Illustration by Loveday Pride
In an utterly unforeseen turn of events, for once there may be an element of continuity between two consecutive articles of this column. While last week I discussed dark academia and the influences of Gothic literature on it, this week we are dealing with an example of Gothic literature itself. A common trait of this genre is a monster-type figure whether it’s an actual monster or simply someone who behaves like one. If we look to Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster there is quite literally a creation – he is made, and not born. So in similar fashion, if we look to Gaston Leroux’s Gothic mystery The Phantom of the Opera, how else do we see that monsters, both physical and figurative, are made, and not born?
The Phantom of the Opera, perhaps better known as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s hit musical adaptation of the same name, is set in the Opera Garnier in Paris and concerns a love triangle between our three main characters: Erik, the “phantom”; the Christine Daaé, an opera singer; Viscount Raoul de Chagny, Christine’s childhood friend and sweetheart. By the end of the novel, the narrator pieces together information he has collected about Erik’s life. Despite his ghost-like traits, his seeming ability to steal through walls and make things vanish, Erik is the son of a construction worker from Rouen who was born with a facial “deformity”*. It is because of this that he wears a mask, later to become the renowned Phantom mask that covers half of his face.
I have not seen Lloyd Weber’s musical – a grave sin, I know – so I only have Leroux’s original work to inform my judgement of Erik’s character. Erik’s life is pitiful. But more than that, he is a rare example of a book character that engenders a very strong reaction in me. For all the hurt he has suffered because of his face, it is undeniable that he is somewhat unhinged. Over the course of the story, many murders are attributed to him, and these accusations are met with his eerie laugh and no regrets. He has a torture room in his dwelling underneath the opera house that relies on sensory and psychological torture rather than physical. Leroux doesn’t go into morbid detail, and in a way that is somehow worse. Whenever Erik was exacting his revenge, I was shocked at the very real feelings of horror and nausea that swept through me. He is so deluded by his own madness that he is blind to anything other than the plans he has set himself.
And yet Erik was not born with a monstrous soul. The contortion of his character and soul is far more horrifying than any physical irregularity he may have been born with. But Erik’s appearance is a motive for his ostracization. He runs away from home and joins two different circuses as the token “freak”. It is during his time there that he learns the art of deception and illusion, something which aids him as he plays the role of the opera ghost of the Palais Garnier. With his background in construction, he harnesses his talent for trickery as he builds palaces in Turkey and Persia with hidden wings, trapdoors, and the like. But this whole time he is still the other. Indeed, in a dialogue, Erik exclaims:
If I am the phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so. If I am to be saved it is because your love redeems me… All I wanted was to be loved for myself.
He internalises the resentment of others towards him over the course of his whole life. Erik despises himself and his appearances, but he despises those around him more. In his immoral actions of kidnapping Christine and his attempts to make her his wife, he seeks validation for who he is beyond his face, beyond his mask that he shows to the world. But by then it’s too late. Like many other villain origin stories, he has become the monster, the phantom people believe him to be. When speculating about his existence, people who claim to have seen him call his face the “face of death” … so Erik becomes the grim reaper and brings death to those around him. But while I pity him for his misfortunes, it is nonetheless difficult to empathise when you look at his actions.
This book is set in the society of the early 20th century. Since then, society has ostensibly made some progress, and claims that it is no longer as superficial and ostracising as it once used to be. Yet every day we see how people’s appearances are unjustly held against them for a variety of reasons. The version of ourselves that we choose to present to the world should not be the only thing people see when they look at us. Yes, Erik undoubtedly had some evil in him that was nurtured and cultivated as he was continually isolated, feared, and mocked for his looks. At the end of the day, he was the one who made the choice to embody the ugliness people saw in him and bring the phantom to life. But he was not born the monster he became. So in the immortal words of Harry Styles, treat people with kindness – don’t risk the birth of monsters as a result of your harsh words.
* “Deformity” would not be anyone’s first choice of word in the 21st century. In Leroux’s original, published serially between 1909-10, he uses the term “visage déformé”, literally “deformed face”, when describing Erik’s condition. In the book, there is no mention of the specific medical condition that caused this, and so my use of the term “facial deformity” is a term free from any and all connotations, meant solely to convey in translation the meaning of the original French.