[(essay date 1988) In the following essay, Goodwin investigates Flaubert's use of the dance of death as a motif in Madame Bovary.]
After an inebriating waltz with the viscount at the chateau La Vaubyessard, EmmaBovary, catching her breath, leans against a wall and closes her eyes. An apparently trivial anti-climax follows:
Quand elle les rouvrit, au milieu du salon, une dame assise sur un tabouret avait devant elle trois valseurs agenouillés. Elle choisit le vicomte, et le violon recommença. On les regardait. ... Elle savait valser, celle-là!(87)
The passage has a narratives structure not unlike the one that Freud discusses in his essay "The Theme of the Three Caskets." Of the choices that characters often must make among three possibilities, where the "correct" one is the most attractive but represents death, Freud writes, "Choice stands in the place of necessity, of destiny. Thus man overcomes death, which in thought he has acknowledged. No greater triumph of wish-fulfillment is conceivable. Just where in reality he obeys compulsion, he exercises choice; and that which he chooses is not a thing of horror, but the fairest and most desirable thing in life" (76). Emma, the initiate, must first learn how to make the choice; for now a proxy chooses for her. Beginning with, "Emma ne savait pas valser" (86), and moving through Emma's envious thought, "Elle savait valser, celle-là!", the last dance at the ball shows Emma just starting to cross a mental and dramatic threshold. Although she will never waltz again, she will spend the rest of her life trying to place herself in the position which she imagines the other woman occupies. Throughout the novel, Emma appropriates a freedom of choice that repeatedly unveils itself as illusory.
By this time in the novel we sense that forces we only dimly perceive have shaped the story's outcome. The necessities that dictate Emma's choice and thus her death-wish are psychological and economic within the realities of her world. Another force shaping her experience, one of a different order, is the motif of the dance of death, transformed and embedded by Flaubert in the novel's structures. Flaubert seems to have explored, in MadameBovary, the way both the features and the movement of a popular motif can provide a model for understanding experience. This need not suggest that the experience precedes the model--indeed, Flaubert cannily works within a moment of inseparability. That he did so intentionally appears unlikely: it seems clear that the dance of death, as an exemplary cliché of extremist sensibility, itself represents "thing of horror," to use Freud's phrase--kitsch, a bêtise, that Flaubert would have wished to avoid. To explore the role of such a motif in Flaubert's writing is thus to return to the question of how he uses clichés, with what kinds of irony, and what degree of self-consciousness.
It is not clear how we can distinguish Emma's psyche from Flaubert's own, once it seems likely that the motif's presence is not fully conscious. Emma's life in fiction, Flaubert's psyche, and the sources that had suggestive power for him cannot finally be disentangled. This chapter begins by charting the shape of Emma's experience as it grows out of her first waltz. It then turns to Flaubert's manipulations of the contemporary dance of death. To see these two approaches synthetically is to see an essential unity between the author's imaginative life and the story he writes. The dance of death, as Flaubert transforms it into lived experience in Emma's story, is an absent paradigm of the individual's confrontation with obscure necessities, both internal and external. Thus this particular motif is not an arbitrary cliché among many, but is peculiarly appropriate to Flaubert's subject: kitsch, the novel implies, is as necessary and powerful as death, and has an almost erotic appeal. It is deeply enmeshed in our perceptions and our desires, and it is anything but trivial.