Existence on the Threshold:
Liminal Characters in the Works of A.S. Byatt

by Kathrin Lang*

The term `threshold' evokes images of entering and leaving, passages, crossings and change. It marks the point at which choices and decisions must be made in order to move on, and it would be unusual to think of it as a place to stay, a place of permanent existence. There are, however, situations in the lives of people in which transitions from an old situation to a new one, one social position to another, are hampered or cannot be completed successfully. Individuals who are caught in between two stages of development, who do not hold clearly defined positions within their social system, feel marginal, excluded, without identity nor influence.

A number of anthropological studies (by Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner and Mary Douglas) have provided insight into forms of threshold existence (liminality) in modern society and have accounted for the difficulties that individuals have to face in these positions. They have also shown, however, that individuals who are caught in such positions are usually provided with a clear view on the social structure from which they are excluded, and that they carry the potential for critique of the norms that prevail within that structure.

This article will investigate the symbolic meaning of the threshold as an in-between position. Furthermore it will show how individuals in in-between positions, as well as the conflicts that are caused by such positions, are represented in works of fiction. A number of works by the English writer A.S. Byatt will serve as case studies. In Byatt's famous novel Possession , the conscious and playful use of the threshold motif catches the eye immediately, and also in her other writings it recurs in her descriptions of characters who face considerable changes in their lives or who are positioned in the social margin. Regarding the critical view that is ascribed by anthropologists to those who hold an in-between position in society, this article aims to show that also in Byatt's works the use of the threshold motif functions as a means of social criticism, challenging established social norms and structures and stimulating thoughts of alternative ones.

The literal meaning of `threshold' hardly needs any specification: it is the sill of a doorway, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, which has to be crossed when entering a house. It indicates the point at which the public outside world ends and the private, familial inside world begins. In more general terms it marks the place, line or border at which a passage can be made from one space to another. Such a spatial structure has an essential influence on social interactions: relationships and social status are negotiated at the threshold, one is either rejected from or welcomed to the other side. To gain admission and step over the threshold into someone else's space means to submit to the rules that are in force in that place.1 Social organisation decides whether we are included in or excluded from a social group, and political or religious reasons or social rank can account for the identification of a person with a certain group and space.2

As these examples show, the threshold can be interpreted as a symbol of division, which determines social structure and our notion of `self' and `other'. As a literal and figurative point of passage, however, the threshold also stands for change: one can step over the threshold, enter new territory and leave everything else behind. Such a change can be a shift in time, as in the expression `at the threshold of a new century'. It can also designate a decisive moment in one's personal development (`on the threshold of womanhood'), which means that one separates from a familiar situation and enters a new stage in life. In a religious context the threshold is a crucial element in initiation rites, indicating the passage from the profane to the sacred. `Initiation,' furthermore, is a term that is not exclusively used in a religious context, but appears in all fields of social life, referring to a special ritual that opens the door, as it were, to a social group or new period in life.

In a psychological context the threshold symbolises a point at which a decision must be made. Decision-making can be experienced as the overcoming of a difficulty or crisis, as the necessity to take a decisive step. The eventual change will provide the protagonist with new knowledge, he or she will undergo a development and be different from the person that he or she was before the change. A famous example of such a change can be found in the Book of Genesis: because of their decision to eat from the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve are driven out of the Garden of Eden, which is both a territorial passage and a figurative transition as their status changes through their loss of innocence. Decision-making is also an essential narrative element in fairy tales, where a vast number of princes or dragon killers or Bluebeard's wives have been standing in front of gates, caves and locked doors and have been losing their nerves about a decision that would bring either life or death, disaster or eternal happiness. It is interesting to note that decisions usually trigger off an irreversible process, which in many cases turns the threshold into a point of no return.

Last but not least one might also think of the magical component of the threshold in superstitious beliefs. In some cultures the threshold is considered to be a dwelling place of ghosts and the souls of the dead, who lead an existence in between the world of the living and the world of the dead. This is probably one reason why in some cultures and religions it is forbidden to step on it.

Forms of Liminal Existence

In the majority of the examples above the threshold represents a point or border that divides two different elements and at which a passage can be made from the one to the other, or which simply marks a change or development in time or status.

That a passage or a change is in fact a much more complex process has been argued by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957), who investigated changes in the lives and statuses of people and the cultural or religious rites related to these changes.3 Van Gennep distinguishes between different sorts of changes in the life of a person and classifies them as `separation' (such as death), `transition' (e.g. pregnancy) and `incorporation' (e.g. marriage). Van Gennep points out that actually every change consists of these three forms, or phases:

phase 1   phase 2   phase 3
separation -> transition -> incorporation
(from an old situation)   (passage)   (into the new situation).

To perceive death, for example, as a separation (from life) rather than an incorporation (into an afterlife) clearly depends on the point of view that ascribes to one phase more importance than to the other, and also on cultural and religious beliefs.

Van Gennep shows a special interest in the transitional phase: it is the period in which a person is in-between the former and the future social position or magico-religious state.4 In order to illustrate his point he refers to those early times in human history when countries did not border directly on each other but were divided by a neutral zone. In this zone travellers found themselves in a special situation as neither laws of the adjoining countries applied - they "wavered between two worlds", as it were (Gennep 18). Like this territorial passage, non-territorial transitions also consist of a moment or period of uncertainty, a liminal period.5 Such a period is accompanied by, or equal to, a life-crisis. `Crisis' in this context is an interesting choice of vocabulary and could easily be misinterpreted. Van Gennep does not refer to the term in a strictly psychological sense.6 He uses it to indicate the unstable social or magico-religious position of the person who undergoes a change: during the transition the state of that person remains uncertain as he or she has been separated from a clearly defined

state in the past and has not been incorporated yet into a clearly defined future state. Such a state that evades definition is potentially dangerous, because it represents a moment or period in which the routines of life are disrupted. As one of the consequences, the person undergoing the change has no guidelines anymore to hold on to, which might not only have a disturbing effect on that person but also on his or her surrounding. As the title of his work, The Rites of Passage, suggests, Van Gennep was not only interested in the changes in the lives of people but also in the rituals that accompany these changes. These rituals have the function to give personal, social and cultural significance to a transition. They cushion the disturbances (such as a definition vacuum) that are caused by a change and help to incorporate the individual into a new group and return him to the customary routines of life (Kimball, introduction ix).

Van Gennep's theories were further elaborated by the anthropologist Victor Turner. Turner, however, did not only focus on the investigation of ritual processes in the lives of individuals but developed a more general theory of socio-cultural processes which he applied to changes and generative processes in modern societies. He primarily concentrated on the aspect of structure in Van Gennep's concept of passage. Parallel to Van Gennep's distinction between separation - transition - incorporation, Turner differentiates between structure - anti-structure - structure.

Turner does not define structure in the Lévi-Straussian sense as a system of `unconscious' logical categories,7 but refers to it simply as "social structure", that is, a differentiated system of mutually dependent institutions and structural positions which may or

may not be hierarchically ordered (Turner, Ritual 166). Individuals who are part of social structure are defined by their social positions, statuses and roles. Due to their position in a social network they are expected to act in accordance with certain customary norms and ethical standards bound up with their social position and the social system as a whole.

