Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A2 English Literature: Liminality in Gothic Literature

Liminality is a significant element of Gothic literature, and comes from the Latin word 'limen', meaning 'threshold'. And, as the translation suggests, it refers to someone or something being on a boundary between two things - often two extremes. It's like a transitory, 'in-between' state between two things. Manuel Aguirre (Liminal Terror: The Poetics of Gothic Space), a literary critic, cites liminality as a defining feature of Gothic literature.

Liminality in Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff is an incredibly liminal character. Even the latter half of his name, 'cliff', is a liminal setting: a place between land and sea. Furthermore, the name Heathcliff is not his own, but the name of a deceased child in the Earnshaw family. The fact that this unknown stranger is given the name of somebody who is dead immediately presents Heathcliff as a character who is between life and death. Also, Heathcliff is often seen as an antihero, as are many Gothic protagonists. This very title is liminal; is he a hero or is he a villain?

Furthermore, Heathcliff is referred to as a "gypsy". Gypsies are typically outsiders, and Heathcliff appears to be an outsider as well as an 'insider'; he literally spends much of his time indoors in the latter stages of the novel, and aims to usurp Wuthering Heights.

When Lockwood first encounters Cathy, who he seems to be mildly obsessed with, it can be argued that he describes her in liminal terms, since she is "scarcely past girlhood". Furthermore, he notes how her eyes "hovered between scorn and a kind of desperation." Cathy, like her mother, never appears to fit into one category or another.

The moors, which are mostly associated with Heathcliff and Catherine, are a liminal setting, since they lie between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange; a neutral place for the characters.

The use of Nelly as a narrator and character is liminal, since she both observes and participates in a lot of the novel's action.

Throughout the novel, windows are presented as liminal boundaries. Not only are windows liminal in that they are between the inside and outside, they are also symbolically liminal in the novel. Lockwood encounters Catherine's spectre as "a child's face looking through the window". This arguably presents the window as a liminal symbol between life and death, or the natural and supernatural. Later, Heathcliff tells Nelly of how he and Catherine observed the opulent interior of Thrushcross Grange by peering through a window; here the window may be symbolic of the liminal stage in-between civility (Thrushcross Grange) and incivility (Heathcliff and Catherine). Later, Heathcliff expresses how he had "intended shattering their great glass panes"; an example of how, as a Gothic protagonist, Heathcliff wishes to break boundaries and cross thresholds.

Isabella asks Nelly, "Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?" This puts Heathcliff on the liminal stage between man and monster. Which is he? This particular sense of liminality is also covered heavily in Carter's The Bloody Chamber.

Catherine dies and Cathy is born in spring. Spring could be argued to be a liminal season that celebrates the transition between death and new life, which can be linked to the two characters.

When Cathy calls Hareton a "dunce", she describes his facial expression in a liminal way that mirrors the liminal description Lockwood employs when talking about her in the opening chapters: "The fool stared, with a grin hovering about his lips, and a scowl gathering over his eyes ... whether it were not pleasant familiarity, or what it really was, contempt."

Lockwood simply states that, "I should hardly know who was dead, and who was living." This sums up liminality within the novel; the boundaries between life and death are blurred, and many characters sit on the fence between the two, it seems.

When Catherine is on the brink of death after starving herself, she cries out, "'the clock is striking twelve! It's true, then; that's dreadful!'" By 'that's true', she's referring to an earlier assertion that the room is haunted. As a time, midnight is as liminal as it gets; not quite one day, not quite the other.

Liminality in Frankenstein

Frankenstein's creature is certainly liminal in nature; he is between life and death as well as the natural and supernatural. In fact, when Victor first starts creating the creature, he is subject to very liminal thoughts. He states that "life and death appeared to me ideal bounds", and notes how "sometimes, on the brink of certainty, I failed." The creation is neither a success nor a failure; it didn't go how Victor had planned, but it didn't fail catastrophically since he was able to create life from assembled body parts.

Another character who is on the boundary between life and death at one point is Justine: "The poor victim, who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death..."

Victor is often closely linked to the Gothic convention of the sublime; as Edmund Burke notes in On the Sublime and Beautiful, sublime landscapes can often fill a protagonist with feelings of awe and dread. When Victor refers to "the awful and majestic in nature", this adheres to the sublime as well as liminality; Victor's perception of the world around him seems influenced by his own inner turmoil.

And Victor's inner turmoil is very liminal in itself. Throughout the novel, Victor never really falls into one extreme; he usually hops between two extremes like a typical Gothic protagonist. Is Victor good or evil? He certainly thinks he's aiding the world when he makes he creature, yet at the same time he neglects the sentient being that he creates. If Victor was inherently good or evil, the novel wouldn't be as interesting. It certainly wouldn't be as Gothic. The fact that he falls between the two mirrors his inner conflict; the conflict that is typical of Gothic protagonists.

