Classic Remarks: Is the Phantom of the Opera Romantic?

Classic Remarks 1

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s question is:

 Is the Phantom of the Opera abusive or romantic?  (You can discuss the musical or the book version, or the differences between the two.)

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of  Gaston Leroux’s novel has always intrigued me.  It takes a remarkably abusive character, the titular Phantom of the Opera, and transforms him into a seemingly sexually desirable, if dangerous, leading man.  If “abusive” seems too strong a word consider the plot of the novel, which differs significantly from that of the musical.

In the novel, The Phantom of the Opera, who lives under the Paris Opera where singer Christine performs, gains emotional influence over her as she seems to believe he is her dead father speaking to her.  He then kidnaps her.  He releases her only after forcing her to promise she will remain true to him.  When he realizes she loves her childhood friend Raoul instead, he kidnaps her again, threatens to blow up the Opera and the people in it unless she marries him, and reveals that he has perfected some Eastern torture techniques and that he’s using them on Raoul and another man.  No wonder other adaptations of the work have marketed it as a horror story!

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical retains elements of the original character that indicate he remains an undesirable match for Christine, to say the least.  He grooms Christine by training her to sing.  He tries to seduce her at her father’s grave.  He terrorizes the Opera, kidnaps Christine, kills a man, and once again holds Christine hostage by demanding she stay with him or watch him strangle Raoul.  And yet somehow he still manages to seduce audiences!

Perhaps part of this effect may be attributed to his singing voice.  He seems attractive to audiences even though he supposedly is a monster beneath his mask.  And he elicits pity from them because he finds himself forced to live in the shadows.  One might speculate that he could try living in society, but it is telling that Christine tries to break his power over her by tearing off his mask–apparently his hideous visage confronts her as an outwards sign of his hideous personality.  He is trapped where he is by the attitudes of his day and has become twisted as a result.

But is it problematic that the musical presents the Phantom to us as more of a tragic figure than as a monster?  True, we should feel sorry for the way society has treated him, but what are we to do with the fact that he kidnaps and murders?  In my experience, when people discuss his character, they overlook these aspects.  I guess kidnapping a woman has been presented as a romantic event for some time by old stories.  And the murder is of a somewhat minor character, so sometimes audiences seem to overlook it.  Furthermore, Christine’s final pity for the Phantom and his change of heart erase his actions a little–he wants, apparently to reform, and the story suggests he be allowed that chance.  But is the story actually propagating the old narrative that if you just love an abuser enough, he’ll change?

I don’t have easy answers to this question.  I like to think that audiences are sophisticated enough, in the end, to recognize that a story does not always reflect what one should do in real life,  I like to think that audiences are sophisticated enough to realize that dangerous men sometimes manage to make themselves attractive, but that does not make their actions acceptable.  And yet, at the same time, I wish people would stop swooning over the Phantom and his music.

Leave your link in the comments below!Krysta 64

20 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Is the Phantom of the Opera Romantic?

  1. majoringinliterature says:

    This is a really great topic. I’ve personally always found this story problematic. I remember watching the movie version of the musical and being completely stumped as to why it had been recommended to me as a terribly romantic story. It’s disturbing how often we’re willing to overlook the abusive aspects of stories like this. There’s definitely scope to feel sorry for the Phantom – in some ways he’s the product of society’s mistrust of anyone even slightly different or abnormal – but I think that serves to make this story tragic, not romantic.

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    • Krysta says:

      In many ways, I would argue, the film actually manipulates (or at least encourages) viewers to romanticize the action. The music, the gorgeous visuals, Christine’s reactions, all set a mood of lush romance. In a way, it’s like the audience is experiencing what Christine initially experiences. But while Christine ultimately chooses Raoul, some moviegoers are still caught up in this idea that you can change a person’s behavior through love. Maybe you can, I don’t know. I don’t want to say love isn’t transformational at all But it’s dangerous to think that if you love an abuser long enough eventually he’ll stop abusing you.

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      • majoringinliterature says:

        I agree, the movie definitely wants to cast the story in a romantic light. It came out in the mid-noughties, only a few years before the Twilight books, if I remember correctly. I do feel like there’s a bit of a common thread between those stories, with the manipulative and creepy leading man and the young, innocent heroine. Or maybe it’s just because I watched the two movies close together. 😀

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        • Krysta says:

          This particular trope has certainly been playing out for a long time. It’s almost like a way to make the story sexy while still giving the audience that ideal of the pure woman. What greater thrill to give an audience than to threaten that purity, seems to be the logic behind these stories, as disgusting as that is.