As soon as the state of a person is subject to change, such as in the process of maturation or at the initiation into another social position or group, this person is detached from its former position in the social structure, undergoes a process in which his or her structural attributes become temporarily ambiguous or neutralised, and finally re-emerges into social structure, usually (but not generally) at a higher status level. Turner describes the attributes of a liminar (i.e. a person in a threshold position)8 as

necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. (Turner, Ritual 95)

Turner describes liminars also as structurally "invisible", by which he means that they are "no longer classified and yet not classified" (Turner, "Betwixt" 6) and therefore hard to grasp by a mind that is trained to perceive only clearly-defined objects:

The subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, "invisible." As members of society, most of us see only what we expect to see, and what we expect to see is what we are conditioned to see when we have learned the definitions and classifications of our culture. A society's secular definitions do not allow for the existence of a not-boy-not-man, which is what a novice in a male puberty rite is (if he can be said to be anything). (Turner, "Betwixt" 6)

The anti-structural period described by Turner is clearly identical with Van Gennep's definition of a transitional period. In his analysis of anti-structure Turner goes a step further than Van

Gennep, however, when he starts to focus on other forms of liminality. Basically, he distinguishes between three forms of liminality. The first is ritual liminality, which forms the major point of interest in Van Gennep's works. Ritual liminality forms the central element in transitional processes (such as maturation) and in any kind of initiation ceremony. Ritual liminality always implies the re-incorporation of the liminar into social structure. The two other forms of liminality are outsiderhood and marginality. Unlike ritual liminality, outsiderhood and marginality usually are semi-permanent or permanent forms of anti-structural existence, which means that the re-incorporation of the liminar (i.e. the outsider or marginal) back into structure is often difficult, impossible or unwanted.

Outsiderhood is defined by Turner as a condition in which the individual is either permanently or temporarily "set outside the structural arrangements of a given social system, (...) or voluntarily setting himself apart from the behaviour of status-occupying, role-playing members of that system" (Turner, Dramas 233). Monastic orders, for example, show characteristics of anti-structure in that they emphasise the unimportance of status, property and other cultural differentiae. A monk has in common with a pilgrim that both retreat from social structure to enter "a stage of reflection" (Turner, "Betwixt" 14). A pilgrimage, however, is a ritual process which is usually limited in time and ends when the pilgrim returns to his or her everyday life. A monastic retreat, on the other hand, is a liminal form of existence which has become a permanent condition. According to turner, also shamans, prophets, hippies and gypsies count as outsiders, because they lead a life at the boundaries of or opposed to the prevailing social structure. Another representative of outsiderhood is the artist (whom Turner also calls `edgeman' Ritual 128), who is careful not to be associated with established social structures and tries to resist classification. Outsiderhood, in short, is a condition in which an individual is located outside social structure, usually with no intention or ability to re-integrate.

Marginals, on the other hand, are "simultaneously members (...) of two or more social groups whose social definitions and cultural norms are distinct from, and often even opposed to, one another" (Turner, Dramas 233). Turner's definition of marginals is mainly based on an earlier sociological study of marginality by Everett V. Stonequist, who describes a marginal person as an "individual who through migration, education, marriage, or some other influence leaves one social group or culture without making a satisfactory adjustment to another and who finds himself on the margin of each but a member of neither" (Stonequist 2-3). Migrant foreigners, persons of mixed ethnic origin or women in a changed, non-traditional role, to name but a few, belong to the group of marginals. Due to their special social condition, marginals are highly conscious/self-conscious individuals who produce a high number of writers, artists and philosophers. The social significance of the marginal is summarised in Stonequist's work as follows:

The marginal man is a personality type that arises at the time and place where, out of the conflict of races and cultures, new societies, new peoples and cultures are coming into existence. The fate that condemns him to live, at the same time, in two worlds is the same which compels him to assume, in relation to the worlds in which he lives, the rôle of a cosmopolitan and a stranger. Inevitably he becomes, relatively to his cultural milieu, the individual with the wider horizon, the keener intelligence, the more detached and rational viewpoint. (Robert E. Park, introduction, Stonequist xvii-xviii)

Marginals, like ritual liminars, are betwixt and between clearly defined social states, but, unlike them, they have no prospect of a final stable resolution of their ambiguity: they will never be fully integrated into the one side or the other (Turner, Dramas 233). This ambiguous position distinguishes marginals from outsiders: while the former is situated in between different or opposing social groups, the latter retreats to a position at the boundaries of the established social system.

Even though anti-structure might show in different disguises (as ritual liminality, outsiderhood or marginality), its characteristics are often identical: liminars are symbolically or virtually bereft of status, which, consequentially, implies that they are also bereft of all the rights that go with status. This has two implications: first of all, due to the absence of a hierarchy of status positions, there is equality among liminars. This means that the occupants of one and the same anti-structural zone (such as monks in a monastic community, or hippies, or initiants in an initiation ritual) are aware of their equal positions. Secondly, Turner ascribes to ritual liminars, outsiders and marginals a positive force, because liminal existence, whether temporary or permanent, forces the liminar to reconsider central values of his or her culture. Especially art, which best develops in the interstices or on the edges of society, is a medium which questions the prevailing social structure, and which is provoking, paradoxical, unusual, and above all, stimulating critical thought. The social counter-position allows liminars to have a clear view on the structure from which they are excluded, and although these individuals are usually bereft of privileges and in a condition of powerlessness, they carry the potential of critique of the norms of exactly that social structure. The danger that was ascribed to liminal personae by Van Gennep, in that they have lost their social attributes and therefore their guideline, takes a different shape in Turner's concept: anti-structure is not only "a stage of reflection" (Turner, "Betwixt" 14) but a "realm of pure possibility" (Turner, "Betwixt" 7) in which new ideas and concepts are stimulated and generated, representing a danger to those who hold positions of power and command in social structure.

Another scientist whose studies show a great interest in in-between states is the cultural anthropologist and structuralist Mary Douglas. Her approach to liminality is different from Van Gennep's and Turner's. With a focus on deviances, disturbances and anomalies of any kind and the information that they reveal about the underlying systems of classification, she contributes significantly to the understanding of permanent forms of liminal existence, however, as liminality represents, in fact, a deviation from social or cultural norms.

Douglas bases her theories on the need of the human mind to classify and symbolically organise that what is perceived as reality in order to be able to interpret it and act in relation to it. What interests her most in this context are cases in which something is ambiguously located in between two totally different categories and therefore evades the traditional classificatory system, or cases in which the symbolic boundaries between categories are transgressed, with the result that categories interfere with each other.

Douglas argues that a confusion of categories is often perceived as pollution. She supports her argumentation with examples of moral transgression. Phenomena of any kind that are considered to be violating the prevailing moral norms, such as abnormal sexual preferences, are usually considered dirty or polluting. Douglas's concept of pollution represents, in fact, "a reaction to protect cherished principles and categories from contradiction."9

Victor Turner, in reference to Douglas, points out the significance of her pollution theory for the understanding of liminal phenomena:

Douglas holds that, in effect, what is unclear and contradictory (from the perspective of social definition) tends to be regarded as (ritually) unclean. The unclear is the unclean (...). From this standpoint one would expect to find that transitional beings are particularly polluting, since they are neither one thing nor another, or may be both; or neither here nor there; or may even be nowhere (in terms of any recognised cultural topography), and are at the very least "betwixt and between" all the recognized fixed points in space-time of structural classification. (Turner, "Betwixt" 7, my emphasis, KL)

The comparison of the unclear with the unclean serves as a perfect explanation of the fact that people react to an ambiguous situation, object or persona with confusion, uncertainty or fear. People who hold ambiguous marginal positions or outsider positions in society can be treated by others as if they were emanating danger. Ex-prisoners or persons who spent some time in an institution for the treatment of mental disease are likely to be classified abnormal and to be rejected:

A man who has spent some time `inside' is put permanently `outside' the ordinary social system. With no rite of aggregation which can definitely assign him to a new position he remains in the margins, with other people who are similar credited with unreliability, unteachability, and all the wrong social attitudes. (...) A polluting person is always in the wrong. He has developed some wrong condition or simply crossed some line which should not have been crossed and this displacement unleashes danger (...). (Douglas 97/113)

These examples show that liminality and deviances from classificatory schemes comprise of the same characteristics as both are conditions in which category boundaries are transgressed or categories do not apply at all.

