Beauty and the Opera, or the Phantom Beast
by Suzy McKee Charnas
from Music of the Night, 2001
Short stories are difficult things. They have to be able to get a point across with sufficient depth, emotion, or detail to be interesting and impactful to the reader, but they have to do it in a short space and with a certain economy of words. I had previously read several of Charnas’ novels for children, and I was pleased to discover that Charnas is a master of short-form storytelling and that this is a beautiful and poignant piece.
This particular story displays equal parts influence from both the Lloyd Webber musical and the original Leroux novel. Certain elements, such as Gounod's Faust or the cellar full of gunpowder, are directly traceable to the Leroux novel, but things like the absence of the daroga, Christine's brunette hair, and the emphasis on the romance probably have their roots in Lloyd Webber's more romantic stage version. Of course, since Charnas’ entire plot revolves around Christine choosing the scorpion - sacrificing her life to save Raoul’s and extrapolating from that point - it would be hard to manage with the daroga still trying to enact rescues or arguing with the Phantom all the time anyway.
First and foremost, Charnas' Christine is a different character from Leroux's. She may not be sexually experienced, but she isn't ignorant of the act, and she is far more knowledgeable about the way the world works than her original incarnation. She is only slightly surprised when she is kidnapped and carries herself with self-possessed aplomb in all the trials through which the Phantom drags her. She discusses the fact that she calls Erik the "Angel" not because she truly believes him to be a supernatural or heavenly visitor, but to remind him that their relationship is a purely professional and musical one, in order to prevent him attempting any kind of sexual advances; the attitude, which both recognizes the existence of sexual tension and takes active steps to control it, is powerfully different from the original Christine’s confusion.
Her maturity is clearly displayed as she bargains for Raoul's life, securing his release in return for her promise to remain with the Phantom for five years. Not only does she have the wherewithal to argue with the Phantom and refuse his initial demand that she remain forever, but she displays a philosophical acceptance of the fact that she is essentially giving up any hope of ever being with her lover or leading a life unsullied by a damaged reputation (she has few illusions as to her place in society in any case, often noting that she was quite surprised that Raoul had pursued her so seriously when he was of a social caste that she clearly could not aspire to).
Nor is she an ever-accepting angel of mercy; she admits that she is torn between sympathy and forgiveness for Erik, and hatred and the desire for revenge on him because of his actions, a believable portrait of a woman forced into an untenable situation by someone she loves. Additionally, while she continues to fulfill many of her symbolic roles from the original novel, Christine is not a flawless paragon of beauty: she often sings poorly or with only mediocre skill and knows herself to have only an average amount of talent, which makes her a much more down-to-earth and realistic character, as well as having the added effect of emphasizing the Phantom's supernatural artistry by comparison. This also makes Erik’s “molding” of her voice more literal, since without him she lacks true talent; it’s a powerful symbolic image, although I’m not sure that literally divesting Christine of her talent while also trying to make her a more powerful individual meshes well. (Also, we end up wondering what the Phantom’s fixation on her is for, if she’s mediocre and he could have done this with anyone. Why her?)
The Phantom frequently fills the father role in the original novel, both as a surrogate father to Christine and as the father or creator of musical genius. Charnas' Christine sees him as a father figure more deeply, however; far from the idyllic childhood of the original Christine, this version of the singer harbors the bitter feelings of a child whose talents were used by her father for profit and notoriety, and who spent the last several years of her life caring for him during his spiral into depression and poor health. Christine loves her father but also hates him; his influence and infirmity are just as much a cage as Erik's demands, and her heart is split between love and hate for him, as well.
Christine's mother is mentioned only once, as having died in childbirth when Christine was a toddler. Erik's mother receives a similar passing reference. Christine fulfills the mother role as she does in the original novel (assigning Erik chores, soothing him when he is in distress, and making up for a lifetime of abandonment), with one exception: when Erik sings for her in his beautiful voice the part of the dead mother from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, she becomes bitter and spiteful, attacking him without even herself having any real idea why. The bitterness and betrayal she feels toward her mother's death is clearly underlined - not because she is sorrowful over having been deprived of a mother, but because it cost her her own personal freedoms. Her mother, in dying, betrayed Christine, sentencing her to a life forced to care for her father. On a subconscious level, she believes that her mother should have been the one who had to do that job, a common response in children who are forced by circumstances and parents to grow up too fast.
