An Unsettling, Unsettled Novel
Gaston Leroux was forty-one years of age when Le Fantôme de l’Opéra was published as a serial in a Paris newspaper and as a book by Éditions Pierre Lafitte, a few months later in February 1910. It was his seventh fully-fledged novel, the fifth published since 1907, when he quit his career as a highly successful and charismatic journalist to become a full-time writer of popular fiction. The book appeared in English as The Phantom of the Opera in 1911, in a translation by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos. Two of Leroux’s previous novels had already been translated into English within a year of their first publication in book form: The Mystery of the Yellow Room, in which Leroux set out to improve on Edgar Allan Poe’s and Conan Doyle’s ‘locked room’ mysteries, and The Perfume of the Lady in Black. The immediate and enduring success of these two detective stories turned Leroux into a household name in France, but the high reputation of The Phantom of the Opera in English-speaking countries was not echoed for the best part of the twentieth century in Leroux’s native country. And while English-speakers often assume that the book was first written in their mother tongue, the French do not readily attribute it to Leroux.
In fact, The Phantom of the Opera may well have been forgotten were it not for the now legendary 1925 silent film by Rupert Julian, adapted from Leroux’s novel by Raymond Schrock and Elliott Clawson, which showcased the talents of Lon Chaney, then known as ‘the man of a thousand faces’. Those who saw the film as children in the 1920s remembered for the remainder of their days the feeling of horror that overwhelmed them at the sight of the face behind the mask. By presenting the Paris Opera House as ‘rising over medieval torture chambers’ and turning the Phantom into an irredeemable monster, Hollywood created a masterpiece of gothic horror in its own right. In so doing, they lifted the story out of its particular cultural and historical context, gave it a place in the popular imagination and opened the way to a whole series of cinematographic remakes, stage and musical adaptations such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, and novelistic sequels or retellings such as Susan Kay’s Phantom. All these bear testimony to the fascination that Leroux’s mysterious central character and imaginative plot continue to exert. True, some of these adaptations tend to be reductive, and others have been dismissed by purists as misinterpretations, but they certainly make reading Leroux’s original novel a new, exciting and all the more powerful experience.
In a piece entitled ‘To my friends on the other side the Channel’, Leroux proudly claimed to have been strongly influenced by English and American novelists, first and foremost Dickens but also Conan Doyle, Kipling and Wells, in addition to Edgar Allan Poe. Dickens he admired for his humour and vivid descriptions, and Kipling and Wells for the poetic lyricism of some of their stories. At the time, Leroux was probably thinking of the numerous volumes of the Adventures of Joseph Rouletabille, Reporter and the novels featuring Chéri-Bibi, his innocent convict hero, but these key influences on his writing are just as much in evidence in The Phantom of the Opera. The novel offers a mixture of comedy, even farce, and tragedy often found in opera itself and frequent in English literature, as any Shakespeare reader will know, but quite uncharacteristic of the nineteenth-century French writers whom Leroux also admired – Balzac, Hugo and Stendhal. Leroux added that he had learnt from Dickens that a good plot is no more than an abstract construct unless you can make the story come alive; mystery is dependant upon it: the more fantastic the story, the more accurate it needs be in its evocation of the quaint reality of everyday life. Thus, in The Phantom of the Opera, mystery is born of the workings of the real; it is born of the gaps and discrepancies in our grasp of the places and characters. It stems largely from the unknown, not from the unremittingly unknowable – and even less from the occult.
Except for an excursion to Perros-Guirec in Brittany and a few short scenes set in the apartments of Carlotta, Mme Valerius and M. Richard, the de Chagny residence and the Bois de Boulogne, the action takes place entirely inside the new Paris Opera House designed by Charles Garnier, which had opened in 1875, only a few years before the beginning of the story. It was considered at the time, and would be for many years to come, as ‘the most unique building of its kind’,3 not only because of its neo-Baroque, imperial style, but also because of its unusual size and complexity. However, irrespective of the architectural merits of Garnier’s vast edifice, which obviously fired the writer’s imagination, the interest here lies in the uses Leroux makes of this setting.
Leroux’s carefully documented descriptions of the Paris Opera House form an integral part of the narrative. The story is embedded in the topography of the building, its very fabric even: from the front of the house, with its grand staircase, ‘crush’ room and magnificent auditorium, to the back of the house, the dance studio and the administrative wing; and from the roofs down to the vaulted cellars, the whole of the Opera House becomes a stage where the Phantom can perform, his spectacular, unnerving tricks unimpeded. For him to be able to control this vast space, and slip in and out of sight, there must be gaps, hollow spaces, and for these not to undermine the make-believe and bring down the whole fictional scaffold, Leroux’s descriptions of that much-admired building must hold together.
