Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, was shunned by his family for nothing more than his appearance. Always an outcast, he relies on his keen intelligence to survive, excelling in music, architecture and showmanship. He has many talents that might have helped others, but he has learned to hate people and feels no obligation toward them.
Though well traveled and self-sufficient, Erik is childish in many ways. He has a quirky sense of humor, is overly dramatic and makes up stories, for example asking Mame Giry, the box-keeper at the opera house, to bring him a footstool for his lady, when we know he has no lady. He enjoys playing tricks, but his tricks are often deadly. He becomes obsessed with Christine, a woman less than half his age and childlike herself. She believes in ghosts and while she says that she is terrified of Erik, she seems to secretly enjoy his fascination with her while at the same time swearing her love to young, attractive Raoul. At one point in the story, Raoul even asks, “If Erik were good-looking, would you love me, Christine?”1 Like others, Christine is drawn to Erik, but she recoils upon seeing his face.
No matter how many times I read The Phantom of the Opera, I can’t help looking at Erik as more of an antihero than a villain. He’s violent and selfish, but also artistic and in his own way charming, for example leaving flowers or sweets for Mame Giry. He’s courageous because he doesn’t allow himself to be a victim. He fights back–perhaps too hard at times–against people who have chosen to exclude him. He’s capable of loyalty, however, and seems to favor the Persian, a man who had once saved his life.
Erik is insane, perhaps by birth or maybe due to the trauma of constant rejection. He has committed evil acts, but at times he displays at least some regret. He’s a monster, but is he any more monstrous than those who have either scorned him for his appearance or reveled in his dark talents, like the little sultana whom he entertained by strangling prisoners?
My favorite quote from this book occurs after Erik’s skeleton is found. It reads “I did not recognize it by the ugliness of the head, for all men are ugly when they have been dead as long as that…”2 It is an accurate observation about the human race–we’re all more alike than we sometimes want to admit.
What are your thoughts on The Phantom of the Opera? Do you consider Erik a villain or an antihero?
1 Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera, XII
2 Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera, Epilogue