Leroux

Flirting with Death: The role of the mother and father in Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera

Image by Greg Hildebrant in his illustrated edition of Phantom of the Opera. Find this book, find it now!

I’ve a confession to make that should be obvious to those who have read my Phantom series or follow me on Facebook. I am a firm believer that the idea of a relationship between Erik and Christine would not have been healthy. This stems from the original novel and the unhealthy love between Erik and Christine born from the idea of the mother/son and father/daughter relationship that Leroux crafted into this pairing.

First off let me say that the age difference between Erik and Christine doesn’t bother me in the original novel; however, it does in the stage show and especially in Webber’s movie. In both adaptations, Erik and Christine were portrayed as too young, although the stage show was slightly was closer to the novel in that. Leroux’s age difference of an assumed 50 year-old man and an assumed 16 year-old girl was natural in the mid to late 19th century. Many men, especially those of the aristocracy, did not marry until well into their 40’s and often with women many years their junior. So while historically that isn’t an issue, the moral implication it bears on a modern day reader is. The reader sees Erik as a man old enough to be Christine’s father who is pursuing her with a need for object and maternal love.

Erik clearly had issues with his mother whether spoken or unspoken. His home beneath the opera house was not the image most in the Phandom think of thanks to Webber’s movie interpretation of it: a cluttered, cavernous, lakeside cave. In the original novel it was a house with all the natural amenities a house has. Erik’s primary possessions were his mother’s furniture stored in a room that was nothing short of a shrine to what was left of his relationship with her. This is the very room he gave to Christine, and the same room that was filled with Freudian indicators of masculinity and sexuality.

Michangelo was genius.

He tells the Persian he was moved to tears (or as some believe redemption) when Christine held him in the final “Pieta” scene. For those of you not familiar with the “Pieta” by Michelangelo, it is a famous sculpture of the Virgin Mary (here the virginal Christine) holding her dying son, Jesus Christ (here the already “dead” Erik). In the novel the position as Christine leans down to cradle Erik after allowing him to kiss her forehead, therefore mingling their tears (maternal fluids according to Freud) is very similar to the pose of this famous portrait of mother and son.

Christine associating Erik as a father figure is far more believable. The idea of a young girl hero-worshiping an older man is a theme familiar in many ideas of a father/daughter relationship. From the beginning, Christine was in love with the idea that her beloved father, with whom she was extraordinarily close, promised her the “Angel of Music” upon his untimely death. Erik becomes for Christine the living vision of her dead father. While not an actual angel, Erik was a musician with an angelic voice in addition to being a walking embodiment of death. For Christine, this translated into a reincarnation of all her father was returning in another form for her to love and worship.

Some may think it a stretch to believe that anyone would love a walking corpse or even yearn for a physical and sexual connection with it, especially if it reminds us of our fathers. In art history “Death” plays a major role as a both a father figure and a sexual seducer of young women. Many paintings and sculptures depict Death either teaching or luring maidens with enticing gifts, music, or just good ‘ole seductive looks . Death was the ultimate and attainable, albeit unwanted, element to life. Even today you hear of people “flirting with death.” Why? Is it so alluring because they want to actually die, or because the idea it conjures up of being able to conquer and overpower death?

Christine being seduced by the reincarnation of her father and being lured into a quasi-incestuous relationship was, in a way, “flirting with death” and the power and control it portrayed.

Happy Birthday Gaston Leroux!

To most a gun shot was an ominous sound, but to the family of Gaston Leroux it was reason for celebration.

Gunfire meant a novel was completed and a new legacy born. Every novel he wrote ended with a single shot fired out the bedroom window. It was classic Gaston Leroux: flamboyant, creative, quizzical and a bit…morose.

Gaston Leroux came into the world like any other boy on May 6, 1868. He was born out of wedlock at number 66 on the Rue Faubourg Saint Martin in Paris. His parents married a month later in Rouen and Gaston was eventually joined by his brothers, Joseph and Henri and their youngest sibling, Helene. His father, Dominique Alfred Leroux, was a contractor and his mother was Marie Bidault.

Gaston was schooled in Eu before heading off to study law in Caen. (Ironically meeting a young man there by the name of Philippe–a highly influential French noble whom would later bear the name of a character in one of his most famous novels.) There he graduated with honors at the age of eighteen. Following the death of his mother, Gaston was called upon to aide his father in the rearing of the younger siblings and became head of the Leroux family–much to his chagrin. He studied law to appease his family, but loathed every moment of it. Thankfully fate stepped in the way. When asked to be legal correspondent for the paper Paris, Leroux jumped at the chance. After covering a very high profile case he was approached by the editor of Le Matin and invited to be a regular reporter.

