The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Danse Macabre, or the Macabray
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The Danse Macabre, or, as the graveyard folks call it, the Macabray, is a dance between the living and the dead. (By the way, anything that deals with death can be called “macabre.” For example, “She has a macabre interest in books about ghosts and ghouls.”) The dance has been performed (by live people) and shown in art and literature as far back as the 1400s, though we wouldn’t be surprised if the idea has lasted for as long as there have been living people, dead people, and dancing.
It’s thought to be a response to the plagues that were killing people left and right hundreds of years ago. The idea that the dead and living can come together in dance was (and is) comforting to people who have lost loved ones. Since people are always losing loved ones to death, it’s easy to see why the idea of this dance remains fascinating.
In The Graveyard Book, the dance is shown as a symbol of unity and harmony between the worlds of the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural. For Silas the dance has a special importance and becomes a symbol of isolation, and for Bod it becomes a symbol of memory and forgetting.
Union of the Natural and the Supernatural
Nature plays a big role in this dance. You can’t just have the dance any time you want – nature has to give the OK. And just how does nature do this? Well, by making these special white flowers bloom. On the day before the night of the dance, Bod notices these flowers by the Egyptian Walk in the graveyard:
The perfume was heaviest there, and for a moment Bod wondered if snow might have fallen, for there were white clusters on the greenery. Bod examined a cluster more closely. It was made of small five-petaled flowers, and he had just put his head in to sniff the perfume when he heard footsteps coming up the path. (5.57)
The footsteps belong to the Mrs. Caraway, the Mayor of Old Town, the town the graveyard is in. As Bod watches her cut the white flowers and put them in her basket to give to all the people of Old Town, we learn that the flowers haven’t bloomed in over eighty years. Then we find out that the flowers are how the dead know that tonight will be the night of the dance, at long last.
Now, when we start thinking about this, it becomes hard to say what is natural and what is supernatural. The living people who attend the dance seem to be under the spell of some power outside themselves. Similarly, the dead, who are usually confined to the graveyard, are able to leave it for the dance. Plus, there’s the issue of the music – musicians and instruments are totally invisible, and the music itself drives the dancers on through the night.
The chapter featuring the dance makes us feel that the separation between the living and the dead, and the natural and the supernatural, is very thin.
When Bod is at the dance, he sees Silas:
In the shadows by the Old Town Hall, a man was standing, dressed in black. He was not dancing. He was watching them.
Bod wondered if it was longing he saw on Silas’ face, or sorrow, or something else, but his guardian’s face was unreadable.
He called out “Silas!” […] but when he heard his name, Silas stepped back into the shadows and was lost to sight. (5.143-5.145)
As we know, Silas is a vampire who isn’t alive or dead. So, he can’t join in the dance. This kind of tears apart all those ideas about unity and harmony and togetherness we were just talking about. At the same time, it increases our feelings of connection with Silas. He seems like a pretty nice guy (whatever he did in his past) and we would love to see him cut loose and have some fun for once.
Now, what point do you think The Graveyard Book might be trying to make by making it so Silas is left out of the dance?
Memory and Forgetting
The dance is top-secret business. The living people who dance it don’t remember it afterwards. The dead who dance it either don’t remember, or at least pretend not to remember. Bod (probably due to his Freedom of the Graveyard) definitely remembers it, but he learns that no one in the graveyard will talk about it with him or even admit that it happened at all.
This is really frustrating for Bod. The dance is important to him and he can't understand why he's not allowed to celebrate the memory of the experience with his graveyard pals. Think about it: Bod is actually living the dance on a day-to-day basis. We mean, he's always a live person interacting with the dead, even if he isn't dancing with them. This makes him very unlike the other living people (to say the least). On this one night, though, Bod’s fellow live people join him in this dance that he lives. Here, we can see the ideas of unity and alienation combined. Although Bod shares these moments of unity with other living people, he’s still totally apart from them. Not being able to talk about his experience, even with Silas, highlights Bod’s alienation from the dead people he lives with. Like Silas, Bod seems to be caught between the living and the dead.
As we discuss in “Characters: The Ghouls,” Bod’s memories of his life are precious and dear to him. This helps us understand why he’s so horrified by the fact that he can’t share this very fond memory with others. Yet, even Bod is forced to forget the dance, and his frustration, at least for the moment. Why? Because it starts to snow on him, and what kind of kid would he be if he didn’t get all excited and forget everything but that cold, white miracle?