The Phantom of the Opera: Inspirations, Interpretations, and a Literary Analysis
“The Opera Ghost really existed…” Such are the opening lines of Gaston Leroux’s Edwardian homage to the Belle Epoque. Pregnant with mystery, romance, and intrigue, the words usher us into a world as fantastical as one of Hans Christian Andersen’s frosty fairy tales – as decadent as one of Oscar Wilde’s indulgent novellas, as Gothic as “Jane Eyre,” as romantic as Jane Austen.
A classic from the beginning, the story has a telescopic quality, starting with the 1907 burial of phonographic records in the cellars of the Opéra Garnier (a historical fact) and the discovery of a lonely skeleton wearing a gold ring (a fictitious invention), before plunging decades back into the winter of 1880-1881, and further back even into the narcotic reveries of mid-century Persia. By the time we are drawn back into the posh tedium of pre-war Paris, we are left as stunned and dreamy as an opium-eater wakening from a pipe dream.
But the question still remains: did the Opera Ghost really exist? Hundreds, if not thousands, of online “phans” have plowed through historical records, genealogies, and urban legends, hoping to prove that a disfigured genius named Erik called the cavernous cellars of the opera house his home. They point to Leroux’s deathbed confession that “it was all real,” and some even allude to conspiracies and cover-ups. The truth, naturally, is much more pedestrian. Leroux was himself a theatrical eccentric prone to melodrama and hyperbole – not unlike Erik – and after the transatlantic success of Lon Chaney’s 1925 film adaptation, he relished the idea of leaving this world with another mystery. The Palais Garnier has, in fact, never reported a ghost of any sort, and no skeletons were discovered when the recordings of Edwardian opera singers were sealed in the cellars.
But the Ghost lives on. Erik and Christine have achieved a literary apotheosis afforded only a few fictional creations – Holmes and Watson, the “Necronomicon,” Odysseus – wherewith they have become real to their readers (to some, literally), and achieved immortality. What is it about this book – written, to date, 109 years ago – that has captured imaginations with the same power as “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” and “Wuthering Heights”? The answers lie in its archetypal agelessness: Beauty and the Beast is a story that we have been telling since “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” and the themes of cursed genius (Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”), endangered damsels (Andromeda, Persephone, Eurydice), guided journeys into the depths of man’s despair (Dante’s “Inferno”), and the redeeming power of love (Orpheus, Beatrice, Christ), have been with us since mankind began to record our myths.
We will discuss this further in just a moment, but what we must understand for now is that Leroux expertly plumbed the depths of human insecurities, values, and hopes to create a myth with all the grandeur and panache of Shakespeare or Homer. It still resonates with us because we relate to the rejected genius (even if we aren’t rejected; even if we aren’t geniuses) whose abilities are never respected due to the disfigurement of his body. Especially in an era where we are so conscious of body shaming, racism, and sexism, Erik’s banishment from the crème-de-la-crème of society – cavorting four stories above him in top hats and jewels – strikes us as authentic. As Leroux penned with a sigh, “Ah, yes. We must needs pity the Opera Ghost…”
LITERARY ARCHETYPES AND INFLUENCES
The novel may owe the profundity of its success to Leroux’s savvy ability to tap into our deep, psychic nerves – creating a masterpiece which is neither original nor surprising, but which replays an archetypal drama with which we as a species have been enthralled since the dawn of storytelling. Like the Paris Opera House – whose brilliant grandiosity is supported by a series of deep, dark cellars, as deep as the building is tall – Leroux constructed his tale on the legacy of archetypes that reach back millennia.
PERSEPHONE AND PLUTO. Perhaps the oldest, most immediately recognizable prototype for Christine and Erik is the myth of Persephone and Pluto. The blooming daughter of Demeter (goddess of the harvest) was unfortunate enough to draw the attention of the broody lord of the underworld, who promptly kidnapped her – dragging her under the earth to his subterranean kingdom. Outraged, Demeter launched the world’s first winter, which ravaged mankind until Pluto was convinced to share custody with the goddess: Persephone would be released for half the year (spring, summer), and return to her macabre husband for the remainder (autumn, winter) – hence the seasons. Another Greco-Roman model can be found in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: in many ways Raoul – boyish, handsome, and passionate – resembles the poetic Orpheus, whose love for the dead Eurydice lead him to charge the gates of hell in an effort to recover her from the clutches of (yet again) Pluto.
