Happy Leap Day!
As promised, my review of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Except this isn’t really a review – more of an exercise in critical thinking. Reviewing a book that was published over one hundred years ago seems a bit silly. However, delving into the various themes that run through the story is important.
I’ve been thinking about theme quite a bit lately. Theme is one of those storytelling elements that gives me trouble. Characters I can do; plot and pacing I think I’m at least decent at; theme eludes me. On one hand, I think that theme will come out as you write – your message will be told through your story. On the other hand, stories without solidly developed themes usually don’t stick around for long. Books that we consider classics are still around because they have well-developed “messages” or subtext or theme, not because they are the best stories ever written.
What I want to say about Phantom is not that it is an amazing book. I don’t think it is. Wait – hear me out. I think it’s a great story badly told. I think the fact that it was first printed as a newspaper serial hurt the story. The flow from plot point to plot point is stilted and almost jarring, especially considering how many different narrators are used.
Nevertheless, this is a fantastic story, in every meaning of the word. Something I must say up front: The book is different from the musical. It pains me to have to explain that, but there you are. The book Phantom isn’t a tortured-soul musical genius. He is a monster. He likes to hurt and kill people for entertainment. The musical version – the misunderstood masked man – doesn’t hold a candle to the psychopath of the book.
Now that we have that out of the way, on to a discussion of themes.
There are several themes that run through the story, and while most of them are similar, some of them don’t seem to fit the grand scheme. The ones I recognized were: loss of innocence, abandonment, desperation, greed, madness, exact focus at the exclusion of all else, truth, and empathy.
There are others, I’m sure. You will see themes that I won’t because of your unique experiences, and vice versa.
The ones that struck me the most were the contrasts of truth and madness. Leroux gives us a few characters who embody honesty and innocence: Madame Giry and Christine Daaé to name the most obvious. I would argue that Raoul fits in there to some extent as well. Madame Giry is straightforward and honest, yet she is considered crazy. Raoul is driven mad with love, then tortured into madness by the Phantom. Christine doesn’t tell her fantastic tale of being the Phantom’s prisoner for fear of being thought mad, and is held captive by the Phantom when she tells Raoul her story.
To tell the truth is to be seen as mad. To keep the secret will drive you mad. What do you do? Do you risk that someone won’t believe your story, or do you keep it to yourself while it slowly eats at you?
I don’t think any of the characters is “mad.” I think Madame Giry is dull-witted, and that makes it easier for her to accept something as truth and incapable of understanding why other people don’t share her views. I think the Phantom is sociopath – driven to a lack of empathy by horrendous circumstances that was encouraged by very wealthy, very bored psychopaths. I think the Phantom understands right and wrong. He is methodical, intelligent, and cunning. The murders he commits are premeditated, not done in fits of passion.
We don’t really know what happens to Christine and Raoul. We are lead to believe that they run off to Sweden to live happily ever after. But I think, with all they go through, they are … changed. Raoul was in the torture chamber for more than twenty-four hours. He is subjected to baking heat, deadly hunger and thirst, and a very real fear that his beloved will be killed in the next room at any moment and he would be powerless to do anything but listen to her screams. That does something to a person’s mind. Christine is the most damaged character in the story. She voluntarily goes back to that terrible man to save the lives of those she loves. She agrees to give up a life above ground to save the life of her lover. She sacrifices herself for the people of the Opera.
The Phantom of the Opera is an amazing story with some incredibly complex characters. The book is a slog. You have to have a basic understanding of how an opera house worked in the late 1800s, or at very least how a theater works now. You also have to have a basic understanding of the French language and French customs. In other words, you have to want to read this story. This is not a book you can pick up and casually flip through. The story goes to some very dark places, and you have to be prepared to go there. It will make you think about things in ways you haven’t before. For example, can a man with so little empathy that he tortures people for sport ever truly love someone, or will he only ever seek to possess them? Did the Phantom love Christine, or did he simply want to have a beautiful young wife? Was Raoul fighting for Christine or against the monster who kidnapped her? And why did Leroux feel the need to introduce the character of the Persian, when he only serves as a device for getting the Phantom’s back story?
That’s my main argument against this novel. So many good characters were introduced then dropped. They serve no purpose and have no function other than muddling the first few chapters. It makes me wonder if Leroux had a plan for them and the story went in a different direction. That excuse only works if the serials were written as they were published – in pieces instead of a single work broken into chapters. Normally that wouldn’t bother me so much, but I love this story, and I think it was done a disservice.
There are so many more things I could go into with this story, but this post is already too long. I’ll save it for another day, perhaps. (It didn’t occur to me until I was done with this post that I forgot the biggest theme of all: masks. Damn. Another day indeed.)
Final word: Faust. I want to see this opera, if only to gain that bit of perspective in this story.
Next time: The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson by Douglas Lindsay or The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger. I’m moving the books reviews to every two weeks. I don’t want to rush through books just to make an arbitrary deadline. I hope you understand.