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Gaston Leroux’s most well known title is nonetheless known more for its musical adaptation than the novel itself. Often dismissed as confused, not know quite what it’s trying to be, I feel, however, that you’d be missing out on a novel of great intrigue and atmosphere were you to cast it aside so easily. The tale of Erik/the Phantom is haunting, his genius and twisted spirit apparent as he roams the secret passageways of the Opera house he helped to create. His love of Christine is obsessive, his desperation to be loved all too obvious when one of the narrators reveals Christine allowed him to kiss her forehead, something not even his mother would. He forces the reader to question their judgment – can he so easily be condemned when he has been rejected and starved of affection his whole life? Should we not feel some pity for this man forced to live an invisible life?
Christine’s story is not without its own tragedy – her father’s death in her youth wounding her deeply and stripping her of the joy of music, making her once enchanting voice little more than average. Raoul, who had known her before her father died, understands the pain of loss, having been brought up by his brother in the absence of a parent. His love for Christine is of a very different nature to that of the Phantom. Raoul loves her and wants to protect her from the Phantom, who takes advantage of her grief to manipulate her to his will. Raoul’s feeling are changeable, often flicking between devotion and suspicion, fearing she is having an affair with another man and behaving loosely.
The format is not untypical of the time, Leroux using a common technique of addressing the reader in the prologue, speaking of the truth of the tale. The three central characters are reminiscent of those from another great Gothic revival novel - Wuthering Heights. Erik reflects Heathcliff – treated with violence and rejection at a young age, creating a manipulative, some would say evil, man with an otherworldly feel. They both desire love and are motivated by an unhealthy obsession with a woman. Catherine is a fiercer heroine by far but faces a similar dilemma – letting go of the past or holding on to a destructive force. Edgar is a more loyal counterpart to Raoul and struggles in a relationship with a woman whose heart belongs, at least in part, to another. It is a tried and tested formula with an anti-hero that inspires sympathy.
The gradual revealing of information about Erik’s past makes him feel more real than the ghoulish tales of fiery eyes and an ever-present smell of death. He is cunning both in his exploitation of the secrets of the Opera but also in his more sinister intentions, creating a torture chamber of great ingenuity. If you want a tale of passion and mystery, drama and crime, then The Phantom of the Opera contains all that you could want.
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