickname that the crew of the Opera Garnier give Erik, “The Phantom of the Opera”.

The book and most of the characters call him that or the “Opera Ghost”, but Christine and Madame Valerius dub him “the Angel/Spirit of Music”. Both have some sort of ethereal quality to it, but the implications are far, far different. To put it simply: I’m pretty sure that most people would rather enjoy the company of an angel over that of a phantom. (Unless of course I am wrong, in which case GET AWAY FROM ME I DON’T WANT TO BE HAUNTED.) And how did they arrive at such different interpretations of Erik? By what he did: for Christine, he offered music lessons and a certain degree of companionship when she was lonely; for others, he pranked and killed indiscriminately. The air of mystery surrounding Erik becomes comforting to the former, and menacing to the latter; but in the end both serve to elevate him to this sublime level.

However, there is one key factor in both that undercut Erik’s apparent superiority: both of these are hyperboles, overshadowing who Erik really is. Towards the end of the novel the Persian and the narrator reveal some of the tricks Erik has been using (trapdoor, hidden switches, ropes — all very plain and ordinary stuff), and suddenly he doesn’t seem that much of a supernatural entity anymore. He doesn’t come and go like a puff of air — he just runs very quickly and knows how to throw his voice, something that any human could do with a bit of training (note to self: start exercising). And it’s only then, when the smoke and mirrors have disappeared, that we realize that Erik is nothing but a human.

Of course, that slightly understates the point — Erik is not JUST a human. He has overwhelming agility and an… er… underwhelming face, but that does not prevent him from being consumed by vanity and desire. Just like you and me, he has times when he lets his emotions and his passions get the better of him, like in his love of Christine. At the end of the novel, Erik ultimately goes the way of all flesh and dies of a broken heart — a pitiless ending, yet one which is fully possible for us humans. We can no longer see him as an immortal ghost if he dies by something just as possible to us, and so we are completely converted from our first impressions — Erik, we discover, is no longer a ghost to be abhorred. He is just a man who deserves our pity.

One last thing before we move on to the conclusion: Erik himself seems a little confused by who he really is supposed to be. On the one hand, he clearly relishes playing God with everyone, going around strangling people and generally making everyone pee in their pants. However, as Christine dances farther and farther away from his control, Erik begins to want to have it both ways — terrorizing everyone with Christine’s kidnapping, yet eager to show to Christine herself that he is very, very human, so that she can accept him and they can do whatever it is that married couples do. (Okay, that’s not exactly what he said, but in my defence Erik does say words to that effect.)

But the reader knows — just as Erik knows, maybe? — what (and WHO) he really is. He has forgotten, or chosen to disregard, the fact that he is just a human, and has enjoyed too much the illusions of control he has over everything else. And so when he finally realizes (or decides to accept) that he is human and capable of love, the fall comes to him much too hard:

Daroga, I am dying of love… I loved her so… I loved her still… and that love is killing me…

Since he is human, he also allows himself to feel the full flow of his desire (which we humans are for some reason always susceptible to), and so he dies as his desire becomes much too great for him, an ordinary person at heart, to overcome.

And so I leave you with this thought: it’s all too tempting to make people more or less than what they actually are. We tend to think that a person is somehow something else: a martyr, a selfish bastard; a superhero, or a supervillain. I don’t deny that a person is always more than just a sum of his/her parts, but I think it’s dangerous to try to heroize or monstrify a person based on that. It takes away from who the person really is, and it might even make that person change just because of what’s expected of him/her. It even prevents us from knowing a person fully, for humans do not establish really meaningful connections when they shroud themselves (or allow themselves to be hidden) in mystery — the only people who pity Erik (i. e. Christine and the Persian) are those who know him as the human he is and exhibited himself to be. Raoul, the management and Parisians never get to know him because to them, he is a phantasm, and therefore unknowable.

Nowadays our society is definitely more tolerant (if ever so slightly!) of people who are deficient in brain and in body, and we tend to laud those who excel in these aspects as well. But we still cannot resist the temptation to make somebody more/less than who they really are, just as we cannot help believing in them if we are somehow the recipient of these exaggerations. Ultimately, though, we might as well take bearing of the fact that every single one of us is just human. Nothing more, nothing less.

Next time: as if one petulant monster wasn’t enough, our next book deals with two of them. There’s also the small matter of mysterious groans and a hidden room. What book could possibly deal with this horrifying matter?

(Quotations from the Penguin edition of “The Phantom of the Opera”, translated and edited by Mireille Ribiere and published 2011, featured photo from the cover of the aforementioned book.

Hope I can evade some tiresome copyright questions…)

2 thoughts on “Rhapsody in Penguins — First Movement: The Phantom of the Opera

  1. Interesting thoughts on the Phantom of the Opera. I never noticed this particular point before, and to be honest I never would have taken it that far had I made any such observations. Looking forward to the next instalment.


    1. Thanks Danny (?) for your input! (It does not lower the IQ of the whole street.)

      To be honest I started only by talking about vilification, but this then turned into a slightly deeper (maybe) discussion about how we tend to exaggerate people’s images (hence the “Paint Him Black” joke)… this viewpoint is only obvious in the book, though, the musical doesn’t mention it that much because the drama is taken for granted in there, whereas it’s a choice that Gaston Leroux makes in the book.

      Thanks again and do tune in next week! (My only reader…)

      P. S. I think “installments” is spelt with two “l”s if it’s not about money.


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