For those of you that don’t know, Christine Daae is (quite literally) the leading lady of The Phantom of the Opera. Originally a novel by Gaston Leroux, the book tells the story of Christine, a beautiful young soprano at a Paris opera house whose career is helped along by a mysterious and murderous phantom. The story has become incredibly well-known after being adapted countless times, and is most famous now in its musical incarnation. As the female lead, Christine is at the centre of every single story – and at the centre of endless, endless fanfics.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
For most of The Phantom of the Opera Christine isn’t really in control of her own life – the Phantom is the one who’s calling the shots. Rather than putting herself forward, other people pick her to replace the diva Carlotta, and it’s implied that the Phantom has instigated this through engineering Carlotta’s walk-out/tantrum. The Phantom is the one who trained Christine as a singer, convincing her that he was ‘The Angel of Music’ her dying father promised to send her. The Phantom kidnaps her multiple times, and decides when he’ll let her go. Even when she realises she wants to get away from the Phantom, she doesn’t just leave of her own accord – she asks her boyfriend, Raoul, who takes her away.
The upshot of all this is that Christine has minimal moments where she is actually making her own choices. She does make some important decisions that have a real impact on her life – namely deciding not to let the Phantom kill everybody – but these happen so rarely that it doesn’t make much of an impression. For most of the story she’s not making things happen – things just happen to her. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
I’m not sure if I should class Christine’s singing and dancing as a hobby as it forms an important part of her career, but her goals and beliefs are pretty clear. She clearly has some kind of belief in an afterlife (or else she wouldn’t have held onto the ‘Angel of Music’ thing for so long) and, to a certain extent, in ‘the greater good’, as she’s fully prepared to sacrifice herself to let other people go free. As far as her goals go, she wants to be a great singer, get away from the Phantom, and just generally have a slightly nicer life than the one she’s got right now.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Christine is a pretty consistent character. She’s kind, compassionate, innocent, naïve and can be quite shy and retiring. As far as her skills go she’s pretty consistent there too: she’s an accomplished singer and dancer, but still needs a fair bit of training to bring out the best in her voice. In the original novel this is made clear, but in most other adaptations it’s glossed over a bit. Either way I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A compassionate, innocent young opera singer gets a start on her fledgling career, but at a terrible, creepy price.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Christine’s love life is a major factor of her story, and modern adaptations of the story really turn this up to eleven. One of the biggest parts of The Phantom of the Opera is the love triangle between Raoul, Christine’s childhood sweetheart, the Phantom, Christine’s crazy stalker, and Christine herself.
This is where the original novel and the modern adaptations really start to differ. In Leroux’s novel, it was made pretty clear that any affection between the Phantom and Christine was incredibly one-sided. Not only did he kidnap her multiple times, he pretended to be the ghost of her dead father, tried to make her directly responsible for killing a bunch of people that she loved, and attempts to force her to marry him (which, at the time that the novel was written, could often be a veiled way of referring to rape). Christine is pretty understandably not into any of this, and at one point admits that she’s been carrying around a pair of scissors so that she could kill herself in case he tried to force himself on her. At the end, she does agree to become his wife and kisses him, but it’s because if she didn’t agree he would blow up the opera house and kill everyone inside.
In most modern adaptations – and more specifically, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – all of this is toned way down. The Phantom kidnaps Christine a few times but it’s heavily implied that there is some kind of romantic or sexual attraction between them, with the Phantom representing all the forbidden, seductive stuff Christine isn’t supposed to enjoy if she wants to be thought of as a nice young girl. The threat of rape and mass murder is pretty much removed, and Christine’s choice at the end is reduced directly down to which cute boy she’s going to kiss. She doesn’t choose for the greater good, she chooses for the good of the man she loves, and that’s a big difference.
As I’ve already mentioned, Christine doesn’t actually get to make a lot of decisions for herself anyway. This means a lot of the stuff about her motivations is crammed down into the one or two decisions she does get to make of her own accord. This means that it’s often difficult to tell what’s really motivating her – for example, when she chooses to marry Raoul is she doing so because she really loves him, or because she thinks that he can take her out of poverty and away from the clutches of the Phantom? You can make a case for either and you’ll get different answers depending on which adaptation you look at.
I’m not inclined to be generous here, though, because whichever choice Christine makes she’s also choosing a man. There’s no path that she can go down that doesn’t come with a boyfriend attached, whether that’s Raoul or the Phantom. If she made more decisions of her own – even something as simple as asking to replace Carlotta, rather than waiting for somebody else to put her forward for the role – then she might have at least got a half point. But there’s no getting away from the fact that of the few choices she makes, the overwhelming majority of them are to do with who she’s going to spend her life with. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Christine does develop over the story. She becomes much less naïve, much more confident and becomes a better singer. She stops being quite so trusting and gains a certain measure of independence – but the novel was set in nineteenth-century France, so not too much independence. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she have a weakness?
Christine does have some weaknesses – many more in the original novel than in the musical adaptation, but they are there. She’s far too trusting to the point where it actually gets her into trouble, directly catapulting her into the path of the Phantom. She also has a really difficult time letting go of the past, to the extent that she deludes herself into thinking that her father’s ghost has sent her the ‘Angel of Music’ rather than telling someone about the creepy voice she’s been hearing lately.
One of the most interesting things about Christine’s character is the way she deals with grief, but I’m not really sure if this would count as a weakness. Before the story begins her father dies, and in the original novel it’s made very clear that this completely devastates Christine. When her father was alive she was training to be a singer, but after his death we hear that she lost her passion for singing, stopped attending classes and left little impression, only regaining her skill after hearing the ‘Angel of Music’.