In the following analysis of Byatt's works I will show how threshold theories provide a better insight into the actions and conflicts of the protagonists. Byatt's works lend themselves well to such an investigation, because in the majority of her writings the author shows great concern about questions of identity, personal growth and liberation from social limitations. The application of the theories of Van Gennep, Turner and Douglas to the writings of Byatt will help to interpret the nature of the crises that the protagonists face during the development of the plot. It will be especially interesting to see which solutions Byatt offers to end these crises, and to what extent these solutions are dictated by the laws of the social systems depicted in the texts.

To cover all the literary works of Byatt would be beyond the scope of this article, and therefore the analysis will be restricted to three titles: The Shadow of the Sun (1964), Byatt's first novel,10 "Morpho Eugenia" (1992), the first of two short stories published under the title Angels and Insects, and Possession (1990). This choice will give an impression of the diversity of Byatt's use of the threshold motif.

The Shadow of the Sun - A Transitional Process

A rite de passage forms the central theme of The Shadow of the Sun. The seventeen-year-old protagonist Anna, who grows up in England in the 1950s, experiences her adolescence as a life crisis. It is a difficult period in which she does not want to be treated as a child anymore and yet does not feel fully accepted as a grown-up. Anna is in the middle of a transition between two life stages, but it seems that the completion of this transition is impeded by the powerful presence of her father, a writer, or rather, the consequences that that presence has on the notion of her own identity. Anna wants to identify with her father, wants to be creative like him, but she feels that as a woman she lacks the means to become like him. Anna is represented as a person who can handle this problem only with passivity. Unable to solve it herself, she feels strongly that she has to endure the time of her adolescence and wait until an initial event would give her insight and enable her to act.

Anna's in-between state is not only represented in terms of a transition (and time), but also in terms of space. As the novel opens, the reader learns about her patriarchally structured family, with the father as the head of the family. His position is mirrored by the central location of his room in the house: "The study was the centre of the house, and round what went on in it everything else was ordered" (Shadow 5). Opposed to the centrality of the father in the house is a little hut at the periphery of the family's garden, with a window against a gap in the adjoining hedge that divides the garden from the surrounding countryside. This is Anna's place to which she retreats to be alone and to hide. Through the walls of that hut she can see what is going on outside without being seen herself. Most of the time in the hut she just spends sitting and doing nothing, "getting through time until bedtime" (14). She even avoids thinking about herself: "She could not imagine being able to deal with things in any other way" (15). It seems as if the hut is a place beyond space and time; there Anna is not visible to others, almost non-existent, passive, not concerned about anything that goes on outside. Her lethargy is only occasionally interrupted by meditations about being a writer like her father, and she keeps a notebook hidden in the hut which contains a small number of entries.

It is interesting to note that in the context of space, Anna's father is the only member of the family who literally and figuratively crosses the boundaries of the family home.11 Driven by an `attack of vision', as he calls it (58), he leaves the house and garden one day, and for the rest of the family he visually and metaphorically disappears behind the horizon: the where and what and why of his occasional walks that would take several days or even weeks are unknown to them. His vision quest actually shows the characteristics of a transitional process: leaving everything behind, he almost loses his human features while he is running wildly, evoking the notion of "something monstrous, hardly human" (49). He exhausts himself to the utmost, losing all sense for real time and physical pain. When he is ready to return home, he seems half dead, his clothes are in rags, his shoes lost. Only by crossing the limits of the bearable and dying a symbolic death (separation), as it were, is he able to undergo a process in which he is totally detached from the physical world around him and his physical self (transition), a process that would restore him with new insight, a new creative and vital force, establishing him on a new stage in the development of his identity as a writer (incorporation). The vision quest, then, is a metaphor for the transcendence of the normal, an initiation ritual that leads him from ignorance to insight, from the ordinary to the sublime.

Henry's vision quest has been an object of interest already in an examination of the male artist and the experience of the sublime in The Shadow of the Sun by Christien Franken (Franken, Mythologies 93-97). Franken bases her analysis on Edmund Burke's theory of the sublime, represented in his Philosophical Enquiry in the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Part of her argumentation is Tom Furniss' distinction of three different stages of experience in Burke's model of the sublime that the male artist/genius goes through until he is able to transform his vision into art. The first one is a state of equilibrium, a balance between mind and object. The second stage is characterized by a violent aesthetic experience which threatens to overwhelm the artist and which evokes the fear in him to be unable to maintain control over himself: "The subject's perception, vision, and sense of self are threatened (...). The equilibrium between the perceiving mind and the perceived object is greatly disturbed at the expense of the stability of the subject" (Franken, Mythologies 94, my emphasis, KL). In the third step the individual regains the control over his feelings of fear, danger and pain, and eventually returns to a state of the equilibrium: "potential annihilation" is transformed "into a sense of elevation".12

This model of the three stages of the sublime experience supports the notion of the vision quest as a transformational process, with the subject undergoing experiences of stability - instability - stability, as they were also described in the theories of Van Gennep and Turner. Moreover, Franken uses this model to point out a conflict that is relevant to Anna's search for identity. Franken shows that Burke constructs a dichotomy of `the sublime' versus `the beautiful', providing the sublime with strong masculine connotations (strength, mastery of fear, wisdom) and favouring it over the beautiful, which he associates with the feminine (and with weakness, easiness of temper, etcetera) (Franken, Mythologies 94/95).13

In Anna's perception, the experience of the sublime is only open to her father, the male artist, and not to her. To Anna, he is the unquestioned personification of creativity and art. When he leaves to undergo his vision quest, she experiences her incapability and passivity even stronger: while he disappears over the hills, she remains at her peripheral position at home from where she has a view over the land beyond the garden; but she only looks out at it and does not cross the boundaries of the family domain. In that situation she is even more confronted with what she experiences as a lack of imaginative potential:

she was overcome with her own limitations; it was terrible not to know, to have no idea what he went for, what he thought; she wept to herself, I would give anything to be like that, if I knew what like that was. How can one sit here, just the same, when there is anyone alive who finds anything as tremendously important as he finds climbing that hill? (52)

Her uncertain situation reminds Anna of the "fairy story, where the poor child stands in the snow and sees the infinitely desired world from which she is shut out" (151). It seems that Anna's adolescence does not only form the threshold to maturity, but to life in general. Anna expects to find access to `the world' with the help of some special initial event of which she has only a vague idea:

There had grown in her from as far back as she could remember a sense that she was, as it were, in cold storage, that she was waiting for a sign, for a signal of release, for some event following which she would be able to move into violent action, to be, and to do, and to understand what she was for. (18)

Even though this idea of the initial event becomes more urgent the closer she gets to adulthood (and a new period in life), it has actually been with her since childhood. When she was very little, she identified this moment with the return of her father from the war: "when he did return and changed nothing, leaving her still a child and occupied with nothing it was pushed further into the future. (...) all that had been possible had been to wait quietly (...)" (18). While Anna was still a child she could retreat to role-playing, and eat, sleep and play "as though she were a child completely" (18, emphasis added). Now that she has passed the state of childhood, waiting has become unbearable because she has no clearly defined role model anymore to hold on to, and it is this ambiguity that calls for a resolution.

Even when Anna becomes a student at Cambridge, the changes are only outward; even at college, Anna's state of mind remains the same:

she was so much not there that it was inconceivable that anyone should notice her; she could sit and sit and sit, and no one ever came, no one knew, on one cared, no one was in a position to care. She had the idea that it was like waiting to be born (223, emphasis added).

This quotation bears a strong resemblance to Van Gennep's definition of transitional periods: as long as the transitional persona is not incorporated into the new stage in life, symbolically experiencing the birth of a new self, as it were, her features remain unrecognisable. In other words, she is structurally invisible, as Turner would call it, because she cannot define herself by a clear social status or position. Anna's notion of `not being there' symbolizes her structural invisibility. This experience is probably completely subjective, because those who are in contact with her might see in her the person they want to see, either the child or the young woman.

