Liminality is a simple idea developed by anthropologists, most notably Victor Turner of the University of Chicago. It was originally meant to describe the social position of individuals undergoing a role transformation, such as initiation into adulthood, after they had left behind their old identity and before they assumed a new one. Liminality was seen as being temporarily without a clearly defined role in society and could be both alienating and freeing, as well as a source of greater perspective and creativity.
The word “liminal” comes from the Latin limen, or threshold.
Use In Literature
In literature, liminality has both theoretical and practical value. Taken in a wider sense to include the sense of inhabiting two worlds or those who are without a social role because they are marginalized (what Turner would have referred to as “liminoid”) it permeates folklore and mythology as well as popular culture, making it a useful idea for studying all media.
The characters of speculative fiction are often liminal beings: vampires, werewolves, and cyborgs are all liminal, as are ghosts, mythical hybrids such as centaurs, and those who have both supernatural and human lineage. All of these creatures combine two distinct modes of being into one body.
Not coincidentally, the Twilight series features liminal beings and its title also clearly refers to liminality; this could be interpreted in relationship to main character Bella’s experiences in the book. It’s easy to see how this theme of being “between and betwixt” could appeal to adolescents.
Donna Haraway’s far-reaching essay “The Cyborg Manifesto” describes cyborgs in terms of liminality also.
Many popular plots involve rituals of liminality that Turner specifically identified, with the story ending at the point of reintegration. The most common of these is probably the “marriage plot,” which ends with the wedding of the protagonist(s). The tension that drives the plot often comes from the freedom or risk endured when characters let go of tone social role (immature, naive, single, ingenue) and take on another (mature, married, older and wiser).
The poet Jane Hirshfield, in an essay entitled “Writing and the Threshold Life,” asserted that writers themselves must be liminal, in order to maintain the necessary perspective and openness to identify with all things. Community needs to be seen from the outside so it is not taken for granted.
Victor Turner himself believed that those who inhabited the margins of society were able to see beyond it, and thought great artists and writers possessed this quality.