Phantom of the Opera and the Problem of “Shipping”
The Phantom of the Opera, a quintessential Gothic melodrama, tells the story of a deformed genius, rejected and hated throughout his life, who secretly tutors a gifted singer mourning the death of her father, convincing her he is the ghost of her dead father, becoming obsessed with her in the process. Complications ensue when her childhood sweetheart returns to her the night of her triumphant debut and the romance is rekindled. Maddened by jealousy, the Phantom unleashes a reign of terror upon the Opera house, before kidnapping the object of his obsession. Only the compassion of Christine prevents him from killing her fiance, letting the two of them go, and thus dying alone.
It’s clear from a bare summary that the dramatic turning point of the story is the final ultimatum and how the two characters respond to it. Christine gives up her own happiness to save her beloved, going beyond what is required of her to offer herself as his “living bride”; the Phantom responds to her offer by releasing her and Raoul, shamed by her kindness. Both responses are unexpected, and thus yield unexpected result, bringing the story to completion with far greater emotional satisfaction than most narratives can boast, outside of fairy tales.
Still, the enduring popularity of The Phantom of the Opera, in the original novel and its multitudinous adaptations, remains something of an enigma. As both Sean Fitzpatrick (of Crisis magazine) and Lindsay Ellis (of YouTube fame) have pointed out, in contrast to similar stories such as Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the actual source material–Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel–is more pulp fiction than great literature in its own right. Despite that, the musical genius obsessing over the beautiful young opera prodigy is an image still potent more than a hundred years since its publication, none more iconic than the white half mask of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s protagonist in his 1986 blockbuster musical. Channeling swooning romance novels as well as traditional gothic suspense, the tragic unrequited romance of the Phantom and Christine still elicits sighs and tears from its rabid fan base. But is this the reaction it should seek to inspire?
That is, most fans of the musical admit to “shipping” Christine and the Phantom together, due in no small part to the seductiveness exuded by the character himself through his big solos, and the sympathy lavished upon him by the surrounding narrative. But should they?
To explain: since the internet facilitated the widespread proliferation of “fandoms,” a curious phenomenon has emerged within these varied and sundry “fandoms,” oft-critiqued but popular nonetheless. Known as “shipping” (a contraction of “relationship’), it involves the desire for two characters within a work of fiction to come together romantically who (usually) don’t “canonically.” Often, this desire is expressed and expounded upon without regard to the actual events of the work or authorial intent, requiring either the vilification the hero or whitewashing the villain to make said fan’s desired pairing seem at all rational.
Most “phans” prefer the pairing of Christine with the charismatic antagonist, Erik (the Phantom), rather than her real beau, the rather less interesting Raoul de Chagny. Though consequences of revising the bittersweet ending to pair these two together can be seen with stark clarity in Lloyd Webber’s much reviled sequel, Love Never Dies, a more cogent critique can be made by leaving that dubious piece of musical theatre behind and instead exploring the relationships and story arcs of the “canonical” material.
The Phantom’s story works, despite what the musical might have us think, is due to one simple fact: Christine doesn’t love the Phantom. Throughout both the novel and the musical, she sees the Phantom as a guardian spirit, her “Angel of Music”, more akin to a mentor and father figure than a romantic interest. Her romantic feelings are only awakened by the return of her childhood sweetheart, Raoul, and the ensuing conflict stems from their inability to reciprocate their affections due to the Phantom’s influence. Whether Raoul is an appealing or interesting character is beside the point–she loves him, and not Erik. Despite his obsession with her, he’s a father figure at best, an abusive psychological tormentor at worst. Christine admires the man for his musical genius, pities the tragedy that forced him to such violent desperation, but fears the lengths he’ll undergo to win her.
While she does appear somewhat open to his seductions in “Music of the Night”, there’s never a doubt she’ll choose Raoul over him. Her attraction to him is not romantic or sexual, but rather admiration of his musical ability, and pity for the disfigurement that ruined his life and distorted his character. Erik, again, is a mentor, a father figure (albeit in a twisted sort of way, using her love for her father to manipulate her), Raoul her childhood sweetheart, a man her own age who proves he loves and cares for her on multiple occasions, not the least in risking death to free her from the Phantom’s clutches. Considering Erik has lied to her, impersonated her father in order to seduce her, murdered innocent people and kidnapped her twice, it’s no real surprise that in the end she refuses to succumb to him, instead stepping out from his shadow and regaining her own agency.
Perhaps, some in favor of this “ship” might concur, but what about the Phantom himself? Does he not demonstrate a deep and passionate love for Christine, a willingness to do anything to win his lady love? While this reading appeals to our post-Romantic sensibilities, with stories of the brooding loner who moves the heavens and earth to obtain the love of his lady, it fails when we consider what Erik lacks: love.
