The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Leroux PhantomI think we all know I have kind of a thing about the Phantom of the Opera…  I recently did a reread of Gaston Leroux’s original novel–and since I can never keep straight what was in Leroux compared to other versions, even the third time through felt in some ways like a new experience.

The basic story is the same across most versions, and Leroux set the original pattern.  A masked man with a genius for music lives under the Paris Opera House.  In the guise of the Angel of Music, he trains Christine Daae in singing.  When Christine falls for Raoul, the handsome Viscomte de Chagny, the Phantom wreaks havoc in his jealousy.

Leroux was originally in French, so if you’re reading a translation I highly recommend Leonard Wolf’s.  Really, I can’t stress this enough–I’ve read two versions, both “unabridged,” and Wolf’s somehow has significantly more detail and better writing.

It’s always been the characters that really fascinate me in any version of Phantom–and mostly it’s Erik, the Phantom, himself.  Retellings in the last century have been on a nearly-consistent quest to make the Phantom a more sympathetic, romantic figure.  In the original, however, he’s a complete raving madman.  Truly, the man is unhinged.  He has a violent temper and (probably) kills at least three people over the course of the book.  I say “probably” because he denies it himself and we don’t actually see those moments, but I think his denial is a symptom of insanity, not innocence.

There’s nothing romantic about Leroux’s Phantom.  However, he does garner a certain amount of sympathy–or perhaps I should say pity.  I began feeling more sad for him when the Persian (a mysterious figure rarely appearing in films) took over the narration.  That’s not because the Persian portrayed Erik sympathetically, but just the opposite.  He’s the closest thing the Phantom has to a friend, and even the Persian still routinely refers to him as “the monster.”  We also learn from the Perisan that Erik really believed Christine loved him; the Persian himself doesn’t believe it…because Erik is so ugly.  Not because he’s a raving madman with violent tendencies–but because he’s so ugly.  There’s something wrong in that.

The final scene, in which Erik tells the Persian about how he parted from Christine, is absolutely wrenching.  And how can you not feel sad for a man whose mother always refused to kiss him?  Susan Kay does wonderful, devastating things with the idea, but it’s there in Leroux too.

The Phantom as a violent madman casts Christine in a different light too.  I’m not a Christine fan as a rule.  Often she’s an idiot or decidedly callous.  However, it occured to me rereading Leroux that Christine and the Phantom are sympathetic in inverse relation to each other.  The more rational and likable the Phantom is, the more blameworthy Christine seems for any lies and betrayals, and for ultimately choosing Raoul.  The more villainous the Phantom is, the more justifiable Christine’s actions are.  In Leroux, she’s still an idiot at times, but is pretty much justifiable too.

As for Leroux’s Raoul–I have to say I find it downright amusing how frequently he weeps, faints, raves or goes into a sulk.  I understand what Christine doesn’t see in Leroux’s Erik, but I don’t know what she sees in Leroux’s Raoul (his bank account, possibly…)

So much for characters.  The other aspect that struck me most in the novel was the structure.  So much of the story happens “off-screen.”  Many of the most iconic moments, including Christine ripping off the Phantom’s mask and their final parting, are only conveyed in conversations after the fact.  They’re almost detailed enough to be flashbacks–but aren’t really.

We get a lot of Raoul wandering about and wondering what’s going on with Christine.  We get very little of the Phantom actually present in the story.  I think Leroux is one of these classic writers who didn’t really know what he had created–or didn’t know quite what to do with it.  Nearly everyone retelling it has realized that the most interesting one in the story is the Phantom, and has been skewing the story his direction ever since.  Leroux…not so much.

Riding solely on its own merits, I have to say that I don’t think Leroux’s Phantom is all that great of a book.  It pains me to say it.  And I don’t think it’s a terrible book!  But it’s middling at best.  It’s far more interesting from a historical perspective, from the angle of “oh, that’s how Webber changed this” or “I love how Susan Kay took this one line and wrote six chapters from it.”  For me, at the end of the day, I far prefer Webber’s and Susan Kay’s versions.  But it is fascinating to see where they came from.