Instead of calling Anna's adolescence a transitional process, which implies continuous movement, it would be more appropriate to think of it in terms of a suspension (from time and social structure). Anna's description of her condition also evokes the image of a vacuum: the total absence of action, emotions, decisions. In this "Limbo, this no life" (209)14 she even feels free of responsibility:

everything she did herself, since it was not what she was looking for, was so unreal to her that she could not imagine its having any essential effect on anyone else. Any particular moment of action (...) could have no repercussions, no extension in time, no effect on other people - her time had not yet come, and she was no one to be reckoned with. (208)

Not until the time of suspension would be ended by some initial event, not until Anna could experience her own existence as meaningful, would she accept the responsibilities that a clearly defined social position would require. This point of view of Anna is reflected in her attitude towards the affair that has developed from her relationship with an older man, one of her father's critics. It is not until Anna gets pregnant and decides to meet her lover to discuss their future that she feels like "waking up out of a dream, seeing that what one did was indeed done, one was what one did" (297). It seems as if the prospect of motherhood ends her transitional period and re-establishes her in a socially defined position. This ending is anti-climatic: the new period in life does not seem to leave any room for her to carry out her ideal of becoming a writer. Instead, she finds herself in one of the traditional roles of women, that of a mother. Anna's former passive attitude now appears to turn against her. She is aware that her habit of turning her back on responsibility and suspending decisions had been a fatal mistake: "Running away did just as much damage as any other form of activity or refusal to act. (...) What I always do, she thought, is run not quite far enough. I don't have courage to get right out" (296).

Even though this ending sounds like a resignation, there are some hints of ambiguity. One could argue that Anna's awareness of her situation leaves room for further development. Anna is dissatisfied with the choices she seems to have. She finds herself confronted with two options that are not only irreconcilable, but also limiting: she cannot identify herself with the masculine concept of creativity, nor with the prospect of "expending her energy `usefully' at the kitchen sink"(201). To chose to live as woman and as an artist would demand that she would go beyond the two available options. Indeed, Anna thinks of leaving England in order to escape, as it were, the confining social structures: "If I went away and lived my own life, she thought, I might manage to be everything I am, or have to be" (106). However, Anna has not yet developed the courage to take this step, and remains were she is. Her discontent, however, suggests that her developmental process might continue beyond the ending of the novel, heading towards a solution that would not define female sexuality and an artistic life as two incompatible categories.

Morpho Eugenia - Liminal Existence

In The Shadow of the Sun liminality is presented as ritual liminality, that is, as a transitional period between two life stages, with the prospect of the incorporation of the liminal subject into the social order at the end of that transition. In Byatt's short story "Morpho Eugenia", liminality is a central theme again. This time, however, it does not show in the form of a transition, but a (semi-) permanent condition.

"Morpho Eugenia" is set in England in the early 1860s. The protagonist is a young Englishman, William Adamson, a naturalist, who spent some time in the Amazon collecting and categorising insects. On his way back to England he loses all his belongings and his collection of specimens in a shipwreck. Lacking any financial means and apparently with no family of his own, he finds a temporary home at the house of the rich English family Alabaster.

For William, England and Brazil are as different as day and night. In Brazil he did not even possess a pair of shoes, but his European white skin ensured him a superior position among the natives. Moreover, there he had encountered a system of social and moral norms and values that differed greatly from the English one. When he is back in England, his Brazilian past gives him the feeling that he is a traveller between two worlds.

William Adamson's stay in Brazil was clearly motivated by a social conflict. Born the son of a butcher, he felt that in England his future prospects were not particularly promising and stood in a strong opposition to his personal ambitions: "he was not using his unique gifts, whatever they were, he was going nowhere, and he meant to go far" ("Morpho" 9). In the social system of England, however, where every person was assigned their position and rank, he felt restricted and almost suffocated. To leave England meant to escape from that confining social order. From his European point of view the Amazon was a blank space which was largely undiscovered and unclassified. In this "untrodden wilderness" with its "undiscovered creatures"(11) he could have influence and create order; it was a place where anything was possible. No longer positioned at the lower end of the social ladder as he was in England, he would now have authority: "There would be new species of ants, to be named perhaps adamsonii, there would be space for a butcher's son to achieve greatness" (11).

It was also in Brazil where he first experienced unrepressed sexuality and a totally different concept of moral norms and values. There he had encountered "olive-skinned and velvet-brown ladies of doubtful virtue and no virtue" (5), and at the same time he had perceived that place as "the innocent, the unfallen world (...), the wild people in the interior who are unaware of modern ways - modern evils - as our first parents" (30). When he is back in England, all these experiences bring William into a state of great inner conflict. He does not simply return as the butcher's son who is socially and economically inferior to the Alabaster family, but as the representative of another world, which strongly determines his self-image. He experiences his presence at the house of the Alabaster's as an intrusion. He perceives this family as "pale people" (4) (the name Alabaster already refers to whiteness and translucence) and describes the Alabaster daughters as "three pale-gold and ivory creatures" (4). In contrast to them, he sees himself as "sultry-skinned, with jaundice-gold mixed into sun-toasting" (3). William's conflict increases when he falls in love with one of the Alabaster daughters, Eugenia. William adores her for her softness and whiteness, which in his mind translates into innocence. He feels confused when images from the past come up in him and mingle with images of innocent Eugenia:

Her shoulders and bust rose white and flawless from the froth of tulle and tarlatan like Aphrodite from the foam. (...) He guided her round the floor, and felt, to his shame and amazement, unmistakable stirrings and quickenings of bodily excitement in himself. (...) He remembered being grabbed and nuzzled and rubbed and cuddled with great vigour by women with brown breasts glistening with sweat and oil, and with shameless fingers. Nothing he did now seemed to happen without this double vision, of things seen and done otherwise, in another world. (6/7)

William is an exemplary marginal in Turner's sense of the word: he feels part of the English as well as the Brazilian society as both have shaped his personality. Yet, he does not fully belong to any of them but feels rather torn between them. The two different worlds define him in totally oppositional ways: in Brazil, his status was high, he had influence and a free sexual life; in England, his status is inferior, he is dependent on other people's good will and financial support and experiences sexual matters as a taboo or strictly role-bound (i.e. confined to socially approved relationships, such as marriage).

A very interesting aspect of William's marginality is that he does not see himself as an intruder only, but also as a disturbing factor, a pollution. This observation stands in line with Mary Douglas's concept of the unclear as the unclean: William's ambiguous position in between England and Brazil, memories of a Brazilian past that he better keeps to himself in an English surrounding, make him feel "dirty and dangerous" in the company of innocent Eugenia:

He was aware of the limpid blue eyes resting on him, and felt that behind her delicate frown she was considering his relations with the naked people. And then felt that his thoughts smutched her, that he was too muddied and dirty to think of her, let alone touch at her secret thoughts from his own secret self. (31)

In England William also realises that he judges the behaviour of others on the basis of the prevailing moral norms. Although he has experienced two opposing social orders and diverging opinions of moral norms, he cannot deal with the transgression of moral boundaries at the home of the Alabasters. When he finds out that Eugenia, with whom he is married by then, has a sexual relationship with her half-brother Edgar, he feels utterly repulsed.

When William had first met Eugenia it had been his "dearest wish" to ask her to be his wife (55). The fact that she did not reject him (as their unequal social positions would suggest) came to him as a surprise. Only years later he understands that the marriage was a set-up to disguise the incestuous relationship between Eugenia and her brother. It could be assumed that the marriage would at least help him to become a full member of the Alabaster family. His marginal position, however, remains unchanged. The marriage has no influence on the fact that he will always think of himself as a traveller between two cultures, the English one and the Brazilian one. It reinforces, however, his ambiguous position in the Alabaster household: with a social background different from that of the Alabasters, he now stands also in between two social groups. The social order of which William is part does not allow for his satisfactory adjustment to the group to which he aspires. Even though he is formally admitted as a new member of the family, he does not gain full authority (Edgar to William: "You are underbred, Sir, you are no good match for my sister. There is bad blood in you, vulgar blood" 62).

In order to make up for his financial shortcomings, William is employed by Eugenia's father to assist him in scientific matters ("He was to pay, he saw, with his thoughts" 57). In this situation he is neither master nor servant. His position remains somewhat undefined: "He was more and more relegated to a kind of between-world" (44) and treated as if he was one of "the intermediate folk between the family and the invisible, speechless servants" (25/26). With no status, and consequently no rights nor influence, he experiences his marginal position as very unsatisfactory.

William starts to spend more and more of his time with a young woman called Matty Crompton, who is neither the governess nor the nurse of the children but "seemed to be in some way employed in the care of the younger members of the family" (22). Her status in the household "had the same uncertainty as his own" (75). Matty is a marginal too, and neither her status nor her sexual attributes seem clearly defined. She is described as grey and thin, shapeless and easily overlooked, a "sexless being" (105). Inspired by his insect terminology, William sees an analogy between her and a worker ant, which, unlike the ant queen, has no sexual attributes and was not made for breeding but for life-long dedicated work. The more William gets to know Matty, the more he realises that he and she are equals: "They were both poor, both semi-employed, both, now, relations of the master but not masters" (75/76).

Turner has pointed out that marginals, and liminal beings in general, who share the same anti-structural zone are equals, because distinguishing structural attributes have become ambiguous or are neutralised. Because marginals are no ritual liminars who would ever be fully incorporated again into the structure to which they half belong, their liminality is not temporary, but an established fact. The prospect of being for ever caught in his anti-structural position disillusions William. He worries that "he had lost his sense of purpose" (72). Matty, too, experiences her liminal existence as a suspension from a more fulfilled life: "I suppose we all feel we have greater capacities than are called for in our daily lives" (92). It is with Matty, not with Eugenia, that William has intellectual conversations and shares an interest in natural sciences; also in this respect they are equals. Another interesting aspect of Matty is her critical awareness of everything going on around her. According to Turner, great consciousness and a critical point of view are characteristic of marginal beings. This is true for Matty. She puts a clear relation between her undefined status in the Alabaster household and her knowledge of, for instance, the hushed-up incestuous relationship between Eugenia and Edgar: "There are people in houses, between the visible inhabitants the Alabasters and the invisible the servants, largely invisible to both, who can know a very great deal, or nothing, as they choose" (155). The invisibility that Matty refers to here in relation to herself can be understood (as before in the case of Anna in The Shadow of the Sun) as structural invisibility, caused by the unclear social position and function of the liminal being.

The limitations of their situation finally cause Matty and William to take action. Together they escape from the home of the Alabasters and their liminal existence in a confining social structure. They decide to give meaning to their lives and identity to themselves by going to another place, to the Amazon, where their status would be different. In the case of Matty, this breakout bears obvious signs of a transitional process, resembling birth into a new life ("I have only one life, and twenty-seven years of it are past, and I intent to begin living" 157). Like a larva that changes into a butterfly (to stay with the insect terminology that determines the narrative in "Morpho Eugenia" to a large extent), Matty transforms from the `sexless being' into a sensual woman. The night when Matty and William decide to leave, she asks him to look at her truly: "You do not know that I am a woman. (...) You have never seen me" (156). Matty's new feminine status is formally confirmed by a change of name: she is no longer Matty, which is rather neutral, but Mathilda: "He pulled her against him, the unyielding Matty Crompton, the new hungry Mathilda" (158).

It looks as if Matty's and William's breakout presents the longed-for resolution of their marginal status. This is only partly true, however. Their escape shows that a solution of their conflict is not possible within their native social system, which confirms Stonequist's and Turner's definition of marginality as a permanent condition. About their future social status in the Amazon the reader learns nothing: the story ends while the protagonists are still on their way from their old position to the new one, in the middle of a possible transition.

Possession - Structural Limits

In comparison to The Shadow of the Sun and "Morpho Eugenia", Possession abounds with threshold-related imagery. It is striking how frequently the word `threshold' appears in the text, and also in its related meanings as crossing-point, boundary or limit it forms a key motif. Throughout the story the protagonists try to get access to another person's territory or have to defend their own against intruders; geographical boundaries are crossed, moral limits transgressed; knowledge is gained in the course of transitional processes.

Possession is a very complex postmodernist collage of literary genres and consists of two plots. The first one is located in the twentieth century and written entirely in prose. By means of other sorts of text (poetry, letters, fairy tales, mythical stories, excerpts from diaries and scholarly works) the protagonists of the twentieth-century plot (and the reader with them) get access to the second, nineteenth-century level. These texts form a threshold to the past, as it were.

The protagonists of the twentieth-century plot are two academics, Roland Michell, a part-time research assistant, and Maud Bailey, who works at the Women's Studies Department. Roland is doing research on the famous nineteenth-century poet Randolph Henry Ash. As fate would have it, he discovers letters of Ash that reveal the poet's admiration for an unidentified lady, a fact not recorded yet in any scholarly work on Ash. Roland is able to identify the unknown lady as Christabel LaMotte, a poetess who has received only little scholarly recognition. Roland, totally overwhelmed by his finding and aware that it could show the poet Ash and his works in a new light, decides not to tell anyone about it, especially not his superior, Professor Blackadder, the editor of Ash's Complete Works. The only person he turns to is Maud Bailey, an expert on any matter related to LaMotte, and together they decide to embark on a quest to find out more about the relationship of the two poets.

Even though Possession opens at the twentieth-century level, its main focus is directed at the nineteenth-century protagonists, the poet Randolph Henry Ash and the poetess Christabel LaMotte, thereby providing the reader with a vivid account of their lives. Contrary to the famous Ash, LaMotte leads a rather shadowy existence. She is scarcely recognised by the literary critics of her time, not to mention the little recognition she will receive by the critics a hundred years later, when she is almost entirely forgotten.

The circumstances in which LaMotte lives are evidence of her determined mind, however. She set up house with a woman friend, the painter Blanche Glover. They lead a secluded life, which allows them to pursue their artistic ambitions: "we were to renounce the outside World - and the usual female Hopes (and with them the usual Female Fears) in exchange for - dare I say Art" (Possession 187). Both women have turned their house, a woman's place by definition, into a realm of freedom and independence from social norms and socially accepted roles. They refuse to live as governesses or financially dependent daughters or wives: "it was a place wherein we neither served nor were served" (186). This definition of their home implies the total absence of a hierarchical social order. In fact, as a retreat from public life, LaMotte's house has become the habitat of social outsiders. As such, it bears anti-structural characteristics, such as the equality of its inhabitants.

When Ash meets LaMotte for the first time he is impressed by her "wit and judgement" (5). Her secluded life increases his interest for her. In a letter to LaMotte, Ash expresses his wish to get to know her better: "I shall feel my way into your thought - as a hand into a glove" (132). The sexual connotation of this expression as well as the implication of intended conquest are obvious and must have an alarming effect on a woman like LaMotte, who defines herself through independence from men. Because Ash's letters start to grow into an intrusion onto her protected life, she lets him know: "I am threatened in that Autonomy for which I have so struggled" (170). It is for this autonomy that Ash is not admitted into her house for a long period of time: he leads "only a threshold-presence" (181), as he says himself, which allows him to lead a liminal existence at the boundaries of her life without ever sharing it with her. By using an egg metaphor, LaMotte points out the elementary difference between a destructive intrusion from the outside, Ash's world, and a voluntary opening from the inside, her world: "There may come a day when you lift the lid with impunity - or rather, when it may be lifted from within - for that way, life may come - whereas your way - you will discover - only Congealing and Mortality" (137). The clear line that LaMotte draws between her space and the outside (male) world is also mirrored in her name: the Old French motte refers to a natural or man-made mound, on which a castle was erected.15 While the threshold symbolizes the potential crossing, the castle motif suggests that the entrance is blocked.

