*The 2004 film version is the version referenced for the purpose of this article.*
The Phantom is a unique character in that not only is he the antagonist of his tale but he’s also the protagonist. This brings to mind the question:
Is the Phantom the villain, or is he a tragic hero?
Oftentimes, the villains in films and books are clear-cut and leave viewers and readers, respectively, with no doubt as to whom to hate. However, the Phantom isn’t your traditional villain. He’s not the villain that we love to hate. Instead, he inspires great sympathy in many.
Yes, the Phantom committed murder, he blackmailed the managers of the Opera Populaire into giving in to his every whim and he kidnapped Christine by whisking her off the stage during the performance of his opera, Don Juan Triumphant. While murder, blackmail and kidnapping are all morally wrong, when we learn the reasons behind why he committed such acts, we are filled with a sense of compassion and justification (at least I am anyways).
Everything that the Phantom did he did in the name of love. Of course, that does not excuse his inexcusable acts because we can’t simply state that we love someone to justify our bad deeds. However, there’s another significant piece to the Phantom’s story that causes us to “want” to justify his morally wrong actions: his deformity.
Lack of Moral Teaching
Because of the Phantom’s deformity, he was never shown love and kindness from another human being. With such a hideous face, he was an outcast, exiled from the rest of the world. He lived most of his life in the bowels of the Opera Populaire, isolated from the rest of humanity. As such, he wasn’t necessarily taught right from wrong and wasn’t exposed to the same moral lessons that the rest of mankind was. He lived vicariously through the lives of others by spying on those within the opera house, and he always had to fend for himself, surviving like an animal.
The Light in His Darkness
Naturally, when he made a connection with Christine Daae, his protege soon became more to him than simply a student. She was the only tie that he had with the rest of humanity, and we must remember that he was just a man and had the same wants and desires as other men. Not only was Christine physically beautiful, but she mirrored that beauty in her angelic voice. It’s easy to imagine how she became the focal point and sole light in his universe, morphing into his obsession.
Desires of a Mortal Man
The Phantom also yearned for love and acceptance (as do all of us in some form or fashion), so when he was faced with the possibility of losing Christine to the young, handsome and charming Raoul and never gaining her love, his obsession progressed into a mad, desperate attempt to keep her.
The Sting of Betrayal
Every action he took was in order to forestall the eventuality of losing her to the Vicomte de Chagny. While the Phantom certainly cuts a frightening figure when strangling Joseph Buquet, he also makes a heart-wrenching and tragic one when viewers witness his pain at hearing and witnessing Christine’s betrayal atop the rooftop of the Paris Opera House. He inspires sympathy with his broken heart and leaves viewers feeling like he was betrayed even though Christine hadn’t previously pledged her love to him. In his mind, Christine was his. He had spent years tutoring her, readying her to take her place as prima donna within his domain.
Obsession Vs. Love
Obviously, all these actions that the Phantom takes are a manifestation of his obsession with Christine rather than his love for her. No matter how much we, as viewers, would like to believe otherwise, we must reconcile ourselves with the fact that his actions were not actually born out of love because true love doesn’t bring about such chaos. Does this mean that the Phantom didn’t truly love his Christine? I think not. I do believe that the Phantom loved Christine but that his obsession overshadowed his love for a time.
This can be seen at the end of the film when the Phantom, despite all the horrible deeds he’d committed in order to keep Christine with him, broken, choose to let her go with the Vicomte. Although we know that it must have taken every ounce of strength he had in him, he allowed Christine to leave with her young lover after she illuminated to him what true love really is with her willing sacrifice to marry him in order to save Raoul’s life. Christine’s willing kisses overwhelmed him and left him unable to impose upon her happiness. Like many viewers, I like to believe that the Phantom underwent a redemption that allowed him to show his true love for Christine in letting his desire for her happiness outweigh his own. It’s this one final act that truly proves his goodness of heart and leaves many viewers believing him to be a tragic hero rather than the villain that he is originally portrayed as.
What are your thoughts? Do you believe the Phantom is a villain or tragic hero? As always, please feel free to comment below, and vote.