For thirteen years Leroux used cunning, wit, and his highly tuned skills as an observer to secure one fantastic story after another. He traveled at a frenzied pace living off the excitement of chasing a story. Gaston Leroux had a knack for journalistic coups, securing one coveted interview after another. While enjoying the high and exciting life, Leroux met and married Marie LeFranc. But he did not find the same comfort in marriage that he did in journalism. The union did not last long, and the parting was less than ideal. Marie LeFranc refused a divorce.

Undeterred, he continued in his travels meeting the love of his life, Jeanne Cayatte, in 1902. Despite Leroux’s reputation for being a notorious gambler and playboy, Jeanne Cayette was smitten. Gaston found a partner matching him in cunning and wit. It would not be until 1917 that he and Jeanne married, thanks in part to Marie’s death.

Leroux turned away from journalism in 1907, perhaps bored with it or just ticked off at the constant demands placed on him. Having returned to France after dodging lava during the eruption of Vesuvius, his much needed vacation was cut short with orders from his editor. Annoyed, Leroux greeted the bearer of these orders with some of his most famous words in reference to his current employer: “Shit. Go tell Bunau-Varilla, shit!”

Thus ended his journalism career and began his life writing popular fiction.

Thirty-three novels, screenplays and short-stories galore, not to mention countless rounds of ammunition, Leroux devoted his life to writing. When funds for his family ran short (due to a rather fine taste for the fast life and drink) he was known to shrug off the debt.

“I will just write another novel!” he would declare.

And so he would.
While The Phantom of the Opera is probably one of his most famous works, it is more popular with western culture. In France, it was the adventures of detective Joseph Rouletibille that were the most important of his writings. These works launched Leroux as a master of crime fiction. The Mystery of the Yellow Room has been acclaimed as the standard all locked room mysteries try to achieve. The Rouletibille novels were steeped in logic and twists and turns. It was not until the very end that the criminal was reveled and it always stunned the reader to discover it was the one person they least expected–classic Gaston Leroux.

None of these detective novels held his more famous signature–the love of the macabre. That would season his later works in particular, The Phantom of the Opera, notorious for its murderously vengeful and hideously deformed anti-hero, Erik. But Erik was not the only criminally insane and repulsive character Leroux cooked up. Balaoo was an oddly formed cross between man and ape, while Cheri Bibi was master criminal, not terribly attractive, but with a large heart nonetheless. And finally, one would be remiss not to mention Benedict Masson, a bookbinder in love with a beautiful woman. This woman, because of Masson’s visage cannot or will not, return his love. In the course of this novel Masson does suddenly find himself a handsome man, but at the price of lacking the ability to make love and give love. Oh, the irony!

Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera is a masterful piece of fiction, fitting in with the genre of gothic horror while at the same time to today’s reader, historical romance. It has all the elements of a monster novel with the tragic and bittersweet under tones of unrequited love. Leroux pulled together his love of symbolism and used all his tricks of misleading the reader to create this timeless tale.

He died of uriemic poisoning on April 27, 1927 and was laid to rest in Nice. When he died he took the secrets of his Phantom tale to the grave. Written in his classic journalistic style, Leroux opens the book by saying: “The Opera Ghost really existed.” Shortly before his death he was quoted as saying during a speech in Nice: “However fantastical my imagination it as always been anchored in something real. Perhaps that is why so much indulgence has been shown to my work, a work which has no pretences except to distract the reader without overstepping the boundaries of propriety.”

Does that mean Erik was real? Does that indicate that all Leroux’s fiction was based on fact? The reader is challenged to be the judge. What it does mean is that what you read is not always what you should believe.

And that is classic Gaston Leroux.

 

originallyposted at Unusual Hstorcals by the author.

Sex and Sexuality in Phantom of the Opera

Subliminal sex in Phantom of the Opera permeated all genres, Leroux,  Susan Kay’s novel and Webber’s stage and film. Kay’s novel seems to be the  reason so many view  Erik and Christine’s relationship as a sexual one. Webber only tipped the iceberg in this aspect, Kay sunk the ship.