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  2. Briana says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I definitely think the musical/movie walks a fine line (though I enjoy it). I do think it romanticizes the dark and dangerous. There’s a sense that the Phantom could have been or could be someone great with amazing talents and deeply held emotions. But the reality is that, yeah, he’s kind of a creep. I agree that most people are pretty good with separating fantasy and reality though. Interesting fantasy to be kidnapped by dark, mysterious musician–totally different scenario in real life.

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    • Krysta says:

      Haha. Right. If some mysterious voice started singing to you through the walls in real life, you’d probably run away before anything else could happen. 😉

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  3. Reno (@fallingletters) says:

    Good topic! It’s definitely a tricky one. I have seen the musical and read the book. I adore the musical, but I think that’s largely due to Colm Wilkinson’s voice… As you wrote, it may be difficult to separate the character from the music. But I agree especially with your point about how the story might be understood to illustrate how dangerous men can make themselves attractive. I didn’t find Christine’s attitude towards the Phantom as romanticized as it might have been (i.e. as compared to what I remember of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast). I think the most problematic part of the story lies in the conclusion (at least Christine didn’t ditch Raoul for Erik in the end).

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    • Krysta says:

      Well, Christine chooses Erik in the end, but not freely. Which is still problematic in some ways as her choice inspires Erik to change and thus set her free. I don’t want to disparage a message that says that an act of sacrificial love (i.e. giving up her freedom to save Raoul’s life) can be inspirational and transformative. But the whole idea that this murdering kidnapper is just going to say “Nevermind, I’ve seen the light” seems a bit…odd. Erik is so bitter and vengeful because society has rejected him and seen him unworthy of love. So…how does seeing love played out yet again for another man and not for him change him? And why does it seem all too easy? Maybe in part he’s just giving up because he knows he’ll never have what Raoul has. But there’s still this other side to it that suggests that Christine does care for Erik (even if she wouldn’t marry him) and he’s responding to that and suddenly giving up his life of crime as a result.

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  4. bookspiring says:

    I loved reading this topic, provably because Phantom of the Opera is one of my favorite novels. This was really an eye opener for me, as I did overlook many parts of the plot. 😅

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      • bookspiring says:

        I feel slightly ashamed because I’m one of those people who thought of it as a romance novel, and for such a long time… After reading this article, I realized that it should actually be one of those thriller novels.

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        • Krysta says:

          I think the romance elements are certainly there, but Andrew Lloyd Webber really expanded upon them in a way I wouldn’t have thought consistent with the original premise of the novel, which seems more concerned about proving the existence of the Phantom by compiling evidence from various sources and less concerned about having Christine wake up next to a wedding gown.

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  5. Emily | RoseRead says:

    Fabulous post! Phantom is one of my favorite musicals, and I am a sucker for dark, borderline-evil heroes, so that’s probably why. I also adore the music. I read the novel a long time ago, so the details are fuzzy, but I definitely remember seeing Eric in a much less favorable light in the book. I think one major factor for the allure of his character in the musical is the music. The themes and swells in the music seem to mimic his emotions and draw the audience into greater sympathy with him. It’s difficult to resist such tonal Andrew Lloyd Webber perfection, and it’s funny because the Phantom himself represents the (often deceptive) allure of music and the way it can control your emotions – just like Webber’s score does to the audience. I recognize that the Phantom is extremely manipulative and abusive of Christine, but the music tricks me into sympathy just like he tricks her with his music. That’s my theory on why I secretly love the Phantom in a dark-twisted way, lol.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think you’re right to say that the music entices us into sympathizing with Erik–and, indeed, I am not opposed to sympathizing with him as it is shameful that he has been driven into hiding because society won’t accept him because of the way that he looks. I think, however, that the musical is walking a fine line. You want to sympathize with the Phantom and hope that he recognizes, as Christine says that he “is not alone.” But that doesn’t mean he’s great for a boyfriend, which is what some unfortunately seem to get out of the musical! (And I know quite a few people are just in love with Gerard Butler, so there’s that, too.)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. TeacherofYA says:

    I’ve never followed the play…so I’m unfamiliar with the events. Never been a big one on musicals. But now that AG Howard is releasing Roseblood, I’m eager to learn about the play.
    But you’re right: he shouldn’t be glamorized. That’s not a man to love or forgive.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think he can be forgiven. Part of the story is about how the Phantom has been driven underground because society won’t accept a man with a physical deformity. And that rejection has twisted him. He does, I think, deserve some sympathy for his life circumstances, though that in no way excuses his decisions to kidnap, torture, and murder people.

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