Other reviews:
ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
The Book Mine Set
In Which I Read Vintage Novels
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Phantom of the Opera

15 thoughts on “The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

  1. Jen

    Hey there!! I have been a long time Phantom fan, about 24 years strong now… I am wondering your take on the validity of the story of the Phantom. Do you think it a true story, based on a real-life man who lived below the Opera House? Or is the story purely fiction? I have read all I can find about the topic and been to the Opera House itself, but I still can’t know for sure what is truth and what is fiction…

    1. Much as I enjoy the story, I’m pretty sure it’s just a story…contrary to Leroux’s assertions in the prologue! There may have been specific elements inspired by truth (apparently one of the chandelier supports really did fall at one point, though not the chandelier itself) but I think the vast majority of the story is just fiction. With so much interest in the Phantom (especially after the Webber play), if there was a true story behind it, it would be widely known.

  2. nlwincaro

    I definitely need to read the book. From the movie, the thing I wonder…how real is the phantom? is this a tale of Christine being drawn into and fighting her own dark insanity (the Phantom, the memory of her dear father) and a break when a ‘normal’ life with Raoul presents itself….even though the movie/play and I assume the book make the Phantom utterly real…I love to entertain the thought that he is not, he is just a dark consuming blot on Christine’s troubled psyche….

    confession that I never think this way on stories, so I don’t know why this parallel/alternate story haunts me so (no pun intended). I expected to search it and find that it is the most obvious thing in the world, and I find it nowhere….so maybe the book is next to deepen my understanding of the story.

    1. Oh, intriguing…I don’t think I’ve ever seen/read a version that plays with whether the Phantom is only a figment of Christine’s imagination/delusion. That would be an interesting direction to go! The original book makes it clear that the Phantom is a real person, though I was just reading that some reviews at the time complained because he *wasn’t* an actual ghost. I’ve never seen one where he was actually supernatural either!

      It’s so funny that there are so many versions, but still ideas unexplored…

  3. Ha, applause for Raoul’s bank account! 🙂 I read the book after Webber and Schumacher had spoiled me, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected. I wasn’t especially impressed by the characters’ rendering, and the guy that accompanied Raoul down is the only one I really liked… So for a friend who asked me where to start with the Phantom I advised to watch the film first, and I practically never do this 🙂

    1. I agree on the Persian–the first time I read the book (without seeing any other versions) I felt like the Persian was the most heroic one in the story. I think that may be why he rarely makes it into other versions. When the Persian guides Raoul below, it REALLY points up how ineffectual Raoul actually is…

  4. I read this book years ago. I’ve never re-read because as you said I think it is perhaps only a average book compared to other classics. What we need to thank Leroux for is creating the Phantom which has gone to inspire some great retellings and adaptations.

  5. I’ve always found the phantom to be the most interesting character, too. I haven’t read the book in a long time, so I’ve been influenced pretty strongly by the musical, but I think he’s romantic in a way – “tragically romantic” if you will. Not that I would be romantically interested in him…but I think he’s romantic in an emotional and aesthetic way.

    1. The Phantom is definitely romantic in most later versions (not so much the early ones, but in the last 50 years or so). In the original, though…not so much, or so it feels to me. Although, on the other hand, Leroux did have the Phantom’s grand opera be Don Juan Triumphant, so perhaps he was trying to set something up there.

  6. dianem57

    Sounds like Leroux’s book is the “primary source” which the later versions used to build their own stories from – worth reading to see where the others took many of the details and expanded upon them.

  7. I read the book once several years ago after having seen the Broadway musical a few times and remember really liking it. I read a version with a long intro that went into the history of the Opera House which was terribly fascinating in and of itself.

    I’m not sure what I would feel about the book without the Broadway musical being my first exposure. As it is I consider it to be a great read, but I’m also bringing all the emotion and story of one of my favorites, Sarah Brightman, to the story as well as Michael Crawford’s performance. It has such strong emotional through lines that I couldn’t read the book without that being superimposed on it.

    I like that the book fleshed out the musical for me, and perhaps vice versa, so I’m really glad I read it and highly recommend it to any who like the various theatrical versions.

    1. I don’t suppose you remember which version had the history of the Opera House? I’ve been researching the Opera lately (surprisingly difficult to find good sources!)

      I’m sure my exposure to the musical (and so many other versions) completely skews my impressions too. I THINK the Phantom is the most interesting one in the book, but would I think that if I didn’t have Crawford’s voice “singing songs in my head” (as Christine puts it…)? Hard to say. I did read the book first, but my memories of that first impression have become completely blurred. Except I thought that the Persian was awesome. I remember that.

      I like your idea that the book and the musical each fleshed out the other. Yes. For me, a lot of the fascination is how all the different versions add to each other.

      1. Actually yes, it was the Barnes and Noble version of the book. I really enjoyed that part of the story and have always meant to go and do more in-depth research because it sounds like such a fascinating place.

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