Gaston Leroux's "The Phantom of the Opera" demonstrates Gothic ideas about the subconscious, society, and the role of women.
Be sure to read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of this discussion for more information.
As a very human character, Erik is prone to the repressed and sometimes dark desires of the human subconscious. This is another common attribute of Gothic stories and often ties into Freudian criticism. Both Erik and Christine are wrapped up in their own base childhood desires and can be classified as suffering from a severe Oedipus complex. Erik, whose deformity caused him to be rejected by his own mother since birth, longs for a maternal figure to love him. Christine becomes this figure for him, “revealing himself as seeking a substitute in her…for the mother who turned from him in ‘fear and loathing’” (Hogle 182). This is further evidenced in part by the fact that he keeps her within a room that is nearly an exact replica of his mother’s from his childhood.
Christine is not free from these base desires, either. She still yearns for her deceased father, and finds in Erik the paternal figure that has been lacking in her life for years. Hogle continues to say that Erik “offers to be the male fulfillment of ‘all [her] fantasies’ – clearly Freudian fantasies of feminine desire for the father” (182). Indeed, she even goes so far as to believe that Erik has been sent directly from her father. Both characters are driven further and further into the darkness by allowing their oedipal desires to control them.
The solution only comes at the conclusion of the novel, when Christine acknowledges him in a maternal and pitying fashion, hugging him and lamenting “‘Poor, unhappy Erik’” (Leroux 264) as she weeps for him. Erik’s oedipal desires for a maternal figure are thus brought to a conclusion, and he allows her to leave his captivity to return to Raoul, that the two might marry and Christine would mature past her own subconscious desires as well (Hogle 184). She kisses him on the forehead and complies, effectively ending the dark torments all the characters were forced to suffer as a result of the two’s unhealthy and previously repressed longings.
The social functions lurking within The Phantom of the Opera are perhaps just as strong as the sense of psychological suppression. Many of the social and political themes that the Gothic genre explores deal with a notion of the “Other”—that which does not fit in comfortably with what is considered “normal” or “standard” in a society. These themes force us to face “half-repulsive, half-attractive spectres or monstrosities that ‘transform the fragments of otherness’ into aberrant figures or supposedly archaic settings, all of which are made to seem more alien to ‘us’ than they really are” (Hogle 1). Erik’s physical deformities secure his status as “Other” before he is even allowed the opportunity to fix his own place in the world. His hideousness relates him to death, as his face is skull-like in nature, the very “haunting of death” (Hogle 185). His appearance also relates him to the “Orient,” since he is specifically identified as being yellow-skinned (Hogle 187). Death is the moment that the living are forced to confront the ultimate Otherness of the supernatural realm; therefore, by relating to death, Erik’s appearance also relates him to that sense and wariness of Otherness. Moreover, the Orient was considered to be an “Other” during that time in France as well. His yellow skin is only further complimented by his penchant for the Punjab lasso and his connection to the Persian (Hogle 18-20). Thus, his place as “Other” is firmly grounded.
Yet, as is common in most works of Gothic fiction, this sense of Otherness is also confronted with an eerie connection to that which is considered to be normal. Erik, though an outcast with no hope of future acceptance, is markedly bourgeois in his attitudes and tastes. His fondness for the fine arts and attachment to upper-middle class furnishings seem to classify him as one who longs to identify with the bourgeois and does so remarkably well, considering his circumstances (Hogle 188). He conflicts with the standard middle-class society simply because of his physical being, yet his demeanor draws him uncomfortably close to finer society. This connection is only further illustrated by the dichotomy mentioned earlier concerning his importance to the Paris Opera House itself: he has the resources to bring the building down completely while simultaneously having a part in its original construction and current maintenance. He is a dangerous “Other” who serves to show readers and critics how close normal society truly is to the abnormal.
One final Gothic parameter found in the novel is that of the illusion of female submission. This concept most likely originated as a feminist reaction to the Gothic genre’s typically powerless female character that is either longed for or manipulated by some dark influence. As Rintoul explains, “Feminist critics of the Gothic have…engaged with this dilemma in terms of how female protagonists can represent women’s empowerment when such empowerment is predicated on their roles as victims” (708-109). In many cases, however, it can be argued that the women in these works of fiction are not merely submitting, but only pretending to submit, at least to start out with. Rintoul continues, “the submissive Gothic heroine subverts by quietly masking her disobedience of the patriarchy that oppresses her” (709). This is also a plot device typically used within many fairy tales. Employing that as a connection, then, similarity can be drawn from The Phantom of the Opera to the classic “Beauty and Beast” scenario found in several fairy tales and folk tales (Gould 141). In this set-up, the woman willingly submits to the “beast”—or the phantom, as the case might be—whom she fears yet has final control over. Gould explains that it is “Beauty’s job to tame the Beast…she puts an end to his beasthood” (141). Christine submits to Erik’s will, agreeing to marry him for the sake of saving her true beloved and the remaining patrons of the Opera House. It is in acquiescing to his desires, however, that she effectively gains control over the situation. She embraces him and, in doing so, returns sense and brings healing and closure to his character. Therefore, even though she seems to submit to Erik, it is only a submission of appearance rather than of will (Gould 139), and this appearance is what ultimately frees her.
Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera plunges its characters and readers down into an underground world of repulsion and attraction, fear and desire. Most critics would argue that, at the very least, the book demonstrates certain Gothic-like qualities in its text. But as Hogle states, it is “not just a narrative using aspects of that very hybrid genre, but a book rooted thoroughly in a tradition of ‘the Gothic’ extending back into the eighteenth century” (28). The vast majority of the common attributes assigned to Gothic fiction—those that have been in existence since the very moment that Walpole's The Castle of Otranto was written—can be traced and observed in Leroux’s novel as well. This reveals a clear connection to the Gothic in The Phantom of the Opera.
- Gould, Joan. Spinning Straw into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal about the Transformations in a Woman’s Life. New York: Random House, 2005.
- Hogle, Jerrold E. “The Gothic and the ‘Otherings’ of Ascendant Culture: the Original Phantom of the Opera.” Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography. Ed. Glennis Byron and David Punter. New York: Macmillan Press, 1999. 177-201.
- - - -. "Introduction: Gothic Studies Past, Present, and Future." Gothic Studies 1.1 (1999): 1-9. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO.
- - - -. The Undergrounds of the Phantom of the Opera. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
- Leroux, Gaston. The Phantom of the Opera. New York: Bantam, 1990. (Paris: 1910).
- Morgan, Jack. "Toward an Organic Theory of the Gothic: Conceptualizing Horror." Journal of Popular Culture 32.3 (1998): 59-80. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO.
- Rintoul, Suzanne. "Gothic Anxieties: Struggling with a Definition." Eighteenth-Century Fiction 17.4 (2005): 701-709. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO.