Betwixt and between psychoanalysis and liminal theory: A liminal approach to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline
Victor Turner’s liminal theory is rich with notions of dark, uncertain spaces and the stateless, structureless liminal entity, making it an ideal lens through which Neil Gaiman’s Coraline may be viewed. Coraline, a story of a young girl who discovers a door to the dangerous world of her “other mother,” has been the frequent subject of what Chloé Germaine Buckley describes as “the authority of psychoanalysis as a master discourse” (62). Ambiguous characters and transitional spaces in the novel are almost always interpreted as permutations of the unheimlich – or Freud’s definition of the uncanny, whereby that which is meant to be hidden comes to light in a strangely familiar, but not wholly familiar, fashion – with readings acknowledging but ultimately not exploring the potential for these aspects to be understood in terms of their powerful liminality. The application of Turner’s liminality may complicate or contend with the authority of these psychoanalytic readings and offer a method by which to challenge psychoanalysis as a dominant discourse in children’s literature criticism.
The application of Turner’s liminality may complicate or contend with the authority of these psychoanalytic readings and offer a method by which to challenge psychoanalysis as a dominant discourse in children’s literature criticism.
The foundation of Turner’s pioneering work “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage” is built upon an adaptation of the anthropological work of Arnold van Gennep’s theory of rites de passage, or those “rights which accompany every change of place, state, social position, and age” (qtd. in Turner 47) of an individual within a community. Turner is primarily concerned with what van Gennep identifies as the “margin” or liminal phase of the rites de passage process, an intervening period between the individual’s separation from the community and their aggregation, or reintegration into the community, in which “the state of the ritual subject (the ‘passenger’) is ambiguous; he passes through a realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state” (47). By “state” Turner refers to “any type of stable or recurrent condition [of an individual] that is culturally recognised” (46).
Current Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic depth readings of Coraline’s journey through the other world follow the neat conclusion of her psychic maturation and return to the world as an older, wiser character, with critics such as Karen Coats, Kara K. Keeling and Scott Pollard, Elizabeth Parsons et al., Richard Gooding, and David Rudd offering undoubtedly pivotal earlier readings of the text but which nevertheless subscribe to pedagogical expectations of Coraline as a “child” character understood within preconceived notions of psychoanalysis as a master discourse, and which do not touch upon the undeniably liminal qualities of Coraline’s journey.
Within the liminal phase, Coraline finds herself in what Turner coins as “a ‘moment in and out of time’” (The Ritual Process 96), in which spatio-temporal boundaries and the constraints of state no longer apply when there are no boundaries or states to be had in the first place. For instance, in the other world, the ageing actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible remain eternally youthful, eternally performing, “For ever and always” (Gaiman 42): they are outside of time and social structure. The liminal space of the other world has the capacity to be shaped by the other mother – “‘Your other mother will build whole worlds for you to explore, and tear them down every night when you are done’” (117) – by virtue of the fact that, as Coraline recognises, “these things… were illusions… She [the other mother] could not truly make anything” (115-16). The other mother cannot construct within a space that defies construction and can only provide the impression of doing so, resisting and even reducing the other mother’s authority in her own world and, by extension, the psychoanalytic critic’s authority in their construction of Coraline’s journey.
In fact, the other world is eventually broken down to its very liminality – nothingness, “a formless, swirling mist with no shapes or shadows behind it” (103). Where Richard Gooding identifies the other world as “a place where all wishes are fulfilled” (396) in reference to the function of the other world as a warning for Coraline to “surmount an infantile desire for permanent (re)union with the mother” (397), the other world as this liminal space does not fulfil wishes insofar as it renders their instability explicit. The other world is capable of producing constructions of what the other mother, and the critic, perceives Coraline as “the child” would wish for but which cannot be sustained when the world itself is not defined or structured and when Coraline, as a liminal entity within this liminal phase, is similarly unstructured and undefined.
Additionally, liminal theory disrupts David Rudd’s echoing of Gooding’s warning against the wish-fulfilment of the other world, in which Rudd asserts that without a gap between Coraline and her desires “she would collapse into meaninglessness, lacking the place, the very space in the Symbolic that language confers” (165). Liminal theory states that this “meaninglessness” and lack of “place” is in fact a liminal space. Coraline, then, must necessarily have this meaninglessness and displacement if she is to successfully move from the liminal phase into aggregation (Turner, “Betwixt and Between” 47-9).
Liminal theory states that this “meaninglessness” and lack of “place” is in fact a liminal space. Coraline, then, must necessarily have this meaninglessness and displacement if she is to successfully move from the liminal phase into aggregation (Turner, “Betwixt and Between” 47-9).
Turning to the ghost children found in the back of a cupboard, Buckley argues that they represent the inability on the part of the psychoanalytic critic to render “the child” as knowable, stating that “the need to know the child as a psychologically real entity, to fix it in this way, is always doomed to fail, just as the other mother always fails” (74). Despite current psychoanalytic depth readings of the ghost children as warnings to Coraline against regressive desires (Coats 88; Gooding 398), Buckley underlines that “the ghost children also stand as images of childhood in discourses that seek to know and fix it: ‘Hollow, hollow, hollow, hollow, hollow’” (qtd. in Buckley 74). If we are to understand the ghost children as liminal personae, however, they do not possess even these trace signifiers of “the child” that Buckley mentions.
