Thursday, February 4, 2010

Phantom or Master of Puppets?

“The Phantom of the Opera” by Gaston Leroux has many different layers to discuss. The Paris opera house itself comes to mind. Masks, both literal and figurative seem a prominent theme. The ever goofy French sensibility could be discussed as they are shown in the opera managers and the not-so-elite police force who are more amused by the happenings in the opera house than anything else, even with behind-the-scenes people hanging themselves and chandeliers crushing patrons.

But The Opera Ghost himself is what drew me into this story. Erik. The trap-door-lover. Leroux casts “poor Erik” as the villain in this tale, but after it is read you realize that Erik is the only character to have changed, the only character to have learned and grown. He is the only character to move through the story and be made better by it. So, is he the villain … or the hero?

The documentary style in which Leroux presents his story is well done, but it does fall apart stylistically. The reader starts with a prologue that is signed “Gaston Leroux.” This breaking down of the “fourth wall” (if I can use a theater term here) to insert the writer into his own fiction is excellent. I had to close the book and compare the names and when I saw they were the same I thought “neat, well done.”

But the documentary style falters in the middle. For example, in Chapter X “Forget the Name of the Man’s Voice,” is simply a chapter of prose fiction. There are no author’s notes to explain this was captured or reenacted or taken from letters about this event. Leroux has created fiction in the middle of his fiction, but he’s presented that fiction as documentary style fact. Confused? Don’t be, it is a minor flaw in the story, and one that would be almost impossible not to make. But after the opening I was looking forward to an old fashioned story told in interviews, letters, opera play bills, etc. The final action during which The Persian and Raoul follow Erik into the bowels of the opera house returns to the documentary style with the entire account being “The Persian’s Narrative.”

Overall the story has a nice forward momentum. The asides with Erik tormenting the opera managers and embarrassing Carlotta were solid subplots, and The Persian standing in for the reader to share the background on Erik so we know more about who we are dealing with and who is holding Christine Dae prisoner is solid technique.

However, the emotions of the love triangle are, to put it mildly, overwrought and annoying. Raoul and his petulant boy-man ravings are nearly laughable at times, and he really never does anything in this story. Christine returns to her father’s grave, Raoul follows … and accomplishes nothing. He goes to Christine’s dressing room, and accomplishes nothing. Without The Persian Raoul never would have been able to pursue Erik down into the ground under the opera house, and once he gets there he’s more of a burden than a help.

Christine isn’t much better. Her emotional response to everything frustrates the reader. The one thing Raoul has right, running off before the big performance (the one in which Erik steals Christine off the stage mid-performance), Christine ignores as it would be too cruel to Erik.

And then there is Erik. All trap-doors lead to Erik in this tale. He beguiles those who do not believe in him, teaches a mediocre singer to become a virtuoso performer, steals horses and francs with ease, and has a dark past The Persian can barely recount as it is too foul.

Yet Leroux is very crafty with Erik. He fills the role of villain quite nicely, and much of his activity is, to be sure, less than honorable. I’ve already mentioned the theft of horse and money. Add to that kidnapping and doing all the heavy lifting to prepare to blow up a crowded opera house and the reader can easily hate Erik.

But again, does Erik ever directly kill or harm anyone? Anyone at all? There are allusions to assumed bad things done to amuse the sultana in Erik’s past. The Persian and Raoul end up in “the torture chamber” from chapter XXII to XXIII. I’m not trying to white-wash Erik of all sin here, but how bad could the torture chamber have been when Raoul and The Persian choose voluntarily to re-enter the place after finding the barrels full of gunpowder?

My point is that, Erik may have done some terrible things in his long life of side-showing, architecture, and singing, but the reader is never allowed to see these terrible things directly. This is very smart on Leroux’s part. It allows the reader to pity Erik. Sure he’s kidnapped and manipulated a young woman and his version of love is closer to that of a child loving a toy than it is to adult love, but he’s really not a bad guy. And he’s had such a tough go of it, right?

Where Leroux overplays the pity is in Erik’s direct interaction with Christine. He is nearly indistinguishable from Raoul in that account. Erik grovels and begs and whips from anger to tears in the blink of an eye. He is a passionate artist, and this is supposed to give him free license to act like this, but all it does is annoy the reader. From Chapter XXII:

“Soon the moans that accompanied this sort of love’s litany increased and increased. I have never heard anything more despairing; and M. de chagny and I recognized that this terrible lamentation came from Erik himself. Christine seemed to be standing dumb with horror, without the strength to cry out, while the monster was on his knees before her.

Three times over, Erik fiercely bewailed his fate:

“You don’t love me! You don’t love me! You don’t love me!”

And then more gently:

“Why do you cry? You know it gives me pain to see you cry!”” (Leroux 216)

Oh, knock it off! The constant groveling and the figurative clutching of the pearls took me as a reader out of this story too often. As horror goes it has horror elements (a monster, the potential for bodily harm, mystery that is thought supernatural, and a past that is terrible and not ever quite forgotten).

But once the reader gets to the end and realizes that Erik may not be the monster The Persian makes him out to be, then the story evolves into one in which the monster has a heart, and a soul. Sure he could use some lessons in self control and even more lessons on how to win a lady, but it is refreshing to see a monster who isn’t really a monster at all.

Erik, the Opera Ghost, the trap-door-lover, is shunned from birth. His own mother never even kissed him. His great intellect and his natural artistic abilities to build and sing and use his voice carried him from side-show freak to the man behind the walls who controls everything. From his time in Persia, then Turkey, and France he was in control of his environment and the people who inhabited it were but puppets he manipulated. But when one of those puppets took an interest in him, and gave him that first kiss, he cut the strings on the world and died a happy man, not a monster.


  1. I do agree that both Christine and Raoul are rather wooden characters. I was never clear on why, if Christine loved Raoul, she humored Erik, or why, if she had some affection for Erik, she humored Raoul. Leroux could have played this up by making her manipulative or even confused, but he seemed to just kind of leave her as inconsistant. I never felt much behind any of her words, and she seemed to be simply an instrument to move Erik around.

  2. Hurray - we're all in the same boat regarding the overall annoyance and whineness of Raoul and Christine.

    I kept wanting to throw the book every time Raoul cried.

    And you know, while I like Erik (heck, he's easily the strongest character even if you make a very valid point about the groveling, hee), to me the strength of the story was the setting come to life - the wonderful, intricate, beautiful and mysterious world of the Opera House itself. I could have happily wandered through that space even without Erik to lure me on.


  3. Dave:
    Erik is a puppet master. And that is the creepiest part of the story beyond the L'Opera itself. He does nothing else but pull the strings.
    He has been doing it well before the book started, but to me, that wasn't enough premise for this book, and that is why it disappointed me so much.

  4. I too felt Raoul and Christine were mostly ineffectual characters. I agree with the poster who said Christine seems to have been little more than a device to move Erik around. I also felt that Erik was the strongest and most sympathetic character, but I wanted to know more about him, specifically about his past.

  5. Erick as the puppet master works. However, he also is a puppet in some ways. While he try's to control the actions and reactions of everyone in the story, he ultimately is controlled by them. The largest example of this is how, in the end he dies of a broken heart from the lack of Christine's love. Again, while he tries to control the circumstances, with the water bomb choice this ultimately fails when the building is flooded. So, once again Leroux has set up a duality in this story puppeteer/puppet.

    Post by Craig