Madame Lafayette's The Princess of Cleves, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina each features a fairy tale-esque ball. I've been wanting to write something about them but haven't known where to begin. After watching the 2012 movie adaptation of Anna Karenina, though, that desire became a sort of compulsion. The entire movie is choreographed intricately, every single scene, but it's the ball that steals the literal show for me. (If for no other reason than because, at some point very soon, I'm going to have to turn to my slow-to-develop line of inquiry about bodies, embodiment, and movement and spatiality, as I've yet to really contemplate how my outside-the-English-department committee member, and DGS of the university's Modern Dance Department, fits into all these things. But Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's update of the historical waltz, while staying true to some things, like palms not touching, makes more use of the upper body for cinematic and dramatic effects. Again, Lance's question dies hard: "How do we write the contemporary and not just retell the stories of our past?")
Anyway, here goes nothing:
In all three novels, the occasion of the ball instigates major evolutions in the psychosocial development of the female protagonists.
Lafayette's ball most closely resembles the royal balls of fairy tales, but in her novel the Princess of Cleves only meets the object of her affections; and, as we know, she will spend the entire novel not acting on her feelings, harboring them secretly at first but then not-so-secretly after confessing them to her husband. The princess's psychology is easy enough to read. Her mother's dying wish was that her daughter would not yield to temptation and become a fallen woman. Out of guilt, the princess dutifully honors her mother's memory. Likewise, her emotionally devastated and miserable husband's dying wish was that she would not yield to temptation and injure his memory. So even after his death, when she's free to love whomever she pleases, guilt and duty again keep her from marrying her prince (in this case a duke). Lafayette further dramatizes the princess's act of self-denial by including a scene in which her uncle makes clear he approves of their union, and goes out of his way to arrange a secret meeting place for them where they can do anything they like, wink wink. But no, in Lafayette's romantic court drama, the ball (as we expect it to) allows the romantic hero and heroine to fall in love at first sight; but Lafayette unexpectedly subverts the fairy tale and romance novel traditions by (not simply denying them their happy ending but) damning them to live miserably and unhappily ever after.
Unlike the Princess of Cleves, Emma Bovary doesn't meet a fairy tale prince at the ball. Her desires, however, like the princess's, become clearer to her. She wants the fancy life. She doesn't want to be a country bumpkin. She wants to find a prince worth falling for. She doesn't want her boring, unambitious nonentity of a husband who doesn't mind being a country bumpkin and who thinks she's the cutest country bumpkin of all. By bringing Emma so close to the romantic cliche, so close she touched it, ate and drank from it, danced without her husband in it, slept the night in it, Flaubert plays a cruel trick: now that Emma's had a taste of the finer life, she knows what she's missing. (Remember how she had wanted a romantic, lamp-lit wedding at midnight, and how her father dismissed the notion without even stopping to consider it. The ball delivers on that sentiment in a way that her provincial wedding didn't even come close to.) To my knowledge, no fairy tale ever stopped in the middle of the ball for the heroine to admire the tablecloths and subsequently fall in love with things. Flaubert's ball, like Lafayette's, subversively denies us our romantic love and happily-ever-after expectations.
If Emma's life had been the Princess of Cleves', no doubt she would have screwed her dead mother's and husband's wishes and lived happily ever after with the man of her dreams. In a grand, secret gesture that Emma would have loved beyond compare, the duke even wears the princess's colors during a jousting tournament. This is the kind of stuff Emma died for. (Lafayette, it should be noted, also subverts this scene by making the tournament a historical reenactment, no more realistic to the jousters than a Renaissance Fair is to us. The participants are simply playing parts, and they are supposed to be enjoying themselves, both indulging in and poking fun at the old romantic tradition. And Lafayette surprises us again, by accidentally stabbing the king in the eye with the splinter of another jouster's lance. He dies.)
Anna Karenina is more complicated — in basically every way. Tolstoy lets us into the minds of all the lead players in the drama. We see how actions aren't, for lack of a better word, linear. Instead, when Anna dances with Vronsky, we know why she does and how she feels about it. We know how Vronsky feels about it. We know how Kitty feels about it, how her mother feels about it, and how her father feels differently. We know how society members attending the ball feel about it. And we readers have no idea how we're supposed to feel about it because without a single character to follow or latch on to, our attentions and affections are divided and conflicted. We sympathize with Anna, who is acting on her desires, but we also sympathize with Kitty who has been devastated and whose entire worldview has been shattered. It is from Kitty's point of view, too, that we first saw Anna at the ball and, through her eyes, admired Anna's black velvet gown and her radiant beauty. Anna's betrayal and Vronsky's failure will haunt Kitty for much of the novel, and in those scenes where we continue to see the world from her point of view her pain is ours. We are also let into a secret that nobody knows. After the ball, the narrator reveals to us from a distance that the ambitious and career-minded Vronsky had never considered the idea of marrying anyone, so the thought of proposing to Kitty would have never even crossed his mind. (Later, when he turns down a promotion to stay in the city, near Anna, he becomes a much more complicated character, too.) Even without Anna stealing the show at the ball, Kitty would have ended up rejected and confused. So the ball is the site of Kitty's dashed expectations (which is not how a ball is supposed to go for any princess), and it is the site of Anna's first indulgence in forbidden love/passion (which is not how a ball is supposed to go for a married woman), and it is the site of Vronsky's first successful physical interaction with Anna (which is what balls were made for, probably, but in this case it is also the beginning of the downward spiral of his life and career).