As liminal personae, or liminal entities, the ghost children lack a state to which the psychoanalytic depth reading depends upon for its application, being that of “childhood” or the stable condition of being or having once been a “child,” for the ghost children are nothingness embodied. Their association with nothingness is frequently and explicitly referred to in Coraline, with Gaiman emphasising that the ghost children are “nothing more than afterimages” (84; emphasis mine) and that “‘now we’ve [the ghost children] nothing left of ourselves’” (83; emphasis mine). Interestingly, the motif of nothingness corresponds to Turner’s statement that liminal entities “have nothing… nothing to demarcate them structurally” (“Betwixt and Between” 49). Notions of gender identity formation attached to the image of “the child” are also challenged by the ghost children’s initial treatment of gender, or, more specifically, their treatment of lack of gender. Turner argues that “since sex distinctions are important components of structural status, in a structureless realm they do not apply” (“Betwixt and Between” 49). When Coraline asks whether one of the ghost children is a boy or a girl, Coraline is told that gender identity “‘T’aint something we give mind to’” (Gaiman 82). It is implied that prior to Coraline’s introduction, the ghost children are sexless and genderless, that they don’t “‘give mind to’” the sex or gender markers that are perceived as critical to a child’s identity and classification within psychoanalytic children’s discourse because the ghost children themselves have no identity, no state to which the construction of “the child” can be attached.
Elizabeth Parsons et al. argue that the gendering of the ghost children functions as part of Coraline’s movement through the Imaginary, which requires her ability to differentiate gender roles by “recognising sexual difference” (378). However, Parsons et al. do not mention the state, or lack thereof, of the ghost children prior to their gendered construction and how this previous lack of state has the capacity to challenge the didactic function of a psychoanalytic reading that perpetuates these heteronormative and binary constructions of “the child,” or indeed the critic’s expectations of Coraline herself to subscribe to these constructions. By contrast, the liminal phase articulated by the ghost children offers a space of transition in which non-standardised sexuality and gender identities (meaning not restricted to the male/female gender binary and conventional notions of heteronormativity) may be explored rather than constrained to conventional pedagogical expectations of the text.
The privileging of psychoanalysis as a master discourse in children’s literature inscribes a rigidity in psychoanalytic readings of Coraline that is often difficult to adapt or change in light of pursuing an alternative approach, but it does appear to be possible – particularly in a text like Coraline that is haunted by ambiguous, undefined spaces and entities that contest the totalising force and fixed qualities of psychoanalysis. Consequently, Coraline emerges as a liminal text that resists submission to one dominant discourse and instead calls for new intersections of theory in the dark, uncertain spaces of the text.
Consequently, Coraline emerges as a liminal text that resists submission to one dominant discourse and instead calls for new intersections of theory in the dark, uncertain spaces of the text.
Aiden is an English Honours (Literature) and art history minor student at UBC. A disgruntled horror writer and local cryptid, they are frequently found arguing about paranormal podcasts in darkened cafés and frightening baristas with their high tolerance for caffeine and regret. Can and will get into a fist fight with Shakespeare in the presumed afterlife.
Buckley, Chloé Germaine. “Psychoanalysis, “Gothic” Children’s Literature, and the Canonization of Coraline.” Children’s Literature Association, vol. 40, no. 1, Spring 2015, pp. 58-79. Project Muse, http://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/576062
Coats, Karen. “Between Horror, Humour and Hope: Neil Gaiman and the Psychic Work of the Gothic.” The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Ed. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis. Routledge, 2008, pp. 77-92.
Gaiman, Neil. Coraline. New York, HarperCollins, 2012.
Gooding, Richard. “Something Very Old and Very Slow”: Coraline, Uncanniness, and Narrative Form.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 4, Winter 2008, pp. 390-407. Project Muse, www.muse.jhu.edu/article/257696.
Parsons, Elizabeth, et al. “The Other Mother: Neil Gaiman’s Postfeminist Fairytales.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 4, Winter 2008, pp. 371-389. Project Muse, www.muse.jhu.edu/article/257695.
Rudd, David. “An Eye for an I: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Questions of Identity.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 39, no. 3, September 2008, pp. 159-168. Springer, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10583-008-9067-7.
Turner, Victor W. “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage.” Betwixt and Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation, edited by Louise Carus Mahdi, Steven Foster, Meredith Little, Open Court Publishing, 1987, pp. 3-19.
Turner, Victor W. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Cornell University Press, 1969.
Tait, Aiden. Photograph of a Book Case. 20 Dec. 2018. Author’s personal collection.
Tait, Aiden. Photograph of a Book on a Windowsill. 20 Dec. 2018. Author’s personal collection.
Tait, Aiden. Photograph of a Book, a Cup, and Plants on a Desk. 20 Dec. 2018. Author’s personal collection.