I love the 2004 movie production of musical The Phantom of the Opera. The songs are amazing and the story fascinating, so I decided to read the book that inspired it. It is originally a French novel written by Gaston Leroux and published in 1909, and I found it to succeed in areas which many classic novels fail – to be genuinely tense. Admittedly, there were parts which I found boring and wanted to skip, but I did enjoy reading it.
For those who do not know, The Phantom of the Opera is set, you guessed it, in the Paris Opera in the nineteenth century and follows a series of strange events. At the centre of the story are three characters. Christine Daae has just made her debut at the lead singer at the Opera to great praise from the audience, and Raoul, who is among the audience, is in love with her. They were childhood friends, and now he wants nothing but to be with Christine. However, Christine is plagued by a mysterious voice who guides her called the Angel of Music, who turns out not to be an angel but a real man, the same man who has been nicknamed ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ by the other inhabitants of the opera. Why has he been named in this way? His appearance is ghastly, with those who glimpse him comparing him to death itself, and the way that the Phantom, whose real name is Erik, travels around the opera through hidden tunnels and doorways, means that he has become a sort of myth. In fact, Erik lives in the cellars of the Opera, and is himself in love with, or obsessed with, Christine. The story comes to its climax when Erik kidnaps Christine, threatens the lives of everyone in the opera, and Raoul must undertake to save her.
The main thing that I liked about this story was the character of Erik. There is a marvellous line in the story that “he had a heart that could have held the entire empire of the world; and, in the end, he had to content himself with a cellar.” He was much more interesting than the rather dull and predictably sickly-sweet couple that was Christine and Raoul, and Erik was the only character who I truly pitied. Through Leroux’s writing, the pain and betrayal that Erik felt when Christine turned against him, disgusted by his looks was clear. In fact, most of the book I spent wondering what Erik would do next and when he would pop up for the next time.
In fact, Christine and Raoul were at times nauseating. It was truly disappointing, considering the depth of Erik’s character and the pity that we felt for him, that these two characters were not given the same emotional exploration. Yes, we were given a lot of their backstory, but this was more of an information dump style of storytelling. Frankly, I did not like Christine at all and felt that the presentation of her as nothing more but a pious girl who needed saving and whose only solution to her problems was to elope and marry was bland and her character reminded me a little of Cossette – much less interesting than her central role in the story would suggest. I was also disappointed that Raoul and Christine were not more heroic at the final stages of the story. It was the mysterious Persian who saved the day and it was clear that Raoul would have achieved nothing without his help.
On the other hand, this could all have just been a clever way for Leroux to show us how pathetic Raoul was in comparison to the intelligent and passionate Erik, who the world has turned into a monster, and the fickleness of Christine, who decides pretty easily to abandon her dear Angel of Music for Raoul. Also, it was clear through all of the characters that Leroux wanted to explore the dangers of obsessive love. I wasn’t particularly convinced by any of the love stories, neither Christine and Erik’s nor Christine and Raoul’s, but it was clear that neither of them were free of faults.
On another note, I found the book easy to read, although the structure and changes in narrative style were rather off-putting and could venture into the realm of dullness. In particular, I hated the final few chapters that were told from the diary entries of the Persian. I understand that Leroux was trying to root it in historical events and give us a reminder of real time and place, but it was just boring, especially when the diary entries began to turn into retellings of the characters’ biographies. I would have much preferred for Leroux to have kept to his usual writing style, and it would have made the final few chapters as tense and exciting as the first.
Overall, The Phantom of the Opera was not a great book, but it was entertaining. Unlike many books which have mystery at their core, it felt like the book got more boring as it went on, but I loved the character of the Phantom and what I took to be a commentary on superficial and obsessive love.