Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Skeletons, Skulls, and Roses

"They were marvelous red roses that had blossomed in the morning, in the snow, giving a glimpse of life among the dead, for death was all around him."

I’m starting this post with a warning – this is going to be a morbid subject. Don’t blame me! It’s Leroux’s fault. He’s the one who wove this theme into the story, and it’s the subject most of us avoid - death. He penned the word often enough to make you face it at the turn of nearly every page. He uses the word death 79 times and dead 49. Is he trying to make a point here or just use scare tactics for a horror story? The subject is not only forced upon its readers, it's forced upon its characters. Let’s look and see how they perceive death’s door.

In my first set of posts, now in book form, I talk about Christine’s walk through the graveyard. It’s obvious Christine’s experience with death encompasses one overwhelming element - grief. Her life profoundly changes by the death of her father. In fact so much, Leroux writes that she lost with him, her voice, her soul, and her genius. She struggles throughout the story mourning her father's passing.

Raoul, on the other hand, has his own graveyard experience. His encounter with death revolves around another element – fear. His close encounter with the Ghost in the graveyard scares the daylights out of him - literally. Skulls roll at his feet, he follows a cloaked figure, touches his hem, sees what he describes as the face of Satan, and passes out. Later in the story he is faced with death again, and finds himself in the torture chamber of mirrors about to go insane from fear.

Leroux also weaves into the story another element - experience. We have two characters who unfortunately taste death for themselves – Joseph Buquet and Philippe de Chagny. Of course, there are numerous references to others who die at the hand of Erik either through strangulation or his trap doors and torture chamber.

The Persian, on the other hand, avoids it at all cost. He knows Erik is capable of inflicting death. He worries about others and warns them that death could be waiting should they encounter Erik and his trap doors and torture chamber. He's careful, and he uses caution so he doesn't meet death before his time.

Finally, we have Erik. I can think of one description when it comes to death. He embraces it. Death is everywhere in his persona as the Opera Ghost. He calls himself Red Death Stalking Abroad, and is constantly referred to as possessing death’s head. To top it off, his bedroom looks like a funeral parlor, and he sleeps inside a coffin! As I stated in my earlier post on Red Death, I believe Erik thought that death was the one place of equality he found with the rest of humanity.

Curiously though, Leroux doesn’t leave us in the midst of death without weaving another theme throughout. It’s how we deal with death; hence the inspiration for my title, “Skeletons, Skulls, and Roses.” The following paragraph tells it all.

"Raoul walked away, dejectedly, to the graveyard in which the church stood and was indeed alone among the tombs, reading the inscriptions; but, when he turned behind the apse, he was suddenly struck by the dazzling note of the flowers that straggled over the white ground. They were marvelous red roses that had blossomed in the morning, in the snow, giving a glimpse of life among the dead, for death was all around him…. Skeletons and skulls by the hundred were heaped against the wall of the church, held in position by a wire that left the whole gruesome stack visible. Dead men's bones, arranged in rows, like bricks, to form the first course upon which the walls of the sacristy had been built."

Leroux attempts to bring reprieve about all this talk of death through the use of flowers. There are roses in the graveyard for Raoul to glimpse life among the dead. Madame Giry tells the managers the Opera Ghost leaves roses behind in his box for her to discover. Christine states Erik’s drawing room is decorated and furnished with nothing but flowers!

When you think of it, we do leave life among the dead. Funeral homes are filled with flowers during services, and traditionally we leave flowers when visiting a grave. Even Erik in the movie version, leaves a glimpse of life on Christine's grave, a red rose. Perhaps flowers are not for the dead, but for us who are left behind. They bring a sense of comfort and life among death.

Yes, I know, it’s a morbid post, but it’s Leroux! He's the one poking at you this time to face the inevitable, not me. Death is an underlying theme throughout the story Leroux does not wish you to escape.

Your obedient servant,
The Phantom’s Student

As a post note, you might be interested in knowing a little about French burial practices in the 19th Century. Leroux writes, “…skeletons and skulls by the hundred were heaped against the wall of the church…” In my research regarding death for my fiction novel, I discovered the following. The extremely poor, who could not afford a burial plot, were buried in unmarked common graves, which could contain more than one body. Those who could afford to purchase a burial plot had two choices – a temporary plot or one in perpetuity. A temporary plot allowed you a place to rest for five years, and then afterward your body was exhumed and your bones were piled high with others like this churchyard scene. If you lived in Paris, your bones were placed in the catacombs beneath the city. If you were rich, you could buy a plot in perpetuity, which meant you wouldn’t be dug up and discarded. You would rest in peace in a crypt or plot marked with a tombstone.


Mary Anne Gruen said...

Thank you especially for sharing your research on French burial from this time with us. I had no idea.

Phellow Phan said...

When I first read about the skeletons stacked up I thought it was really weird,thanks for telling us about it.
Also, your website is beautiful!

Amy said...

Very interesting! Thanks for the interesting research! I was rereading Raoul's account of the graveyard scene in Leroux's novel and I wondered why there was a random heap of bones there. Question answered! Been reading your blog for a while, love it!