In both the novel and the musical, though all his thoughts and actions revolve around securing the affections of this unwitting opera singer, in truth Erik is never “in love” with Christine. At best we can say he’s “in lust” with her. Though emotion and passion form an integral part of love, love, to adopt definition derived from St. Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Robert Barron, is “willing the good of the other and doing something about it.” It’s intrinsically selfless and outwardly directed, rooted in the objective worth and dignity of the other person. Lust, on the other hand, seeks to posses the other for what pleasure the other can give to you. You cease to consider the other as a person, with objective worth dignity, and instead regard him (or her) as an object to posses in order to increase your own pleasure. While, in the novel at least, Erik seems curiously unconcerned with sex, his desires regarding Christine fall far more in line with lust than anything resembling authentic love.
Erik, as opposed to Raoul, never considers Christine’s happiness, what she might think or want. When he brings her to his lair, he tells her “since the moment I first heard you sing/I have needed you with me/To serve me, to sing for me” [emphasis mine]. He repeatedly contends “you alone can make my song take flight” [emphasis mine]. From the beginning, the relationship is all about him, what gratification she and her incomparable voice can give him. He wants to live a normal life: no one would marry him as is; thus, he lies to a young girl and, when she falls in love with someone else, he uses terror and murder to keep her in line. Even the pro bono musical training is more for himself than her, indulging his own ego in making this girl a star, worming his way into her affections in order to convince her to marry him later. The Phantom consistently uses her as an object for increasing his own pleasure and happiness, with no regard for her well-being, and doesn’t even recognize what he’s doing until he sees Christine do the opposite: relinquishing her own desires for the good of someone else. Only then can the Phantom undergo his redemption, which can only be effected by letting her go.
What inspires the sometimes misguided fan favoritism, however, outside of his sexualized charisma in the stage show, is not his disturbed and possessive behavior towards Christine, but rather his tragic character arc. Despite the “pulpy” surroundings, Phantom has endured thanks to the masterful portrayal of a tragic villain ultimately redeemed that Leroux places at the center of his novel. Return to the sacrifice she makes for the sake of her fiance and the hapless opera patrons: she never had to do what she does, but she did so others might live. The choice is entirely her own. Her selflessness allows Erik to see how selfish and abusive he really is, placing his desire to get what he wants through whatever means necessary in stark contrast with her willingness to throw away everything she wanted for the sake of others. Shamed by this revelation, he acquires something of the selflessness Christine has shown to him, and thus releases her from his control that she might pursue her own happiness, though it (literally) kills him. Erik begins his story emotionally stunted and selfishly immature, and ends knowing what real love is, first by receiving it, and then by giving it. Only by letting her go to marry the man she loves can he learn this fundamental lesson and, ironically, show her love.
The redemption arc of the Phantom and the growth of Christine as a person are, in truth, two narrative puzzle pieces that fit together. Christine cannot emerge from his shadow unless she willingly sacrifices her happiness for the sake of Raoul, and the Phantom cannot gain his redemption without first witnessing the calm sacrifice of the object of his obsession. Without the one, Christine lives in fear of this madman the rest of her life; without the other, the Phantom is not shown the base selfishness of his actions, thus inspiring him through he ensuing shame to let them go and relinquish his futile goal. Thus, in order for the story to “work” and come to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, they must go their separate ways.
That’s what makes the story so powerful, and, paradoxically, a great love story. He doesn’t “get the girl” as a conventional ending demands, but he ends up exemplifying what real love consists of–namely, a gift of self. He sacrifices everything he most wanted for the sake of the girl he strove so ardently to possess, and, in doing so, proved he now knew the essence of real love. Either way you slice it, the Phantom can have no character development or gain our final sympathy if he ends up with Christine. There is no way he can achieve his growth and come to emotional maturity if he gets what he tried to obtain through running roughshod over what the object of his affection actually wants. The entire idea of the relationship is impossible.
“Shipping” obliterates these character arcs. The whole point of the story is negated by trying to smoosh them together. That, indeed, is the tragedy of the Phantom of the Opera. He craves real, authentic love, without any idea of what it is or how to give it. Instead, he kidnaps and manipulates this young opera singer, thinking to find his happiness in romantic love, only to see, through her remarkable example, that the authentic love he sought requires him to give up she he most desired. Such a revelation is heartbreaking in the profoundest sense, and, while we wish he wouldn’t have to undergo such pain, real love necessitates sacrifice, which necessitates pain and heartbreak. The conclusion of the tale, while tragic, works due to its emotional honesty. Authentic love requires vulnerability, sacrifice: the conclusion of Phantom of the Opera doesn’t adhere to a standard Hollywood happy ending, but doing so would cheapen the sobering power of the Phantom’s story. Nothing could be simultaneously more heartbreaking, or more beautiful, than the resolution we’re given.
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