Interestingly enough, Christine seems to be more cognizant of the break between the Phantom's underground domain and the sunlit world above. When she accepts her five year tenure with him, she refuses to continue singing at the opera house, stating that she will not accept a career that is advanced via Erik's shadowy means. When he protests, she delineates it for him carefully. She will sing for him and only for him, underground; she could not sing for the public in the world above, knowing that her career would be based upon blackmail and murder, but Erik's underground kingdom is separate from humanity, and where there is no humanity, there can be no crimes against it.
Charnas also makes allusion to the Greek mythological roots of the story, the now-familiar comparisons of Christine and Erik to Persephone and Hades, clever and resourceful Erik to Odysseus, and Erik's hideous, hidden life to the Minotaur. In one entertainingly self-aware aside, Erik begs Christine near the end of her time with him to perhaps return for six months out of every year, as it would be a "nicely classical solution." Charnas doesn't limit herself to Greek mythology, however; she makes several other powerful allusions to myth and literature, including comparing the hideously murderous yet not entirely unsympathetic Erik to Grendel, the murderer of men only loved by his mother in Beowulf, and to Caliban, the frightening little goblin servant from Shakespeare's The Tempest who commits evil acts in desperation over his longing for the woman he cannot have. Christine asks poignantly of her description of her sexual relationship with Erik and the discomfort it causes in most listeners, "Is Caliban's craving acceptable, but not his gratification?", highlighting the double standard that allows readers to enjoy feeling pity or disgust for Erik's desires, but also be shocked and horrified should he be allowed to actually consummate them.
Sexuality is, indeed, one of the major focal points of this story. Christine, despite her attempts to feel mature and in control, is very much a product of her time and has no concept of sexuality as a healthy or proper facet of life. She views it as hideous, bestial; she is afraid of and disgusted by her own sexual urges, even as she is irresistibly drawn to fulfill them. She demonizes her own vagina, considering it utterly hideous, describing it as a "gorgon" and a source of unnatural perversion, but herein lies part of her enduring relationship with Erik. Despite the revulsion she feels for her own sexuality, she cannot resist it, and thus it is only bearable to share it with Erik, who of all men is equally monstrous and horrible, who will not judge her for her ugliness but share in it. In sexual matters, she believes herself to be a hideous monster, and so she finds kinship with Erik, who is as much a "monster" outwardly as she is inwardly. Only Erik, to whom ugliness means nothing, can love her despite her sexuality; she muses sadly that she knows what reaction she would have gotten from Raoul had she begged him for "those kisses thought in his world to be proper only between men and their whores," most likely meaning cunnilingus.
(It’s worth noting that this would also be a perfect doorway into exploring Christine discovering a sexuality other than straight. The story does not go this route, but it’s so obvious in her inner struggles that it’s hard to ignore.)
Beyond the sexual, the same theme rears its head again in Christine's spiritual struggle. She considers herself damned, an unpardonable sinner - not because she has done anything wrong, but because she remains with Erik. Erik is a murderer and a madman, and she sees herself as wicked and evil because she offers him, a known and unrepentant sinner, comfort and aid. Far from the innocent and sunshine-sweet child of Leroux's original novel, Charnas' Christine is filled with very real self-loathing and confusion, brought on by her inability to reconcile her new life with Erik with the mores and conventions of the society she has been raised in.
Themes of control and struggle for power are intense between the two major characters. Erik has the superior mental and musical abilities and is physically more powerful, but Christine wields the power of his own infatuation against him and he is no match for her far more well-developed social skills. The two are in a constant struggle to see who will be dominant, neither entirely sure whether they prefer to be the submitter or the conqueror. Rather than truly a struggle between strengths, however, it is more properly a struggle between weaknesses; Christine's burden of conscience weakens Erik with its weight and the concessions that he must make for her, while the weakness of Erik's need for control and damaged self-worth in turn force her to constantly cater to him. They exist in a spiral in which both degrade the other's strengths until, ultimately, the balance of power shifts to whomever still has the strength to struggle.
In the end, Christine is the victor, but not through her own efforts; in their everyday life as well as their sexual pursuits, Erik does himself in through intentional self-damnation. He does not want Christine to see him as an equal, or raise him to her level; he wants to be seen as a beast, because in forcing Christine to descend to his bestial level, he obtains proof that she really must love him. Like Christine herself, he clings to his ugliness and self-loathing, letting them bind him into the relationship.
The same themes are explored through use of musical allegory. Christine is frequently representative of melody and harmony, order out of musical chaos, the carefully written score. By contrast, Erik represents cacophony, chaos and pure noise which needs to be tempered by the order that Christine represents. Erik's love of music has at its root his requirement of order, his need to throw himself into something with the rigid rules and strictures that composition offers, in order to divine from its supreme order something of control for his own fractured mind.
