Thursday, October 13, 2016

31 Days of Gothic Romance | The Phantom of the Opera

With Gaston Leroux's novel, we're back into full-blown gothic romance. The Palais Garnier opera house was only about 35 years old when The Phantom of the Opera was published, but Leroux had his Phantom, Erik, inhabit the mysterious catacombs beneath and decorate his chambers with relics from his past. The building was new, but Erik used its secret parts the way a gothic count uses his family castle. And for much the same purpose: attempting to dominate a young woman.

The way he does this is different depending on which version we're looking at. In the 1925 film version, for instance, Erik uses Christine's own dreams about becoming a successful opera singer against her. He becomes an analogy for the seductive, yet destructive nature of the Arts. In the novel, Christine is already getting tired of Erik's possessiveness when he kidnaps her and takes her into his home, but in the movie he woos her. He makes her choose between her career and her boyfriend, Raoul, and she chooses her career. It's not until she unmasks Erik and sees his repulsiveness that she really questions her decision. So there's this great metaphor for how demanding and potentially ugly our creative passions can be. We're often encouraged to follow our passions and dreams, but we're rarely warned that there's a price for that.

In Leroux's book, Christine doesn't really want to be a famous opera singer at all. She started that career to please her father. After her dad's death, Erik took over as her primary cheerleader. So instead of her dreams and passions, he represents cultural pressure to succeed in a particular way. All Christine really wants to do is marry her boyfriend and live a quiet life filled with love.

Whether Erik represents external pressure or internal drive, Raoul is an important part of Christine's escape. At the very least, he's the competing passion that motivates her to resist whatever Erik represents. Like in many gothic romances, he's the handsome hero who's trying to rescue the woman from her oppressor. And in the '25 movie, that's exactly what he does. She turns away from her obsessive dreams to embrace love and relationship. She's almost too late in that, but love overcomes.

The novel's different though in that it's not really Raoul who saves Christine. Following the lead of Beauty and the Beast, literary Christine overcomes Erik by being kind to him. She doesn't fall in love with him, but she's able to see through his hideousness and his anger to the hurt soul beneath. And when she reaches out and kisses him, she frees both herself and him from the curse of his hate. Love still wins, but this time it's Christine's ability to love the ugly, not just the allure of the handsome, that saves the day.

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