Throughout Kay’s novel she birthed a blatant sexual element into Erik and made him attainable by removing three critical details of Leroux: Erik’s criminal insanity, his scent of death, and his appearance of a  walking corpse. Eliminating these elements  made Erik easy to picture and relate to. She took Leroux’s indication of Erik as a powerful seducer and brought it to life. There’s no doubt in Leroux’s novel that Erik had an odd ability to seduce and there’s are sexual overtones. This was Leroux’s trademark irony shining through. His monsters were  alluring.

Erik’s power of sexual seduction is apparent in Kay’s novel from the start. As an infant Erik is able to pull a deep sexual response from his mother with the source of his cry. In response to his cry, his mother says it “brought tears to my eyes softly seducing my body that my breast ached with primitive and overwhelming urge to hold him close.”  Mothers worldwide can argue that’s a normal response, but I doubt will argue a seductive quality that alludes to a need for sex. Combine Erik’s powerful voice with Kay’s description of his non-corpse like body as “muscular, almost inhumanly strong” and you get your popular image of a built and sexually seductive Erik with tones that match Webber in that Erik’s deformity was facial only.

Presto…your sexy Phantom.

In Leroux’s novel the Voice is paramount in indicating Erik as a sexual being in its abnormal range and power. Leroux gives him a highly masculine voice, that drips with sexuality and makes those who hear it swoon under its power. While at the same time he confuses the sexuality of the primary character  when he indicates that Erik can actually alter the sex of his voice at will.  The Siren in Leroux’s novel  was Erik, however in the original French text all the nouns in the section where the Persian is describing Erik as the Siren are referred to in the feminine, and with a highly womanly charm. Am I saying Erik was a woman, or had feminine qualities? No.  Leroux blurred the sublimation of sex in his novel so one never gets a clear cut idea of how Erik identified with masculinity and femininity.

It’s a Freud thing.

Webber leans more toward Kay, or I should say vice versa as Kay based her novel not solely off of Leroux. The mannerisms in the 2004 movie, and stage show, depict the Phantom seeped in sexuality. One just needs to study the hand motions during Webber’s Music of the Night, read his lyrics, or look at his imagery of the Phantom. They are all sexual indicators and some what Freudian as well.

Subliminal sex and the Phantom of the Opera go hand in hand, but what of its act? No one can argue that such an event was hinted at in Webber’s stage show and movie, however I again turn toward Kay as the catalyst for the idea  that a relationship of such was between Erik and Christine. She took Webber’s indicator, picked up on his plot hole  and ran with it.

So let’s look at the role of actual sex in Kay’s novel, not the subtle subliminal elements. In both Kay’s novel and the original it is Christine that is the driving force behind such notions, the instigator if you will. In Kay’s novel she crosses the border between fantasy and gratification while spending her fortnight with Erik in his house. As she is listening to Erik she writes of Christine that his voice  was “answering pulses all over my body.”  Upon hearing his Don Juan, it arouses Christine in such a way that she explores her body until she finds a place on her she “never knew existed” and she reaches a climax that fills her body “with extraordinary sensation.” This is clearly Christine crossing the line between fantasizing about Erik, to sexually gratifying herself with the thought of him and the sound of his music.  Christine crosses barriers even further when she frets over telling Raoul of this experience remarking that “the knowledge I have begun to crave is not yours to give.” This is clearly an indication that her desire for more sexual contact is not with that of Raoul, knowing such would be forbidden. In terms of Christine in the Kay genre, she did have desires for Erik in a sexual way.

In the original it’s not so clear cut, but Christine was again the one with the sexual power. Erik was timid around her in his hesitancy to touch her and in his willingness to lie down like a dog at her feet. While a seducer, he was not a sexual predator. Christine held more sexual power over him in the novel then he did over her, apparent in the final “Pieta” scene when she clutches his face to her breast and kisses him on the forehead. Some may argue that Erik was violent with her so why not be sexually violent? He was a man deprived of a primal need  and had tendencies to become violent to get his point across. He does, after all, drag Christine by the hair when she removes his mask and forces her to touch his face in a manner she didn’t wish to do.  Erik wouldn’t be a sexual predator based on the fact that his methods for violence were very detached and hands off.  This matches his madness. Erik refers to himself in third person, detaching one part of his persona from another.  His torture chamber and  the Punjab lasso are both weapons that don’t require intimate contact with its victim. (Contrary to popular understanding the Punjab is not a hangman’s noose or a lariat. It can be thrown lasso style, but is usually a max of three feet in length and requires two hands to actually kill.)  Rape and sexual violence requires intimate contact with the victim. A contact I don’t believe Erik had the power to understand given the state of his madness.

