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Before the Phantom – Literary Influences on Leroux’s Novel

Updated on November 19, 2013
1907 photograph of Gaston Leroux
1907 photograph of Gaston Leroux | Source

Before French author Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) wrote his masterwork Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, he worked as a journalist for several Paris newspapers. During the early 1900s he was asked to be present when the cellars of the Palais Garnier opera house were explored for probably the first time since the Paris Commune 30 years before. What Leroux found there served as inspiration for his future novel: He found prison cells, an underground lake, and, supposedly, even the skeleton of a man wearing a wedding ring. Despite its great romantic touch, all my research on The Phantom of the Opera has unfortunately found nothing legitimate regarding the skeleton story. The description of the underground of the opera house, however, is quite accurate.

I don’t know how much Leroux actually wrote in his newspaper about the experience. But I do know he incorporated pretty much all of his findings, both real and imagined, into his 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera. A certain amount of truth served as inspiration for the Phantom. But Leroux was also influenced by several novels and stories that would have been popular during his time:

Drawing by George du Maurier which portrays Svengali as being a dangerous spider
Drawing by George du Maurier which portrays Svengali as being a dangerous spider | Source

Trilby by George du Maurier

In 1894 George du Maurier, grandfather of world renown 20th century novelist Daphne du Maurier, published a literary sensation about a tone deaf artists’ model who, after being hypnotized by the evil genius Svengali, becomes an opera singer with a stunning voice. Her name was Trilby and, for those of you who are wondering, Yes! the hat was named after her. The novel was later adapted for the stage and in one production the leading lady wore a little hat which became immensely popular.

Gaston Leroux took the idea of a woman singing better when under the influence of someone with a superior knowledge of music and used it in his own novel. Also, Du Maurier’s character Little Billee, Trilby’s main love interest, is quite similar to Raoul in that both are so young, naïve, and to a certain extent useless!

From Chapter 9 of The Phantom

It was a man dressed all in scarlet, with a huge hat and feathers on the top of a wonderful death’s head. From his shoulders hung an immense red-velvet cloak, which trailed along the floor like a king’s train; and on this cloak was embroidered, in gold letters, which everyone read and repeated aloud, “Don’t touch me! I am Red Death stalking abroad!” – Public domain translation by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe

During the 1840s Charles Baudelaire (of Les Fleurs du mal fame) translated into French most of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Baudelaire’s work is still praised as one of the finest examples of translation in the world. Leroux undoubtedly read his – or at least someone’s – translation of Poe before writing the masked ball scene in The Phantom of the Opera.

In Chapter 9, At the Masked Ball, Erik dresses as the Red Death and comes to the masquerade at the opera house, stalking Christine. Aside from the costume similarities, both stories at this point have a central theme of a dreaded person coming to a ball and invading what someone thought would be private and safe.

Lon Chaney as Red Death at the Masked Ball scene in the 1925 film version of The Phantom of the Opera
Lon Chaney as Red Death at the Masked Ball scene in the 1925 film version of The Phantom of the Opera | Source

The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat…the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. – Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death - it is almost uncanny the similarity between this and what Leroux wrote!

Portrait of George Sand by Eugene Delacroix
Portrait of George Sand by Eugene Delacroix | Source

Consuelo by George Sand

Admittedly, I have found nothing which directly states that The Phantom of the Opera was influenced by George Sand’s novel. However, as I started reading Consuelo (first published in 1842), I noticed several things which make it pretty obvious that Gaston Leroux must have read the novel at some point himself.

In many ways Consuelo is sort of a Christine Daaé character: she is from peasant stock and has an almost unbelievable talent for music. She is recently orphaned, but soon gains success when she stuns everybody with her opera voice. Her career on the stage is short-lived, however, due to romantic entanglements and a temperamental, untalented diva named Corilla.

After Consuelo leaves the stage, she becomes the idol of Count Albert de Rudolstadt, a slightly deranged and enigmatic nobleman who is entranced by her voice. At first, Consuelo is moved more by pity than by love for the count, and when he suddenly disappears, she follows his trail through a subterranean passageway, led in part by his violin playing.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Illustration by Gustave Brion for The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Illustration by Gustave Brion for The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Source

Male Deformities – A theme in French Literature

While we are on the subject of indirect influences on The Phantom of the Opera, it should be noted that a severe physical deformity which wrecks the life of the chief male character is a theme is French literature which started nearly 100 years before Leroux’s novel.

A male character who is usually a magnificent and sensitive human being, but who has a severe or grotesque handicap was a common creation of France’s literary hero: Victor Hugo. Obviously, the most famous example is Quasimodo, the heroic, tragic, and loving hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo created a character similar to Quasimodo in the form of Gwynplaine, the hero of The Man Who Laughs. This deformity was caused by a sadistic surgeon who created a permanent smile (which served as inspiration for the Joker’s appearance) on Gwynplaine’s face as a way to punish the boy’s father for making a wrong political move.

