Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Sharon A. Lewis

Committee Member

Laura M. Nicosia

Committee Member

Jonathan D. Greenberg


Arnold Van Gennep, a French ethnographer, explored the concept of ceremonies for ritual events in his text, The Rites of Passage. He examined societal processes whereby an individual moves from one socially constructed place to another — for example, a boy to a man with a Bar Mitzvah, or a girl to woman on her wedding night. This “passage” involves three phases: separation, transition, and reincorporation. Victor Turner, a British cultural anthropologist, takes van Gennep’s theory one step further and discusses the transition phase and how an individual can become stuck in the transitional stage: the liminal space. In his examination of the rites of passage, Turner claims the passage is an unstable state between two somewhat “fixed or stable conditions” {Forest 93). Subsequently, the exploration, and the multitude of roles attempted or forced upon certain black female characters in American literature, reveals how they inhabit liminal space.

This thesis first explores the liminal passage and its application to Sethe, from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, and Dessa, from Sherley Williams’s novel Dessa Rose — two black women who ultimately escape from slavery but are unable to embrace their sense of freedom. Later, the anthropological theory is used to demonstrate the problematic existence of Sula, from Morrison’s novel of the same name, and Janie from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The conflicts these four women endure, and initially appear to overcome, are fascinating; however, they inevitably fail in their given societies because they are trapped between two very different worlds.

Enslavement, in its various forms, was indeed tumultuous, bringing physical and emotional discomfort. And yet these black women rejected the type of freedom that presented itself. This paper establishes how four outlaw women cannot progress to the next phase of their transitions because it entails leaving their pasts behind, erasing memory, conforming to society’s rules, and remaining subservient. They make decisions that keep them liminal and cause them pain. However, their liminality provides a sense of security and more experience and humanity than either of the stable positions has to offer. Consequently, they remain stuck: “betwixt and between” but nevertheless alive.

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