DANTE, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, AND FAIRY TALES. Dante’s “Inferno” – also influenced by the Orpheus myth – serves as the likely model for the relationship between Raoul and the Persian: like Dante and Virgil, the older man is not really among the living (the Persian leads a liminal life, haunting the opera just as much as Erik), and serves as a guide to the younger. Also like Dante and Virgil, the two plunge beneath the earth in pursuit of lost love, but are tripped up by the guide’s hubris before they are freed by divine intervention (angels in Dante’s case, Christine in Raoul’s).
The medieval artistic trope of “Death and the Maiden” (utilized in works such as G. A. Burger’s “Lenore” and Schubert’s eponymous quartet) is clearly recognizable in Erik’s death’s head and Christine’s virginal beauty, not to mention the very obvious parallels to “Bluebeard” (which Erik himself references), wherein a ghoulish man with a secret room filled with bodies marries a nosy coquette (gory hijinks ensue). The story is also immediately recognizable in the French fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast,” wherein a virtuous girl’s love is capable of piercing through the bitter spirit of a lonely eccentric, horribly deformed by an enchantment. “The Princess and the Frog” uses the trope of the spell-breaking kiss, as do a bevy of European fairy tales.
THE ENGLISH GOTHIC NOVEL. The modern era furnished Leroux with plenty of models, also. The Gothic novels popularized in England were rife with abductions of virginal ingénues, grotesque hermits with equal quantities of shrewdness and lust, helpless male heroes tossed about by their own passions (and desperate to save their beloved from the machinations of her vulgar kidnapper), and wise, eccentric (and often exotic) guides who teach the hero to channel their passions. They are also almost all dominated by architecture and edifices: English Gothic novels almost always were set in and around a grandiose, stone building (manors, castles, abbeys, monasteries, prisons, forts, churches) not unlike the Palais Garnier. Novels like “The Monk,” “The Mysteries of Udoplho,” “The Castle of Otranto,” and “Uncle Silas” were likely inspirations to Leroux.
THE NOVELS OF VICTOR HUGO. Perhaps his three biggest influences were a trio of late Victorian novels written about tragic romances, hidden motives, and secret identities. Victor Hugo’s “The Man Who Laughs” tells the story of Gwynplaine, an Englishman whose face has been gruesomely mutilated by a Glasgow smile – giving him the appearance of wearing a perpetual grin. Like Erik, Gwyplaine is made an outcast for his disfigurement, but comes to love a virtuous woman whom he hopes will humanize him with her acceptance. Gwynplaine has an easier row to hoe than Erik: his beloved is blind, and – without being able to see the savagery of his mutilation – supposes that her suitor must be a very happy man. Their story – in typical Hugo fashion – has a far grimmer ending than Leroux’s, however, with the girl being exiled in an act of careless corruption, and Gwynplaine committing suicide after watching her die in his arms.
The second major influence also comes from Hugo: “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” Both stories tell about a grotesquely disfigured musician who dwells, ghostlike, in a Parisian wonder of architecture. Both men are “handled” by an older, authoritarian male (Hugo’s villainous Frollo and Leroux’s former chief-of-police, the Persian). Both fall in love with a young, foreign girl who has become a local sensation (the gypsy Esmeralda, and the Swedish Christine). Both abduct them in their respective third acts, taking them into the heart of their eccentric abodes (Quasimodo taking her to the top of the cathedral to save her; Erik taking her to the cellars of the opera to keep her), and both have romantic rivals who are aristocratic Parisians (Captain Phoebus and the Viscount de Chagny).
In the end of both novels, workers repairing the respective buildings find a deformed skeleton, giving credence to the legends. There are many more similarities, but these are the most notable. As an aside, the silent film actor Lon Chaney Sr. would become most famous for three roles from French novels: Quasimodo, Gwynplaine, and the Phantom of the Opera.
TRILBY AND SVENGALI. The third novel – the clearest model of all – which most influenced Leroux was Geroge du Maurier’s “Trilby.” Wildly – almost fanatically – popular at the time, the novel is a relic today due to its antisemitism, but in the late 19th century, everyone was reading “Trilby.” It told the story of the beautiful Irish singer of the same name who moves to Paris to experience La Vie Bohème. Perhaps more of a Carlotta than a Christine, Trilby frequents Bohemian cafes and dance halls, poses for artists, and is the rage of the bohemian set.
The most influential subplot of the novel is surprisingly a small episode in the novel, but became its most famous feature, and formed the basis of Christine’s relationship with Erik. The villainous Svengali – a hypnotist and musical genius – sees potential in Trilby, who is tone-deaf, and decides to entrance her in order to fashion her into the world’s greatest diva. Few “phans” of Leroux’s novel are aware that in the original French, Christine was described as being a relatively weak singer (the 1911 English translation excluded several comments that express this explicitly): she wasn’t tone deaf, but was said to sing like a door-hinge before Erik’s tutoring. Like Svengali, Erik decides to form Christine into a sort of musical Pygmalion: turning a so-so chorus girl into a prima diva.