In the case of LaMotte the threshold functions figuratively as well as symbolically as a line of division and protective barrier. The same is true for Maud Bailey, the twentieth-century protagonist: similar to LaMotte, she has established a mental barrier between herself and the male world in order to protect her private space and emotional integrity. She wears a turban, "low on her brow" (38), to hide away her long and naturally blond hair, which otherwise stands in an unacceptable contrast to the feminist image that she, as member of the Women's Studies Department, is determined to conform to: "It's the wrong colour, you see, no one believes it's natural. I once got hissed at a conference, for dying it to please men" (271). Her disguise as well as her frosty attitude (to Roland she was "a most untouchable woman" 48) signal her reserve when it comes to the male sex. Roland, her male companion on her quest for the secret of Ash's and LaMotte's letters, suffers from her unapproachableness. The difficulty that arises when he enters her `territory' for the first time is humorously depicted in the following scene:

They went up in a paternoster lift which cranked regularly past its otherwise vacant portals. These doorless lifts unnerved Roland; she Maud stepped in precisely and was lifted above him before he dared to follow, so that he was already clambering onto the pedestal she occupied when he lunged forward and up, almost too late. She did not remark on this. (...) Out again she came precisely; he tripped on this threshold, too, the floor lifting beneath him. (40)

This example shows that Roland, one of the male species, is definitely on foreign ground in the women's department. Even when Roland and Maud embark on the quest together, Maud is careful to draw a clear line between his subject, Ash, and her subject, LaMotte: Roland feels that Maud's "hostility towards Ash somehow included himself" (42).

Parallels between Maud Bailey and Christabel LaMotte are manifold. Maud is a descendant of LaMotte and, as the story reveals, much closer related to her than she first thought. Moreover, both their family names express their defensive attitude: just as motte refers to an unapproachable fortress, so does `bailey'. The Oxford English Dictionary defines `bailey' as the external wall enclosing the outer court, and forming the first line of defence, of a feudal castle. Interrelations between LaMotte and Maud are best demonstrated, however, by means of one of LaMotte's timeless pieces of poetry in which she revives the myth of the fairy Melusine, who had married a mortal to gain a soul. In their marriage contract they had agreed that her husband would not look at her when she took a bath once a week. One day he spies on her, however, and discovers that she is a serpent from the waist down. Her true self discovered, Melusine has to leave her home and live as a fairy for ever.16 Like Melusine, LaMotte and Maud are also spied on from the outside by men: according to Blanche, LaMotte's house mate, "Peeping Tom has put his eye to the nick or cranny in our walls and peers shamelessly in" (47) - probably it was Ash who had been strolling around the house several times. Roland, too, is once found peeping at Maud through the keyhole of a bathroom door.

For LaMotte, Maud and the mythical Melusine, private space forms the basis for independence from the outside world and the limitations that that world poses on them. The strict division between public and private space implies that they can only show their true selves in seclusion: LaMotte can practise her art, Maud does not have to hide her hair and Melusine can show her serpent tail. To open the private space to members of the public space endangers the female protagonists: for them, private and public are incompatible categories.

There is, however, an ambiguity about the threshold as protective barrier. As was shown above, LaMotte's house serves her as a sort of bastion; within she feels safe, and as long as she can keep out the public, the male world, and Ash in particular, her autonomy and strength are guaranteed. LaMotte's situation, however, is very ambivalent. Her house is both a place of creativity and confinement. When she meets Ash and starts to feel affection for him she is still and even more aware of the need to keep up the protection. At the same time, however, her self-imposed limitations become a harder burden on her:

And I have now a new word in my vocabulary, much hated, to which I am enslaved - it goes `And if -' `And if -' And if we had time and space to be together - as we have allowed ourselves to wish to be - then we would be free together - whereas now - caged? (200)

The space that LaMotte refers to here cannot be found within their society as it is: he as a married man and she as a woman whose first priority in her life is her writing would not form a socially accepted couple. Ash, even though he can only argue from a different perspective, brings the ambiguity of LaMotte's situation to the point:

The true exercise of freedom is - cannily and wisely and with grace - to move inside what space confines - and not seek to know what lies beyond and cannot be touched or tasted. But we are human - and to be human is to desire to know what may be known by any means. (200)

This again shows that LaMotte's choices are limited: if she had not renounced her traditional female role - and love - she would not have been able to experience artistic freedom - and vice versa.

Just as the Melusine myth serves as a theme of violated privacy and the loss of autonomy, the myth of the Lady of Shalott, with whom LaMotte identifies at one point ("Think of me if you will as the Lady of Shalott" 187), illustrates the conflict between limitation (which also means safety) and the need to break it, whatever the consequences might be. The Lady of Shalott, who lived in a tower and could get glimpses of the outside world only through a mirror, was cursed as soon as she looked at the world directly. Christien Franken observes that the curse comes into action as soon as the Lady of Shalott turns from her art (weaving) to life (and her love for Lancelot) (Franken, Mythologies 105-106). The same is true for LaMotte: as soon as she gives in to her love for Ash, gives up her protection and opens her house and herself to him, she loses her creative power, feels weak and vulnerable: "I am out of my Tower and my Wits. (...) the Muse has forsaken me - as she may mockingly forsake all Women, who dally with Her - and then - Love - " (197).

One should think that the twentieth-century protagonist Maud Bailey should be free of limitations of the kind that define the life of LaMotte. Compared to her nineteenth-century counterpart she is, of course. Nevertheless, other limitations are in force in her case. As a member of the Women's Studies Department, Maud feels obliged to obey to certain feminist conventions, and thus she hides her naturally blond hair, denies her natural self. The image that she tries to keep up makes it impossible for her to live in harmony with her own body. It seems that unless she can come to terms with this conflict and accept herself as she is, free herself from all the confining conventions that determine her self-image, she is unable to let any man into her life. Maud's conflict, however, is not caused by men in the first place. She is rather confined by feminist codes of behaviour, which also influence her attitude towards the male sex. (To be confined by laws of one's own sex rather than by the other is one of Byatt's ironic twists with which she succeeds in breaking up stereotypes.) Maud's limitations (just as LaMotte's limitations) are ambiguous. On the one hand, they form an obstacle to her experience of her female self. On the other hand, Maud uses them as a means of protection. The suppression of her feminine self prevents her from irritating experiences with feminists and men alike. Only at the end of the novel, new experiences have enabled her to cross the barrier of self-confinement: in the company of Roland, who has no intention to possess, guide or form her ("He was a gentle and unthreatening being" 141) and therefore does not endanger her autonomy, she learns that her public self and her private self do not have to exclude each other.

This analysis has shown that in Possession the threshold functions as a line of division between two realms of different gender: a female realm that needs to be protected from the outside world so that its inhabitant can keep her autonomy, and a male realm, representing society as a whole. By equating the male realm with society and social structure, the female realm clearly becomes a liminal space at the boundaries of social structure, to which the female protagonist retreats when she refuses to be part of that structure. LaMotte is clearly an outsider in Turner's definition of the term as she consciously sets herself "outside the structural arrangements of a given social system" (Turner, Dramas 233). She cannot be reincorporated into social structure as it is unless she gives up her independent life as an artist. Under these circumstances her outsiderhood has to be permanent. Maud, too, chooses the outsider position when she refuses to take up the traditional role of woman in social structure (as the partner of man) and is cautious not to let a man into her life. Maud leaves her anti-structural position, however, at the end of the novel. She takes off her turban and loosens her hair, which marks her the end of her transformation outwardly. Maud's transitional process, like every transitional process, consists of three phases. She starts off with strong points of view of the male as a threat, and an ideal picture of woman as a self-sufficient being. During the quest (the transition) the events put her beliefs into question. For Maud, this is a period of uncertainty (which is a characteristic feature of transitions) in which she needs to think over and modify her original standpoint. She finally emerges from this process with new views on LaMotte (the woman whom she has always thought of as a model of self-sufficiency had, in fact, felt deep love for a man) and a newly-discovered self-esteem that makes it possible for her to deal differently with Roland, her male companion.