Christine's dilemma between staying and leaving, freedom and fear, is constant and ever-shifting. As time goes by and Erik begins to trust her, she is given access to the outside world and has more than one chance at escape, but by this point, she is no longer able to view the situation with the naïve hope of her youth. She is all practicality and chooses to stay with Erik; partially out of loyalty and out of honor, as she has given her promise, but more importantly out of resignation and resolution. She has made her decision in choosing to remain with him for the set period of five years, and can no longer pretend the consequences of that decision are immaterial. She is tainted by his influence - by being a party, however unwilling, to his violent acts, by being his partner in sexual "deviancy", by flouting all the sacred conventions of society - and would be no more welcome in normal society than he would. But even more important than these concerns, she realizes that she would be nothing but a nameless girl were she to make her escape, just another of millions of people wandering through their lives, rather than remaining in the dark, hideous but undeniably beautiful and exceptional life that she lives now. In the end, Christine chooses to rule in Hell, rather than escape to a dubious Heaven, and in that she is exactly like Erik.
As the story draws to a close and Christine's five years with Erik come to an end, the poignancy of their relationship only heightens, instead of tapering off as one might expect. Erik begs her to remain longer, and she herself despairs at the thought of leaving (for despite all the deep-rooted psychological issues facing the both of them, somehow a strange and twisted form of love has taken hold), but she refuses. She tells him, wisely, that the relationship will not survive forever, that no one can survive such heights of passion and intensity of affection for long, and that given more time they will slowly destroy each other. She displays uncanny insight into their conditions as she says this, even though it is far from the easy or preferable decision for her.
Returning to the musical allegory, when Erik plaintively cries, "But I want more!", she replies, "Erik, you are above all a musician, and musicians know better than anyone that at some point there is no more - no more beats to the measure, no more notes to the phrase, no more loudness or softness or purity or vibrato - or else music becomes mere noise: incoherent, formless and ugly." It is a blindingly brilliant encapsulation of their entire relationship, which strange situation of love, desire, and hate is the one truly beautiful thing they have produced despite what they both consider to be their mutual hideousness. Christine chooses to end the relationship in order to leave it pure, whole, and in the best of conditions, rather than letting it deteriorate to just another ugly event in the procession of their ugly lives. Christine, horrified by her own nature, and Erik, doomed by his own physicality, have finally together produced a thing of pure beauty.
Erik proceeds to become ill and ultimately expire of a pervasive fever for which he refuses to seek treatment; tellingly, Christine remains with him until he is gone, which extends her period with him to eleven days past its deadline, revealing without a doubt that she carries real, even if reluctant, affection for him. Christine's role from the original novel of Erik's priest and confessor becomes literal as he refuses to let her fetch him a priest and instead tells her the litany of his sins, every last one of them over his long life of evil, and is at last absolved by her acceptance and love as he could never have been by a representative of the God who he believes cursed him with this existence in the first place. Erik's refusal to seek treatment for his illness is the gentlest form of suicide, his choice to leave the world if he cannot remain with Christine, whom he has long ago ceased to be able to even consider harming.
After Erik's death and solitary interment, Christine discovers that he has been paying Raoul considerable sums of money not to return and attempt a rescue, up until the point that Raoul finally married and stopped trying. There is no censure of Raoul, however, as he gave up after years of misery and was only behaving in a manner true to his class, which would hardly have tolerated an opera girl raised to its level no matter how much love was involved. Christine, always torn, says that she both wept and smiled when she discovered the receipts; wept over Raoul's lack of loyalty, but was forced to smile at Erik's resourcefulness and determination. As she leaves and lives out the remainder of her life in quiet obscurity, she reflects that she has lived "a life's passion in a handful of incandescent years".
The message is one that is hardly new to the reader, nor one that has not been reused time and again as the moral of many a fable, but it is fresh and throbbingly poignant in context of this short tale: five years of passion and love are worth more than a lifetime of unremarkable, comfortable normalcy. Christine has chosen the extraordinary over the ordinary and triumphed despite the tragedy it entails.
The moral of the story may not be an original one, but it doesn't have to be. This is one of few Phantom stories to have such brilliance, such beautiful and visceral clarity. It’s an example of beautiful storytelling combined with piercing insight and a true gift to make the reader think. Read it, even if you aren't particularly interested in the Phantom mythos. It's worth the time.