In “Trilby,” Svengali’s fiendish machinations (he is implied to have carnal intentions for Trilby) fail when he has a heart attack during one of her performances on the London stage: like Carlotta, her voice suddenly fails her and she is booed off stage. Although Leroux transforms the cigarette-smoking, wine-slurping, nude model, Irishwoman into an emotionally-judicious, level-headed, chaste Scandinavian, the insidious effect of Erik on Christine is utterly carnal: as I will point out ad nauseam in my notes, Erik’s power of Christine is unquestionably meant to be read with a sexual subtext. She is described as going into ecstasies and raptures during her performances, swoons with a flushed face after her first triumph, and constantly horrifies Raoul with the eroticism of her euphoric singing. Some of these details were omitted from the popular 1911 translation, but I have returned them to their proper place.
While some readers play the same “Game” that fans of Sherlock Holmes play (believing or pretending that the stories were true and based on historical models), a cursory attempt to verify any of the events in Leroux’s novel will quickly disappoint those who hope to uncover a historical ghost (the Palais Garnier actually has no rumors of resident ghosts despite its age). But a slightly more cynical investigation will actually render some surprising results: most of the characters have historical analogs, even including some of the novel’s events.
THE HISTORICAL PARIS OPERA HOUSE. Let us begin with the main character: the Palais Garnier. Like Hugo’s Notre Dame Cathedral in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (originally titled “Notre Dame de Paris”), this Gothic novel rarely veers away from this central setting, and uses its architecture, design, and floorplan as a psychological metaphor (rising nearly a dozen stories in the air – beautiful and elegant – but built on a foundation of six dark and secretive cellars). In truth, the Palais Garnier does sport an underground lake, although it is most accurately called a water tank or cistern – a dark lair used to collect the swampy runoff of Paris’ boggy soil, which hampered the excavation of the cellars during construction. Other than romanticizing this claustrophobic pool, Leroux’s descriptions are fairly accurate.
And yes, there is a Box Five, the door to which sports the considerate placard: “LOGE DU L’FANTOME DE L'OPERA” (“box of the phantom of the opera”). Built by architect Charles Garnier, the building’s construction lasted from 1861 to 1875 – briefly halted by the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune – and it remains a stunning example of Beaux-Arts, Second Empire, and Neo-Baroque architecture.
Construction costed a staggering 36,000,000 francs (almost $100,000,000 in 2018 currency), and when it finally ended, the 1,979-seat Palais Garnier was – and remains – the most famous opera house in the world. You can read more about the history and dimensions of the Opéra Garnier in an 1879 essay from Scribner’s Magazine called “The Paris Opera House” (first printed in de Mattos’ 1911 translation, and frequently included at the end of most copies of “The Phantom of the Opera”).
THE HISTORICAL PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Rumors do exist that Erik has a historical counterpart: there has been some suggesting – though poorly documented – that Erik was partially based on a little-known architect named Eric Vachon. Vachon, it was said, participated in the building of the Palais and suffered from porphyria (the skin disease that most commentators blame for Erik’s deformity). The legend holds that while construction was underway, he asked if it would be possible for him to build an apartment in the Palais’ bowels. When Garnier absolutely refused, Eric disappeared and was never heard from again… A fun urban legend, though almost certainly false. More likely than not, Erik is merely a literary collage of Svengali, Beauty’s Beast, Gwynplaine, Quasimodo, Pluto, and various villains from English Gothic novels.
(WHAT HAPPENED TO THE PHANTOM'S FACE?) While the character of Erik may be fictitious, his enigmatic disfigurement, musical brilliance, and wildly dynamic personality may all have medical explanations. So what was the cause of Erik’s ghoulish face? There are many things which could have contributed to Erik’s deformity, although some of his traits (e.g., his glowing cat’s eyes) are scientifically improbable.
Fans of the novel and its derivatives have pointed to a number of conditions including a ghastly combination of cutaneous porphyria (the so-called “Vampire” disease) and congenital syphilis given to him by his infected mother (possibly alluded to by the gaudy furniture which he has inherited from her). The syphilis argument has good ground to stand on (Edvard Munch’s macabre painting “The Inheritance” (the painting above) shows a version of what Erik’s infancy may have looked like: a Victorian woman in mourning clothes cradles a green-skinned baby with dark eyes and a chest oozing with sores).