What Nationality is the Phantom of the Opera?
Many are curious as to Erik’s last name, and therefore his nationality. Leroux doesn’t provide us with a last name to his famous monster however many assume Erik is French because Leroux set his novel in Paris. The truth is nationality plays a big role in Leroux’s Phantom.
Leroux writes Erik was born in Rouen, which would make him nationally French, but doesn’t give us a parental bloodline. He makes mention of Erik’s mother and father, but beyond a snippet of information about trades, locations, and attitudes toward their monstrous son, the reader knows nothing. What is obvious is Leroux loved German villains.
Leroux’s most famous villains were German. The Phantom of the Opera is not his most beloved work, nor is Erik his most popular character. That honor belongs to his novel Rouletabille and his character Ballmeyer, a German. Ballmeyer and Erik display frightening similarities: murder, hidden passages, tricks, and an obsession with genius and disguise.
Much in Leroux’s novel echoed the anti-Germanic sentiment that was still prevalent in Paris at the time he wrote Phantom of the Opera. Leroux chose the Opera Garnier which was, for many years, was anti-Germanic. The Paris Opera House didn’t host a German opera until 1890. Leroux’s commentary of the opera manager, M. Richard, as the “sole person who has any comprehension of Wagner” makes him a comical figure in the eyes of Parisian society at the time of its printing and further hints at the anti-Germanic sentiment at the Opera Garnier.
Leroux goes further into rooting Erik as a German/Germanic and portrays France’s anti- German sentiment in the novel as a whole. Leroux’s Phantom was gleaned in part from Svengali, an Austrian Jew who captures the love of an opera singer by transfixing her and molding her into a work of public musical admiration. (This from George Du Maurier’s novel, Trilby.)
During her captivity Christine asks if the “name of Erik does not point to Scandinavian origin.” Erik doesn’t reply other than saying he is a man with no heritage and no country. He took his name “par hazard,” or at great risk. This indicates that “Erik” might not be his actual name at all, or another form of detaching himself from elements of his persona he doesn’t care to acknowledge. Even Leroux’s spelling of the name “Erik” points to German roots. As and aside, the choice of wine used throughout the novel is a Tokay which Leroux writes that Erik “himself brought from the cellars of Koensingburg,” further hinting Leroux’s route toward Germanic elements of his novel.
Overall Leroux wanted to create Erik as the foreigner among Frenchmen, in the same way he wanted a parallel between Raoul as the sexless virgin yet the leading male. Leroux wanted to craft Erik as the nation-less character while still creating a recognizably villainous character for the French: a German.
If anyone wants debate, the novel was also written at a time when Oriental thought was popular—echoed in the Persian, certain décor, even Erik as the Moor of Venice and his “yellow skin.”
Who is to say what nationality Erik was? This element of Leroux, however, is why I chose to make my heroine (or anti-heroine if you will) in my series of Germanic origin.