Hugo further used this theme in his play Le roi s’amuse, the basis for Verdi’s opera Rigoletto. His main character, Triboulet, is another hunchback; but in this case, he is not sympathetic. Instead, he is a conniving sociopath who does nothing but plot revenge and murder – and in this way does very much resemble Erik the Phantom.

Yet another French work which follows the male deformity theme is Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. In this case, the character is a poetic genius, but once again is hindered in other aspects of his life by his physical appearance.

Cyrano de Bergerac was immensely popular after its premiere and there is little doubt that Gaston Leroux must have seen it. In fact, it is very likely he saw the first performance, as he was working in part as a drama critic during the 1890s.


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    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image

      LastRoseofSummer2 4 years ago from Arizona

      Oh, thank you so much, Christa! That is great!!!

    • profile image

      Christa 4 years ago

      Thanks! And I was searching a lot for information regarding the skeleton that he supposedly found and I was only able to find one source that my teacher allowed to be called "credible" but it was very brief and I am not sure how factual it is. I would also like to point out to you that in 1907, Alfred Clark donated two dozen shellac discs in two copper urns that were preserved as time capsules beneath the Paris Opera with the condition that they be opened 100 years later. The information is believed to be part of the basis for the Prologue and how Leroux claims that he had possession of documents proving the phantom to be real. He was also in possession of the plans for the opera house. I just thought you might find this interesting. -the information about the urns is in an essay entitled "The Phantom and the Buried Voices of the Paris Opera" written by Cormac Newark and found in the JSTOR database in case you are interested.

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image

      LastRoseofSummer2 4 years ago from Arizona

      Hey, Christa! First of all, Congrats on choosing such a wonderful and uncommon subject for your research paper! When I was in school, I wrote papers on subjects similar to this. I loved it! You have very good taste :)

      Unfortunately, I don't really have any sources. I learned all this because I read a lot, so all the information in this article are simply things which I have noticed and put together by myself. I would highly recommend you read all of "The Masque of the Red Death" as well as all of Chapter 9 of "The Phantom". You are going to see similarities even beyond the two quotes included here.

      The idea that Leroux was influenced by Baudelaire's translation of Poe is purely my own theory - but I feel it is highly probably, particularly as I don't think Gaston Leroux spoke English. Just do some basic research on Baudelaire and you will find info on his Poe translations. They were some of his most important work and you will see how popular they were in France.

      I don't think my legal name would do you much good if you want to use this article as a source, as the only name that I have connected to this website is LastRoseofSummer2. Would that be "official" enough for you to use? I know these MLA guidelines are constantly changing and are such a pain in the butt when it comes to listing sources.

      I hope this all helps. Good luck on your work and thank you so much for reading!

    • profile image

      Christa 4 years ago

      Hi LastRoseofSummer, I am writing a research paper on Poe's influence on the writing of the Phantom of the Opera, and I was wondering if you had sources that you used to write this. I am also wondering what your name or pen name is so that I can sight this article in my paper. Thanks for your help!

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image

      LastRoseofSummer2 4 years ago from Arizona

      epigramman - I pretty much only listen to Classical music. I do like some modern stuff. Frank Wildhorn, for example.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 4 years ago

      I am quite a film buff - and I would highly recommed Carl Dreyer's Joan of Arc, a silent film but it's so beautiful to look at and it's free on you tube - also a surrealistic silent film called Un Chien Andalou made by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali

      What kind of music do you like?

      I love everything from the Tallis Scholars, Tom Waits, to Charlie Parker, the viola da gamba and Iggy Pop and Hank Williams Sr.

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image

      LastRoseofSummer2 4 years ago from Arizona

      epigramman - Thanks for reading, Colin. lol about the gargoyle!

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 4 years ago

      Once again my friend a world class effort from you and will be posted on my FB page for everyone to see and read. I have just sent you some nice fan mail and I hope you are feeling okay today - I have good days and bad days too.

      Thank you so much for the enlightenment and education - I am fascinated by history and mysteries and culture and unexplored facts and you do it all here so well on every hubpage on which you write.

      Heat wave here by the lake so the cats and I are laying low and I spend a lot of time in the water these days and why not, lol

      A little fun fact for you - my friend brought me back a little gargoyle from the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and on the bottom of his feet it says - Made in China, lol

      lake erie time 3:47pm and sending you warm wishes and good thoughts from Colin, Tiffy and Gabriel

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image

      LastRoseofSummer2 4 years ago from Arizona

      Tom London - I'm glad you liked it! Thanks for reading.

    • Tom London profile image

      Tom London 4 years ago from London, United Kingdom

      Very interesting. Keep these names coming! Here's a link and a follow.