The movie leads more to the viewer imagination in terms of sexual contact, but the indicators are obvious. You have an overly sexy leading man and a virginal appearing leading woman in a situation that indicates a sexual moment could have occurred. This  is in reference to the scene after Music of the Night and Christine’s  notorious missing stockings… I believe this was just an editorial mistake, but still it opened the debate. Naturally with how sex and sexuality is viewed in this day and age many assume that Raoul and Christine had sexual contact during the period of time that lapsed before the Masquerade scene.  It could have happened given the time period… not every young woman was devote in her religion and held to the belief of being virginal. Raoul, via Leroux’s descriptions in the novel was painted as virginal; however nobles of that time period wouldn’t been so. It would be very unusual for Raoul to have been a virgin at that time.

Was Erik virginal? I will argue that statement should be, was Erik sexually versed? I believe he was. This goes beyond Leroux to the realm of realistic character development in addition to some plot holes Leroux put into his novel.

Erik was 50 years old at least. In reality, which all authors need to draw from whether they want to or not, a 50 year old male does at some point in his life become sexually versed. Maybe not through the actual act of sex, but through puberty. It happens and it can’t be prevented. Erik, would have gone through and we already know Leroux created him in part as a sexual being. I believe Erik  knew how to gratify himself. This is how you delve into the mind of a character and  make them realistic. Erik would have had physical longings for the gratification that comes from sex, however I doubt he would have engaged in the actual act (with Christine) .

Creating a realistic character also means invoking realistic responses.  Erik was a corpse-like, stank, was hideously deformed and…mad.  These elements in such a time period would have made him unattainable. No woman would want to touch him unless…. (I will explain that later). I can go into my rants about social classes and Christine, but basically Christine was looking for a social realm Erik didn’t exist in. And, while she desired him on one level, she was horrified and repulsed by him.

So was he a virgin? I say yes, but not clueless on how to woo or gratify a woman (or man) for that matter. I turn you toward this past travels and the cultures he was involved in. He was versed in many traditions. He had  more than just casual contact with women, but ultimately being able to gratify himself sexually with a woman was out of the question due to his curse. (Kay was the one who created him to be a recluse, using servants to attend to him while he lived in the opera house. Leroux clearly states he took to his own needs.)

Erik could very well have taken the company of a lady prior to Christine in these two plot holes: The first, his famous foot stool in box five. Traditionally only women requested foot stools for opera performances. This request can be viewed numerous ways. Erik could be merely playing with Madame Giry’s mind here and building the illusion of his ghost like status,(remember he liked to manipulate the mind). Or, seeing as he was insane and had elements of two personalities, he could have requested the stool as his own means to believe he wasn’t so alone. (think imaginary friend). Or…seeing as he had a life before Christine who is to say there was never a woman in box five? One will never know. I can safely believe it was not Christine due to time lines in the story and social classes again.

But the most curious plot hole indicating Erik and relationships with women comes from his outburst when Christine unmasks him “Oh you women are inquisitive things.” If he had no contact with women how would he know? Plus his comment of  “When a woman has seen me as you have she belongs to me.” Could this mean that he controlled women in the past? Was this just a reference to Don Juan? Did he have close enough contact with them to be so intimate as to reveal, with his will or against it, the most delicate part of himself: his face?

Subliminal sex belongs in the novel and in its progeny. It’s hard to write Gothic and historical romance without it. To what level, and with whom is the question. My reasoning for not believing in a healthy sexual relationship between Erik and Christine stems from the quasi-mother/father relationship they each yearned for in the other.

I believe Erik was a sexual being and sexual relationships were, are, and should be a part of any tale that is continued with him so long as it is handled in a believable way. I may have contradicted myself by saying that, when before I said women wouldn’t touch him. Christine, for me, did not have the backbone in any genre to look beyond what she needed or wanted from the relationship to give to Erik what he needed and desired. That is not to say another woman would do the same.

Creating Erik that is a sexual being is not easy, especially a Leroux  based Erik. All these elements belong in Phantom and are a part of its Gothic roots.

  • Luke 1:30-33
    “But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne […]