The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

In her introduction to the edition that I read, Anne Perry captures the appeal of the setting of this book, which takes place in the cavernous Palais Garnier, aka the home of the Paris Opera at the time the novel was written: “There are rooms beyond rooms, passages under and over other passages, and endless shifting walls and hidden pivots and trapdoors, cellars beneath the cellars.” And in this labyrinthine setting, there is a ghost. Or, at least, people say there is a ghost, though the novel’s narrator assures us in the prologue that what people called a ghost was really a man: “he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom.” The ghost, anyway, is a troublemaker: he’s the reason the departing managers have left, and the new managers are bothered by the stipulation that one of the opera boxes be left empty for him, not to mention his request for a monthly allowance. (The managers and their attempts to ignore/avoid/figure out the ghost provide a fairly humorous subplot.)

And then there’s Christine, a singer at the opera who performs at the gala for the departing managers, showing the world that her voice has “a radiance hitherto unsuspected.” Turns out she’s been getting secret music lessons in her dressing room from an unseen figure, a voice she hears through the walls. Is it the Angel of Music her father told her about when she was a little kid? Raoul—who was Christine’s friend in childhood, though they come from different social classes—thinks not, and finds himself jealous that Christine is being pursued by someone else/possibly taken advantage of by some trickster. Meanwhile, a worker at the opera is found dead behind the scenes early in the book, and one of the questions of the plot is how many more deaths in the opera house there will be. (The answer: not zero.)

The edition I read comes with a rather dense academic essay at the end that made me wonder why the editors included it: it features lots of references to Julia Kristeva and the idea of abjection and sentences I needed to read multiple times to even kind of understand. Which isn’t to say it was necessarily a bad essay, just that it felt weird in an edition for a general audience. It did have the result of making me wish I’d read this in English class at some point in high school or college: reading it as an adult for fun I was mostly focused on plot and setting, but I’m sure it would be interesting to hear a good teacher talk about this book in relation to themes like class, Orientalism, et cetera, and in relation to other Gothic novels.

Highlights: I love this description of Christine taking Raoul up above the stage, and wanted more prose like this: “And she would drag him up above the clouds, in the magnificent disorder of the grid, where she loved to make him giddy by running in front of him along the frail bridges, among the thousands of ropes fastened to the pulleys, the windlasses, the rollers, in the midst of a regular forest of yards and masts.” Also great: the description of the opera roof, and “the huge tanks, full of stagnant water, where, in the hot weather, the little boys of the ballet, a score or so, learn to swim and dive.”






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