Similarly, the creature is never either good nor evil. We often sympathise with him, since he is alone, neglected and tormented for his appearance. But at the same time he isn't totally innocent; he still murders young William, Henry and Elizabeth. And when he murders Elizabeth, he appears take genuine joy in doing so - this is confirmed when he basically tells Walton what a laugh it was killing Victor's bride. The creature refers to himself as "thy Adam", but also notes that "I considered Satan the fitter emblem of my condition". So which is he?

Furthermore, like in Wuthering Heights, Shelley uses the motif of windows to symbolise liminality. The creature is seen grinning through a window on two notable occasions: when Victor is assembling the female creature and just after the creature has killed Elizabeth. The grin itself is a motif of the creature's, but the windows seem to represent the liminal barrier between Victor and the creature. Do the windows act as a mirror, highlight the notion that the two are doubles of one another? It is also interesting to note that in the latter case, the window is open, just as the window is left open when Heathcliff falls to his death at the end of Wuthering Heights. What does this mean? Is the barrier broken between Victor and the creature? Are they now as 'one'?

The setting whereby Victor assembles the female creature is also liminal, since it is between the land and sea. Referring to the sea as an "insuperable barrier", Victor later dumps the body parts of the creature's companion in the ocean. He also spends a lot of time out at sea, referring to the scene as "perfectly solitary". This is linked more closely to the sublime, but it's still an interesting setting that mirrors Victor's liminal state.

Finally, as the creature bids Walton farewell, Walton notes a "sad and solemn enthusiasm" in his voice. The creature is both miserably alone and triumphant - he stands between the two.

Liminality in Macbeth

Macbeth opens with three very liminal characters - the witches. Although the witches are inherently supernatural, they seem to rest on the liminal line between worldly and otherworldly/male and female. In 1,3, Banquo notes that the witches "look not like th'inhabitants o'th'earth, / And yet are on't". He also points out that "You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so." The witches seem to lie between all the extremes. They're between what is human and inhuman; if one argues that the witches are merely a product of Macbeth's innermost desires, we could draw links between their liminal nature and the liminal nature of Macbeth's character.

Macbeth himself, like Victor and Heathcliff, is a liminal character because he is never quite inherently good or evil. He may seem evil at times, but we still have excuses to fall back on - Lady Macbeth's influence, perhaps, or the fact that Macbeth's most unforgivable crimes coincide with his descent into madness. He is hugely conflicted, and nothing is black and white: "This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill; cannot be good."

Lady Macbeth is also a very in-between character. She rests between the natural and supernatural, especially when she pleads with the spirits to "unsex me here". She's not as blatantly supernatural as the witches, for example, but she's not your average rooted-in-the-natural-world Lady Macduff, either.

The walls of Macbeth's castles can also be considered liminal. The outside world is one of order and justice; battles are fought fairly, nature is in its place and everything's peachy. Within the castle, however, we've got schemes, duplicity, deception, the supernatural, ghosts, apparitions, murder and all sorts. The actions of what happens within the castle (such as Duncan's murder) influence what happens in the natural world (such as the violation of nature).

Liminality in The Bloody Chamber

A lot of the liminality presented in The Bloody Chamber links directly to the Gothic convention of metamorphosis. The metamorphoses typically presented show the transformation between man/beast or character/setting in the collection. Often, characters appear to be stuck within the liminal stage between the two extremes.

In The Bloody Chamber, the Marquis certainly appears to be in the liminal stage between man and beast. His "leonine" head and "dark mane" make him sound as though he is part lion, and yet his eloquence and personable qualities seem to show a more human side to him. It is as though Carter is exploring the 'beast' within mankind; perhaps the leonine aspects of the Marquis are representative of his carnal desires. This is certainly true of The Tiger's Bride, whereby the transformation the female protagonist goes through into a tiger herself seems to be representative of her embracing her true beast-like nature.

In The Erl-King, the titular character seems to be part-character, part-setting, since he is both a physical being and the forest in which he lives. Carter uses personification such as "the stark elders have an anorexic look" to draw comparisons between his character and the setting, highlighting how he is neither one nor the other.

The Lady of the House of Love tells the story of the Countess, the "beautiful queen of the vampires", who seems to be both a predator and a victim. At night she hungers for men, but by day can be heard "sobbing in a derelict bedroom". She is a victim to her own condition. This is very liminal; we have sympathy for her character because she cannot help who she is or what she does. She is beautiful yet horrific at the same time: "she is so beautiful she is unnatural; her beauty is an abnormality". Furthermore, Carter describes her as "both death and the maiden"; the Countess covers two extremes, resting between the two to provide us insight into a tormented life. 


  1. SO HELPFUL! XD I feel I can relate liminality to Heathcliff a lot better now :)

  2. Thanks so much for your effort in writing all this. It's really helped out my classmates and I