Binary Order and Beyond

The symbolic meaning of the threshold, whether it represents a point of passage, a border, an in-between state of existence or a transitional period in life, can only be fully understood if the threshold is seen in connection with the two elements between which it is located. Without these elements the threshold simply had no meaning at all. Moreover, it is noticeable that the two elements that border on a literal or figurative threshold mostly form opposing poles. In terms of social structure, for example, the threshold separates the private from the public, the inside from the outside. In terms of change and development, it symbolically divides the realm of ignorance from the realm of knowledge, or, as Van Gennep would say, the profane from the sacred.

In the theories of liminality developed by Van Gennep, Turner and Douglas, the threshold is defined as a state or condition which is ambiguous or neutral, because it consists of a combination of features of both the elements between which it is positioned, and yet no definite features at all (such as `adolescent' incorporates the characteristics of `child' and `grown-up' and yet it is neither the one nor the other). The terminology that Van Gennep, Turner and Douglas use to described liminal phenomena - `unstable', `anti-structural', `deviating from the norm' - imply that liminality is a state that is not part of structure, or better, that forms the no-man's land, the blanks, between the constituents of structure. This argumentation sounds reasonable; however, it has a weak point: due to the restrictions that language puts on us, `unstable', `anti-structural' and `deviating from the norm' are lexical entities that exist only in relation to the oppositional concepts `stable', `structural' and `conforming'. From this point of view, the threshold itself is well incorporated into our binary thinking - a proof of the dominance of this structure in language.

Regarding the fact that binary order determines our understanding of the threshold, it is interesting to see which effects this relationship has on the interpretation of Byatt's works. As was shown above, Byatt's protagonists are often torn between two poles: Anna in The Shadow of the Sun finds it impossible to unite her female identity with the masculine concept of art and the prospect of a life as a writer. William Adamson in "Morpho Eugenia" considers himself neither servant nor master, a condition in which he feels he has neither power nor use. In Possession, LaMotte is aware of the fact that she has to shut the public world out of her own private space in order to be able to perform her art. In all these three cases binary order forms the source of a severe conflict: it determines the identity of the protagonists and often leaves them unsatisfied with the options that they have to be who they want to be.

The problem of the incompatibility of oppositional concepts can best be described with the help of structuralist and post-structuralist theories, which were both concerned, in their own ways, with the analysis of the binary structure of language and thought. From a structuralist viewpoint, language is a system in which each word derives its meaning from its position in the system and its relations to other words. These relations are most obvious in binary oppositions: two concepts constitute each other because one is best comprehended in contrast to the other (such as day/night). At the same time each of these concepts generates related meanings which, again, contrast each other (light/dark, sun/moon, warm/cold etc.). The making of binary oppositions is firmly established in Western thought and helps to structure, organise and understand reality. In fact, binary order functions as a guideline: the clear distinction between oppositional concepts is decisive when it comes to valuations, (moral) decisions, orientation.

Oppositional concepts are clearly distinctive from each other and at the same time constitute a unity, because one does not exist without the other. The following example will show how concepts of opposition and unity determine our notion of `Self' and `Other'. In an article about the threshold as a key motif in the literature of the Romantic period, Lothar Pikulik focuses on the ambiguous function of the threshold as a line of division on the one hand and a connecting element on the other. He uses this ambiguity as a basis for the distinction between `I' and `You':

Wer das Du erkennen will, der muß die Schwelle überschreiten, er muß sie aber auch als Begrenzung erfahren, denn ohne Grenze ist das Andere, das von mir als Ich unterschieden ist, so gut wie nichtexistent. (Pikulik 20)

This statement contains two important points. On the one hand there is the clear division and distinction between the Self and the Other, both existing as independent entities. On the other hand both are dialectically related to each other as one can only be defined in relation and contrast to the other. It could be added to Pikulik's statement, however, that it is not only the discovery of the `You' that matters here, but that the discovery of the `You' also leads to the discovery of the `I'. Pikulik's argument is a good example to show how threshold symbolism and binary order are interrelated: the threshold can be understood as the figurative boundary between two opposing concepts, equally relating them to and dividing them from each other.

Regarding the fact that oppositions constitute each other, that one could not exist without the other, the conclusion could be drawn that the elements within a binary order must be of equal value. In the last decades, post-structuralist developments in linguistics and related sciences have challenged this structuralist point of view. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida has pointed out that neutral language is an illusion: as a means that produces reality rather than that it reflects it, it is always subject to ideology. In a summary of Derrida's ideas, Terry Eagleton argues that Western philosophy has been logocentric, "committed to a belief in some ultimate `word', presence, essence, truth or reality which will act as the foundation of all our thought, language and experience" (Eagleton 131). In a male-dominated society, for example, man is the founding principle "upon which a whole hierarchy of meanings may be constructed", while woman is considered the "excluded opposite", all that which man is not, a "defective man" (Eagleton 132). She is, in short, assigned a negative value. Only as long as the distinction between positive and negative signs is held up in place by rhetorical force, as long as "rigid boundaries" are drawn "between what is acceptable and what is not, between self and non-self, truth and falsity, sense and nonsense, reason and madness, central and marginal, surface and depth" can the whole system function effectively, not posing a threat to the prevailing ideology (Eagleton 133).

The great imbalance between two oppositional concepts that are dialectically related to each other, but whose relationship is determined by the underlying hierarchical order, plays a decisive role in all of Byatt's works. In The Shadow of the Sun, Anna experiences the relationship between her mother and father as sacrifice and self-denial on the one (the mother's) side and freedom to lead a self-fulfilled, creative life on the other (the father's) side. Moreover, Anna realises that to follow the example of her mother is a socially approved option, whereas her own female identity is not compatible with the masculine concept of art. Ideology determines which social position is open to Anna and which is not. The same is true for William Adamson in "Morpho Eugenia". The English class system determines his social status. Because he is not a member of the same social class as the Alabasters, with whom he lives, he will never be fully acknowledged by them and has to remain in an inferior position. LaMotte in Possession realises that in order to be able to live as a writer, she has to renounce marriage and motherhood.

In all the three cases, the positions that are assigned to Byatt's protagonists are positions of inferiority and dependence, limiting the prospects of the protagonists of a self-fulfilled life. As soon as they aspire to another position in the binary order of their social system (which in all the cases of Byatt's protagonists is a position that stands in an opposition to the one they are supposed to hold), they need to transgress social boundaries. William Adamson and Christabel LaMotte, who do not want to return to their original position within the social structure, but who are not admitted to the one to which they aspire, are confined to or voluntarily retreat to a liminal existence. Anna too occupies a liminal position as long as she refuses to hold the position that the social system ascribes to her.

In short, what happens in Byatt's works is that the protagonists face a conflict that is caused by the limitations of binary order, or rather by the ideology on which this order is based. They cannot or do not want to occupy the social position that is assigned to them by this order, nor is the position to which they aspire open to them. As a consequence of that, they retreat to liminality, either in the form of a prolonged period of ritual liminality, or as marginality, or outsiderhood. Liminal existence, therefore, can be interpreted as the expression of a social conflict, indicating that the liminars cannot find a position within the social system that would allow them to be who they want to be.

Even though it is evident that "we cannot catapult ourselves beyond this binary habit of thought," as Eagleton puts it (Eagleton 133), Byatt's protagonists at least consider or attempt to break or elude the order that restricts their personal development. Anna in The Shadow of the Sun thinks of leaving, as was shown above, but does not have the courage to take this step. Even though the novel implies that Anna needs a third options to choose from, it does not show the way to a satisfactory solution of her conflict.