These are all recognisably symptoms of depression. Christine cannot reconcile herself with her father’s death, clings onto any last reminder of him, and loses all her passion for something that once meant so much to her. When she finally tells Raoul about the Phantom (after she’s been kidnapped and returned to the Opera House), she actually admits that she thought about killing herself while she was trapped there. When you consider that she’s been struggling with thoughts of suicide, the choice the Phantom presents her with at the end of the book – to be with him forever, or kill everyone, including herself – takes on an unbelievable cruelty.
I’d like to make it clear that I don’t consider depression to be a weakness – mental illness is an illness, not a reflection of someone’s personality. However, it is something that Christine has clearly struggled with, has had a massive and sustained impact on her life and has clearly held her back, so I think it’s worth noting. However, even without that (and the musical does cut out most of Christine’s depressive tendencies) she still has some pretty clear weaknesses, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Christine does influence the plot but it’s a pretty passive influence. She influences the plot simply by being a part of it – other characters bend their decisions around her and she actually does very little. Add to that the fact that she gets kidnapped by the Phantom practically every weekend, and it’s not great. She does have her moments, but they aren’t really enough to lift her out of the doldrums.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Christine is a pretty traditionally feminine character. She’s kind, demure, innocent and compassionate, a good singer, and overwhelmingly good – she’s pretty much the perfect nineteenth-century woman. Sometimes this works against her, particularly as she’s very passive and most of her story is to do with her love life. But sometimes this manifests itself in refreshingly modern ways, such as when she attempts to protect the people she loves or when she tells off Raoul for stalking her.
At first glance she can seem pretty stereotypical, but the novel goes some way to making sure there’s more to her than that. Her struggles with depression, flashes of independence and capacity to resist the Phantom’s manipulation provide a counterbalance to all of her incessant fainting. She’s by no means free of the influence of gender stereotypes, but she has her moments.
Where she really gets problematic is in some of the adaptations, and as you might have guessed, this often revolves around her relationship with the Phantom.
In the original novel the Phantom is something like a father figure for Christine, and this is where the bulk of their conflict lies: she sees him as a mentor, and he sees her as the future Mrs Phantom. It’s made very clear that Christine does not and will not love the Phantom, no matter how hard he tries to Stockholm Syndrome her into doing so. In the musical, we have this:
Most modern adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera are pretty explicit about there being some kind of romantic or sexual tension between Christine and the Phantom. In fact, in the awful terrible sequel that no-one talks about, it’s explicitly confirmed: in Love Never Dies Christine and the Phantom have a secret child together and the show pretty much says that they should have been together all along.
Almost all of these adaptations forget that the Phantom is a murderer.
While it’s true that most of the Phantom’s actions are toned down a bit from the original novel – he doesn’t usually try and force Christine to commit mass murder, for example – he still kills people. He still pretends to be the ‘Angel of Music’, and the last link Christine has to her father, who she’s clearly still grieving for. He still kidnaps her repeatedly, drops a chandelier on an audience when Christine won’t go with him, and forces her to choose between watching her fiancé die and staying in a pit with the Phantom for the rest of her life. I hope I don’t need to tell anyone that this is incredibly manipulative and psychologically damaging stuff that would make Hannibal Lecter stage an intervention.
And yet, a lot of adaptations portray this as romance. The musical in particular portrays this behaviour as twisted acts of love, and rarely shows the incredible toll this takes on Christine’s psyche. In fact, she barely seems to notice this. She’s not exactly flattered, but despite all the misery he has personally caused her – not to mention the fact that in some adaptations he quite literally imitates her dead father – she still manages to pity him, kiss him, and leave him something to remember her by.
For me, this is why Love Never Dies was such a slap in the face. Christine has gone through so much psychological torture at the hands of the Phantom. She knows that he’s killed because of her. She’s watched him attempt to murder her own fiancé. He crushed the last link she thought she had with her dead father, who she’s still mourning. And after all of that, not only has she loved him all along, but the show then tells us that Christine and the Phantom’s relationship was true love.
I feel like I say this a lot on this blog, but that’s not love, it’s abuse. The original novel (which was published in the very early twentieth century, might I add) makes this pretty clear, and Christine herself admits that a) it’s not good for her to stay with the Phantom, despite what he can give her and b) if she wants to stay, that’s when she’ll know that he’s finally got to her. The modern adaptations just go for more bodice-ripping than a Mills and Boon novel. I’m giving her half a point, because even when you look at her character in the original novel, it still has some flaws.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
We don’t see a lot of Christine’s relationships with other female characters, but we know she has them. She loves her elderly guardian, Madame Valerius, even though she only appears in the original novel. She’s friends with Meg Giry, although their friendship is never the focus of any adaptation. She sometimes interacts with Meg’s mother, Madame Giry, but once again this is never the focus. Christine’s relationships with other female characters are very much on the sidelines and are rarely developed beyond the very broadest strokes, so I’ll give her half a point.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10
Christine is a consistent character who exhibits weaknesses, development and a range of goals, hobbies and beliefs over the course of her story, but ultimately that wasn’t enough to let her pass my test. There’s no getting away from the fact that her story is hugely tangled up with her love life and she can rely on some pretty unfortunate gender stereotypes. But for me, the biggest problem with her character is that she is just incredibly passive.
Part of this is a result of the time in which the original novel was written, and part of this is due to my Universal Monster Law – which is that in a story about dealing with a big scary monster, it’s usually the actions of the monster that dictate the plot. But there are ways around this; they just haven’t been used here. If, for example, Christine actively sought out the Phantom as a tutor rather than him latching onto her, the story could still progress along very similar lines while making her a much more active character. If she did a bit more than simply choose between Raoul and the Phantom, she’d be a much better character.
Next week, I’ll be going back to one of my favourite series: Discworld. Susan, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.