Book Review: The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera, a story perhaps best known through the stage adaptation, was originally a Gothic horror novel by Gaston Leroux. ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is the name given to a man living secretly below the Paris Opera House. One is not entirely sure if he is man or ghost – or something much worse. He becomes captivated by the sound of Christine Daaé’s beautiful singing, develops an obsessive love for her, and kidnaps her, leading to a series of horrific events.

My Photo [The Phantom of the Opera]

I liked reading this book; it was genuinely thrilling and had some truly scary moments, which I hadn’t anticipated because of how tame the kidnapping plot in the 2004 film adaptation is. There is palpable danger and tension throughout, due to the Phantom’s cruel and malignant hold over the Opera House.

My favourite character is – and probably always will be – Raoul simply because I liked him in the film adaptation.

In the novel however, what I enjoyed was the development of his and Christine’s romance from childhood sweethearts to adults in love. I shared in his frustration and upset that Christine was already ‘pledged’ away to the ‘Phantom’ and there was not much he could do to rescue her from this. Raoul’s helplessness as the heroic figure was especially emphasised in the torture scenes, where he and Christine are separated and suffering separately in different ways. This was a nice subversion of the “damsel in distress” convention.

Whilst on the subject of torture, I liked how Leroux unashamedly introduced taboo subjects such as death, torture, violence, and suicide because this added to the Gothic and horrific tone of the book.

Yet for me, where The Phantom of the Opera fell slightly in my esteem was its use of both a prologue and an epilogue.

I didn’t read the prologue, so as to leave the plot as mysterious as possible for myself (which worked well!). On skim-reading it in preparation for this review however, my issue with the prologue is the same as the epilogue; it ties up questions about the ‘Phantom’ instantly – who he really is, what he really is, and where he came from.

I much preferred seeing the ‘Phantom’ as a liminal figure who could be both man or ghost – once his presence is rationalised and his true self revealed, I felt this removed some of the horror*.

**It’s rather like seeing a magic trick performed behind the scenes, then watching the same trick being performed; something has been lost.

Furthermore, because of the prologue and epilogue, the book is written as if a true account by Leroux and thus there are a few passages of letter-reading and the inclusion of administrative documents, which is not the most dynamic way of introducing new information.

All in all, I much enjoyed reading The Phantom of the Opera, and it was nice to finally read the story on which many musicals and films have been based.

– Judith

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Themes in: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

‘Reader, I married him.’

Jane Eyre is a Victorian Gothic novel, telling the story, from a first-person perspective, of the protagonist Jane Eyre. She is left in the “care” of her aunt and cousins after the death of her parents, but is treated horribly and is eventually sent away to boarding school. She grows up to train and work as a governess for the aloof and proud Mr Rochester. Jane begins to develop romantic feelings for Rochester, but she doesn’t know he is hiding a terrible secret.

To me, the most noticeable theme in Jane Eyre is Bronte’s use of the Gothic. I studied Gothic literature at A Level – not Jane Eyre sadly – but that made it easy for me to spot Gothic conventions whilst reading it.

The Gothic

Jane is described metaphorically as an ‘elf’, ‘changeling’ and ‘fairy’, supernatural creatures which could have either good or bad connotations, depending on which myths or fairy-tales you read. Thornfield Hall, Rochester’s home, is an isolated mansion with many abandoned rooms and secret passages, the perfect place for scary and supernatural occurrences. There is also lots of powerful colour symbolism, using key Gothic colours: black, white and red. Most notably, the Red Room, in which Jane is imprisoned as a girl, has ‘crimson’ bedcovers, ‘red’ carpets and dark, mahogany furniture to haunt and remind Jane of her uncle, whose dead body was laid out in the Red Room. The room is symbolic of Jane’s suffering, entrapment and a strong reminder of the ever-presence of death.

Love

Another theme in Jane Eyre is love. I’ve heard many refer to Jane Eyre as one of the greatest love stories of all time. Whilst I disagree with this – I see Jane Eyre as primarily Gothic, not romantic – the theme of love is prevalent nonetheless. Jane desires to be genuinely loved and valued. This is perfectly justifiable, after being denied a true family, and the abuse she endured from her aunt and cousins. These desires are why she rejects St. John’s marriage proposal, because a marriage built around purpose or function would lack the love and value she longs for. Furthermore, this is why she rejects Rochester’s proposal to be his mistress: Jane is an independent and strong woman who will not let herself be devalued by being subject to a man’s whims and losing her integrity.

Slavery

The final theme I want to talk about in Jane Eyre, which I hadn’t considered before until a lecture, is slavery, in relation to the character of Bertha. Bertha is taken by Rochester from the Caribbean and kept physically imprisoned at Thornfield Hall, out of sight. This reflects how, slaves were presented during the time of the slave trade, in paintings, for example, “lurking” behind the aristocracy, ready to obey. In addition, Bertha is always described in supernatural and animalistic ways, such as ‘clothed hyena’, ‘maniac’, and ‘shaggy locks’. These descriptions are significant because she is a white creole, and so has mixed racial heritage. This imagery suggests Bertha is “other” and exotic – like a creature – simply because of her race. This parallels the racist approach white Britons had towards non-white individuals at the time.

***

Thank you for reading!

– Judith

Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel.

Dorian Gray, a handsome young man, is worshipped by many in society, including the painter Basil Hallward. Hallward takes Gray’s portrait, and introduces him to his friend, Henry Wotton. Wotton has a powerful influence over Gray, and gradually he loses his innocence and virtuous nature. Dorian Gray express the life-changing desire that he would rather his portrait age, than him, allowing him to retain his youthfulness. His wish comes true, and Gray pursues a life of debauchery and stays beautiful, while his portrait warps and ages, recording each of Gray’s transgressions.

It took me a while to engage with The Picture of Dorian Gray; I found the first few chapters highly philosophical and “arty farty”, and so I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to finish it. Nevertheless, I pressed on, and discovered a definite turning point – from intellectual discussions about immorality, to witnessing immoralities such as murder, deceit and cruelty. For me, this is reminiscent of the Gothic genre, although The Picture of Dorian Gray is largely classified primarily as a philosophical novel.

Naturally then, the book raises themes of morality, immorality, art, philosophy, religion, youth, and vanity. I found the theme of vanity interesting, and the book’s meta-literary nature particularly highlights this; Gray seems to be aware his life is its own narrative with its own narrative conventions, and that he is “performing” a role – particularly as nobody can see his real self, which is trapped within the painting, and so his unchanging, youthful face is almost like a costume.

Gray even reads a novel ‘without plot, and with only one character… who spent his life trying to realise in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century but his own.’

This book is also described as:

‘the spiritual ecstasies of some medieval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner’.

This accurately parallels the narrative of Gray’s own life – creating a story within a story – which he later acknowledges: ‘indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life’.

I also thought The Picture of Dorian Gray was particularly thought-provoking – for many readers, I think, Wilde walks a fine line between being inspirational and being offensive. To demonstrate this, here is an extract from Henry Wotton, describing women to Dorian Gray:

‘I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else… They love being dominated.’

I’d love to see what a modern-day feminist makes of this! Thankfully, I’m not the sort of person to be offended by this kind of talk, but I do find it interesting. Does this accurately reflect the thoughts of 19th century men? Does this represent Wilde’s own views? Is it meant to be taken as humour?

Reflecting on The Picture of Dorian Gray, I’m glad I read it, after initially being uncertain. I think it’s a fascinating book and I’d be interested in reading more about its interpretations and messages.

– Judith