Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1315
In the Preface to The Phantom of the Opera, the book’s narrator tells of the methods he used to research the legend of the phantom. Writing roughly thirty years after the events conveyed in the novel, he tells of his research in the library at the Paris Opera house; his interviews with people who were present at the time; his reliance on the memoirs of one of the opera’s directors at that time; and his own study of the opera house.
The first three chapters take place on the night that the old opera directors are retiring and turning over the directorship to Armand Moncharmin and Firmin Richard. While the performers are preparing for the night’s show, several of the dancers claim to have seen the phantom. In the basement, Joseph Buquet, the chief stagehand, is found hanged.
At the retirement party, all attention is drawn to the mature, nuanced performance of Christine Daaé, previously an obscure understudy. Raoul de Chegny, attending the opera with his older brother, Count Phillippe de Chegny, falls in love with Christine. When she faints, Raoul pushes his way into the crowd in her dressing room and tells her that he is the little boy who chased her scarf into the sea. After the room is cleared, he listens outside the door and hears a male voice talking with her inside, saying that he has made her a star.
The retiring directors tell the new directors about the phantom and his demands: he is to have Box 5 always left available to him, and he is to have 20,000 francs paid to him each month. Moncharmin and Richard think this is a joke, and they rent Box Five. Soon after they receive a letter from the phantom, expressing his displeasure about his rules being broken.
The novel gives background information. Christine traveled as a child with her father, an accomplished violinist, settling in the French seaside town of Perros-Guirec. It was there that she first met Raoul de Chegny when her scarf blew into the water, and he dived in to retrieve it. They were separated until he saw her on the stage at the opera.
Christine sends a note to Raoul, telling him to meet her in Perros. When he arrives, she is mysterious and aloof. She explains that the voice he heard in her dressing room was the Angel of Music, whom her father said would watch over her. Raoul follows her to the cemetery at midnight, where, at the tomb of her father, he hears violin music. The next day, he is found unconscious at the tomb, having been attacked by a mysterious cloaked figure with a face like a blazing skull.
Messrs. Richard and Moncharmin investigate Box 5 and are convinced that the whole phantom story is a hoax. They receive a note insisting that Mme. Giry be rehired; that Christine be given the lead in Faust; and that Box 5 be left abandoned: otherwise, the performance will be cursed. Instead, they hire a new box attendant, give the lead role to Carlotta, and sit in Box 5 themselves. During the performance, Carlotta’s voice croaks like a frog’s, and the house chandelier drops onto the audience, hurting dozens and killing the woman hired to replace Mme. Giry.
Christine disappears after that performance. Hearing that she has been seen riding in a carriage at night in the Bois de Boulogne, Raoul goes there and sees her ride past. She sends him a note, telling him to meet her at a masked ball at the opera house, and what costume to wear. He meets her at the ball, but lurking about there is also a mysterious figure wearing a feathered costume and skull mask. Christine tells Raoul that she cannot see him any more, and when he follows her to her dressing room he sees her disappear into her mirror.
The next day, Raoul goes to Mme. Valerius, who is Christine’s guardian, and Christine is there, acting as if nothing had happened the night before. She says that she loves Raoul but cannot see him any more.
When he tells her that he must leave within a month, Christine agrees to a secret engagement with Raoul. She explains to him that the phantom, Erik, is in love with her and insanely jealous and that he is dangerous. She leads Raoul to the roof of the opera house, assuming that Erik cannot hear them talk there. She tells him about being fooled by Erik into thinking that he was the Angel of Music her father talked about, about being held in the basement by the phantom, about listening to his beautiful violin playing and then removing his mask and seeing his grotesque, death-like face. She explains that he finally agreed to let her go hoping to win her love freely. While on the roof, they have a feeling that they are being watched. The next day, Raoul talks with his brother, Philippe, and tells him that he is running away with Christine; Philippe does not approve.
The following night, in the middle of a performance, the lights go out at the opera. When they come on again, Christine is missing from the stage.
The managers have locked themselves in their office, trying to figure out how the phantom could have changed an envelope of money to counterfeit bills. Mme. Giry explains that she switched envelopes and put the real bills into M. Richard’s coat pocket, so they pin an envelope of cash into his pocket, only to find, soon after hearing of Christine’s disappearance, that the envelope is mysteriously empty.
The Persian, a mysterious figure who has been seen around the opera house, stops Raoul from telling the police about Erik. He leads Raoul to Christine’s dressing room and shows him the mechanism by which she appeared to disappear into her mirror. Then he leads Raoul into the cellars of the opera house.
Walking through the cellars, they pass the furnaces and the opera’s rat catcher leading a small army of rats to their doom, but they do not see the phantom.
These chapters are told as passages from the Persian’s written account of that night. He leads Raoul to a secret panel that will drop them into Erik’s house from the cellar above it, without having to cross the lake that he rowed Christine across. They land, however, in a room called the torture chamber and are trapped there. Erik, demanding that Christine agree to marry him, hears them in there and turns the chamber on: bright electric heat lamps and mirrored walls make it seem like a tropical jungle. When the Persian finds a release switch, they escape down into Erik’s wine cellar, only to find that the barrels there are not filled with wine, but with enough gun powder to blow up half of Paris.
Above them, Christine is told to turn one knob if she accepts Erik’s proposal and another if she rejects him, unaware that the rejection knob will trigger the gunpowder. She turns the one to accept him, and the wine cellar floods with water. At the last minute, Erik has a change of heart and saves Raoul and the Persian from drowning.. Erik goes to the Persian while he is recuperating from that night and says that he set Christine and Raoul free to marry each other and that he is dying of heartbreak. He asks him to place an obituary in the paper after his death, so that the young lovers will know.
The book’s Epilogue tells the history of the phantom: how he learned about magic and construction and ventriloquism, how he came to work at the construction site of the opera building, and how he was able to elude detection for so long.
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