Things are different in "Morpho Eugenia": the male protagonist William Adamson is apparently able to finally find a way out of his uncertain and unsatisfactory condition. He does not establish a definite position in society (as Anna seems to do when she is willing to arrange things with her lover and father of her baby), but he leaves everything behind to settle in a society that consists of alternative norms and structures. Even though the reader gets only some vague and one-dimensional impressions of the life in the Amazon and can only guess what William's actual social position might be there, William's escape from England is indeed an active flight from his marginal social position in the English social structure.

Regarding Christabel LaMotte in Possession, she does not leave everything behind but retreats to the boundaries of social structure and leads the liminal existence of an outsider. Her limitations are similar to those of Anna. Unlike Anna, however, LaMotte finds a way out by means of her writings. The idea of creating a third possibility beside the conventional dual order is a decisive factor in LaMotte's writings. In her fictional worlds, "where the soul is free of the restraints of history and fact" (373), women are no longer seen by men "as double beings, enchantresses and demons or innocent angels" but "can be free to express their true natures" (373). Only in fantasy and in fiction can oppositions be reconciled and exist alongside each other, can borderlines be blurred without causing confusion, is it possible to travel between different states of existence without having to make a definite decision for the one side or the other.

The threshold symbol, as this analysis has shown, generates a vast range of images of crossings and transitions, of boundaries and limits, of a (momentary or permanent) relocation from structure, a point of decision-making, of change. What is fascinating about the threshold is that it is firmly rooted in our daily rituals, our actions, our view on major changes in life, such as birth and death, and yet we are not immediately aware of its presence and its impact on our feelings in periods of change or transition. There are many phenomena in life like the threshold that we must become conscious of before we are able to see them. The anthropological studies that form the theoretical basis of this article are a proof of that, because they represent no new inventions of the mind but help to see what has always been there in human culture.

The theories of Van Gennep, Turner and Douglas have shown that the threshold as a cultural symbol and metaphor is a very helpful means to depict and explain the nature of social processes, social conditions and identity. Applied to the works of Byatt, they contribute a lot to the understanding of the social relations between the protagonists and other characters and the limitations of their freedom, personal development and self-fulfilment. The "binary habit of thought" (Eagleton 133) forms the source of a great conflict in the works of Byatt in that it determines and limits the choices of the protagonists when they try to find their position in the social order. Those who feel that they are torn between two options of how to spend their life often realize that, for ideological reasons, actually only one of these options is open to them. Not able to integrate into structure satisfactorily, the protagonists retreat to liminal realms; they become either ritual liminars, marginals or outsiders. Liminality, therefore, is the indicator of a social conflict for which our system of thought does not provide a practical solution.

* * *


Primary Sources

A.S. Byatt. Angels and Insects. London: Vintage, 1995 (first published in 1992).
---. Possession. A Romance. London: Vintage, 1991 (first published in 1990).
---. The Shadow of the Sun. London: Vintage, 1991 (first published in 1964 under the title
Shadow of a Sun).

Secondary Sources

Bächthold-Stäubli, Hanns, ed. Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, vol. 7.
Berlin: De Gruyter, 1987.
Brunel, Pierre, ed. Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes. London: Routledge,
Chevalier, Jean, and Alain Gheerbrant, eds. A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. John Buchanan-
Brown. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.
Cixous, Hélène. "Sorties." The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of
Literary Criticism. By Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore, eds. Houndmill: Macmillan,
1989. 101-116. Earlier published in The Newly Born Woman. By Hélène Cixous. Trans.
Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnisota Press, 1986.
---. "Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing." The Hélène Cixous Reader. By Susan Sellers,
ed. London: Routledge, 1994. 199-205.
Collins English Dictionary. 3rd. ed. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1995.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and
Taboo. London: Ark, 1989.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.
Franken, Christien. Multiple Mythologies: A.S.Byatt and the British Artist-Novel. Diss.
University of Utrecht, 1997.
---. Interview with A.S. Byatt. (Unpublished.)
Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L.
Caffee. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960. (The French original, Les Rites de
Passage, was first published in 1908.)
Kimball, Solon T. Introduction. Gennep viii-ix.
The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 20 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.
Park, Robert E. Introduction. Stonequist xvii-xviii.
Pikulik, Lothar. "Schwelle und Übergang: Zu einem Schlüsselmotiv in der Romantik."
Aurora: Jahrbuch der Eichendorff-Gesellschaft für die Klassisch-Romantische Zeit 53 (1993). 13-24.
Reber, Arthur S. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology. London: Penguin, 1985.
Sellers, Susan, ed. The Hélène Cixous Reader. London: Routledge, 1994.
Stonequist, Everett V. The Marginal Man: A Study in Personality and Culture Conflict. New
York: Russel & Russell, 1965.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. "The Lady of Shalott." The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
M.H.Abrams, ed. Vol. 2. New York/London: Norton, 1993. 1059-63.
Turner, Victor. "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage." Betwixt and
Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation. By Louise Carus Mahdi, Steven Foster and Meredith Little, eds. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court,
1987. 3-19.
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Arizona Press, 1992.
---. Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1974.
---. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
Wuthnow, Robert, et al. "The Cultural Anthropology of Mary Douglas". Cultural
Analysis: The Works of Peter L. Berger, Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault and
Jürgen Habermas. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. 77-132.

[1] The following two sources inspired the choice of examples in this more general introduction to threshold symbolism: (a) "Threshold," A Dictionary of Symbols, by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, eds., trans. John Buchanan-Brown (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994) 997-998, and (b) "Schwelle," Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, by Hanns Bächthold-Stäubli, ed., vol. 7 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1987) 1510-43.
[2] Regarding political and religious reasons one can think of Northern Ireland, where parts of cities or even streets are divided by walls or fences to indicate the borderlines between Catholic and Protestant sections of the population.
Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960). The French original, Les Rites de Passage, was first published in 1908.
[4] By `magico-religious' Van Gennep means `profane' and `sacred'. However, he does not understand `sacred' as a term that is limited in its application: "The sacred is not an absolute value but one relative to the situation. The person who enters a status at variance with the one previously held becomes `sacred' to the others who remain in the profane state". Solon T. Kimbell, introduction, The Rites of Passage, by Arnold van Gennep, viii-ix.
[5] `Liminal' derives from Latin `limen', which signifies `threshold' or `initial stage of a process' (OED).
[6] The word crisis derives from the Greek and means `decision' as well as `turning-point' (OED). The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology also defines it as "[a]ny sudden interruption in the normal course of events in the life of an individual or a society that necessitates re-evaluation of modes of action and thought". Arthur S. Reber, The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (London: Penguin, 1985).
[7] Turner refers here to Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (Harmondsworth: Basic, 1963) 121.
[8] Turner uses the terms liminar, liminal entity, liminal persona etc. interchangeably.
[9] Douglas, Purity and Danger, quoted in Turner, "Betwixt" 7. The precise location of this quotation in the original text could not be traced.
[10] On request of Byatt's publisher, this novel was first published under the title Shadow of a Sun. Only much later did Byatt have the title changed.
[11] This example applies to the first part of the novel which is almost entirely located at the family home.
[12] Tom Furniss, Edmund Burke's Aesthetic Ideology: Language, Gender and Political Economy in Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1993) 27, quoted in Franken, Mythologies 94.
[13] Franken also shows that this dichotomy is unstable: the oppositional values are constructed and kept in place by rhetorical force (Franken, Mythologies 95).
[14] Some of the meanings of "Limbo" are "Hell", "Prison", any "unfavourable place or condition" (OED). Interestingly, the Collins English Dictionary also defines it as "an unknown intermediate place or condition between two extremes,"which foregrounds its liminal features.
[15] See also the English equivalent `moat'.
[16] For more details of the Melusine myth see "Melusina", Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes, by Pierre Brunel, ed. (London: Routledge, 1992) 788-795.

* Kathrin Lang is a PhD student at the Faculty of Arts of the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) in Amsterdam.

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