Gothic Elements in "The Phantom of the Opera" -- Part One
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Gothic Elements in "The Phantom of the Opera" -- Part One

Gaston Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera" dragged its readers beneath the Paris Opera to a world that was both frightening and alluring in its otherness, a characteristic of the Gothic genre.

She walked methodically down the dark, damp corridors, traveling to an unknown destination. Her head was fuzzy and light, and the terror she should have felt was muted into wary enchantment and a vague sense of wonder. All she could gather was that she was being led to a place further and further underground, further and further into the darkness. Even the man leading her was an enigma. Was he an ally, one who returned to her the gift of song? Or were his purposes far more sinister?

For Christine Daaé and readers of Gaston Leroux's original novel, The Phantom of the Opera, the answers were not initially so clear. The 1910 novel dragged its readers beneath the Paris Opera to a world that was both frightening and alluring in its otherness, challenging them to keep their minds above ground as Raoul and Christine fought to do so as well. The shadows and dilemmas waiting in the Phantom's underground lair were not meant only for the book's characters, however, but for its readers as well. As a result of these major concerns found in the novel, this work is most properly categorized as part of the Gothic genre, since many of these elements are those typically associated with that genre.

The Gothic genre is difficult to define. It covers a vast array of material in several mediums—mostly literature and film—and oftentimes, the materials classified as Gothic are so varied in nature that it can be difficult for the literary critic to establish a clear definition of what a truly Gothic work should look like. As Jerrold E. Hogle writes in his article on the genre, “Part of the problem, but also part of the answer, is that ‘Gothic’ has been quite deliberately fraudulent and shifty ever since the term was first used” (2). Traditionally, critics and literary historians place the genre's start at 1764, with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, a dark work taking place within an antiquated castle and involving motifs dealing with the supernatural and the dark side of humanity. While the full specifics of the genre are hard to pinpoint, they stem from Walpole’s work, and many later Gothic works start in that tradition. It is therefore difficult to define the branch of literature in any way other than to catalogue a few of the parameters commonly found within those works that claim a connection to the Gothic. Aside from the very basic and obvious quality of an overarching dark mood, these parameters include the setting of an antiquated space with a secret importance to either the plot or the characters, a blurring of the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural, an emphasis on the subconscious or repressed darkness of the human mind, and an examination of social or political issues (Rintoul 703). In addition to these, feminism and the illusion of female submission often factor into many Gothic works as well (Rintoul 709). The Gothic genre may very well be difficult to define in and of itself, but using these parameters, it becomes clearer which works of fiction can truly be classified as Gothic literature and which cannot.

The next part of this discussion will look at the overall tone of the novel and the character of Erik, the titular phantom, as they pertain to the Gothic genre.

References

  • 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.

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Comments (2)

Great definition! There are a lot of works with supernatural elements that aren't Gothic, Wuthering Heights for example.

Excellent discussion of the difficulties of defining the Gothic. Part of the problem is that it's a style of the visual arts (especially architecture) as well as a literary genre. The early Gothic novels inspired the Gothic Revival in architecture: Horace Walpole for example was a pioneer in both fields.

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