The story is also grounded in the history of Garnier’s Palace of Music and the political events that shook France in 1870–71. No need for medieval dungeons. The water-logged site and the prolonged siege of Paris that halted the building works during the Franco-Prussian War, as well as the social and political unrest that ensued and the bloody repression of the Paris Commune uprising of Spring 1871, provide the dramatic foundations of the novel. The Opera House also serves as a socio-economic microcosm of Parisian life: every generation and every tier of Parisian society is represented and all have some part, however minor, to play in the novel: from the ballet boys and girls to the ancient, decrepit machinists; from the wealthy subscribers – aristocrats, merchants and political grandees who may buy sexual favours from the dancers – to the grooms and supernumeraries hired for the day. As it becomes a self-contained world, complete with subterranean lake and aerial views, with bulging cliffs over the troubled sea of the auditorium and gardens made of cut-out greenery, the Opera House also grows to mythical, symbolic proportions, which make it possible for the fiction to be ultimately read as an imaginative portrayal of the human psyche. Thus, thanks to a wealth of classical and biblical references, the journey down to the vaults of the building becomes a descent into the underworld, and the theatre itself the stage of a combat between good and evil, life and death, fear and unconscious desire, often enacted through musical performance.
The novelist’s consummate musical culture and knowledge of French Romantic opera – perhaps the legacy of his days as a theatre critic and close association with his brother Joseph, a professional musician and the dedicatee of the novel – is rarely commented upon. Yet its role in the construction of the narrative and the thematic developments of the novel should not be underestimated. For instance, it is remarkable that the works performed during the gala evening when Christine gives the full measure of her talent, should foreshadow some of the key events in the fiction: thus Saint Saëns’ Danse macabre (‘Dance of Death’) heralds the churchyard episode in Chapter VI and Delibes’ Sylvia the abduction scene at the end of Chapter XIV, the pivotal middle chapter of the book, while Guiraud’s Carnaval and Delibes’ Coppelia prefigure the masked ball in Chapter X and the whole make-believe world of the Opera House. More generally, much of the complexity in the characterization is derived from the operatic situations in which the protagonists are placed either as performers or spectators.
In fact, music is such an integral part of the novel that it provides a particularly useful angle to explore some of the fiction’s intricacies and Leroux’s ironical play with conventions and stereotypes. The plot does not follow the pattern of thwarted love so often represented in opera. Far from the usual love triangle, we have here the encounter between two impossible love stories : the socially unacceptable romance between two childhood sweethearts – a young aristocrat and a peasant girl who has made it to the stage – and the fatal attraction between a spectral, deeply flawed genius and an opera singer. There ensues a powerful ‘pull’ leading to a kind of resolution based on mutual empowerment. The tension, surprises and reversals of situations are directly related to the duality, emotional instability even, of the main protagonists. In this respect it is significant that Erik can sing in turn the role of Desdemona, an innocent, pitiable victim and that of Othello, her possessive murderer, in Rossini’s Otello, while Christine singing Gounod’s Faust can be cast in turn as the lovelorn youth Siebel and the woman who spurns him. Her sublime performance as Marguerite, fallen victim to the bedevilled Faust, even leads a critic to surmise that like the minstrel Ofterdingen in The Singers’ Contest by E. T. A. Hoffmann, she might herself have struck a pact with the Devil. Just as music and song reveal Erik’s conflicting selves, Christine’s performances and the comments they elicit tend to suggest that she is not the stereotypical heroine that her blond hair, blue-eyed physique and childish naivety might lead us to believe. And ironically it is the forbidding figure of the Phantom who ultimately empowers her both as a singer and as a woman: crossing emotional and social boundaries, she becomes the agent of Erik’s redemption and can choose her own fate. While the stage performances provide the perfect setting for various coups de théâtre, it is the erotic charge of the duo from Otello inside the lakeside retreat that gives credence to the whole fiction. The fact that the scene is narrated by a female character creates a particularly powerful effect and is perhaps one of the more modern aspects of the novel.
The Phantom of the Opera is undoubtedly a product of nineteenth century history and culture. It follows the conventions of popular serialized fiction with its succession of ‘fillers’ and ‘cliff hangers’, and use of stereotypical situations. Yet there is something both unsettled and unsettling about it. It is a popular novel, yet it takes its cue from elitist Grand Opera. It is a romantic tragedy of sorts but with farcical scenes. It contains all the elements of the pageant, and yet revels in the hidden. As for the main protagonists, they scarcely correspond to the profile of standard heroes and villains. Even those episodes that begin with all the markings of the adventure story have disconcerting outcomes. And although it is a detective story, with an inquisitive reporter as first-person narrator, the mystery is never quite dispelled: it lingers on. While this may help understand why the book originally failed as a work of popular fiction, it also goes some way to explain why several generations of filmmakers, dramatists, novelists and even poets have felt compelled time and time again to revisit, reinterpret and reinvent Leroux’s compelling story and characters.