Ritual in Mythic and Liminal Time in The Member of the Wedding
The rite of passage, when a human journeys from childhood to the adult world is a theme nearly universal in today’s young adult literature. “The basic pattern, one that has been often noted for YA fiction in general, is the rite of passage from childhood to maturity with the change of status that accompanies initiation into adulthood” (Brown 353). Joseph Campbell places this idea into its larger context when he writes, “By absorbing the myths of his social group and participating in its rites, the youngster is structured to accord with his social as well as natural environment, and turned from an amorphous nature product, prematurely born, into a defined and competent member of some specific efficiently functioning social order” (45). The rite of passage, therefore, and the functioning of social order inform each other. “The first function of rites of [passage]. . . must be to establish in the individual a system of sentiments that will be appropriate to the society in which he is to live, and on which that society itself must depend for its existence” (Campbell 46). Intact societies, therefore, enact rituals that serve as the components for the adolescent’s rite of passage. More than simply an educational tool, rituals “imitate those actions of myth supposedly performed by the gods, for ‘through each imitation, man is projected into the mythical epoch in which archetypes were first revealed’ (Eternal Return 35)” (Smedman 93). Rituals occupy what K.A.Nuzum calls “mythic time” (207). Quoting Mircea Eliade in his book The Sacred and the Profane, Nuzum defines mythic time as “a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites” (209). In addition to mythic time, Nuzum indentifies two other types of time that humans experience: “ . . . linear time, or beginning to end historic time, where the majority of human life is passed. . . and liminal time, which human beings may journey into through separation from their community” (207).
For the most part taking place over only a few days, The Member of the Wedding primarily concerns itself with liminal time and mythic time. When the novel begins, Frankie, the protagonist, is twelve years old, and is occupying liminal time. “She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid” (McCullers 3). Being unjoined, she longs to connect to a sense of belonging. And being twelve, the belonging she is searching for is the archetypal rite of passage to adulthood.
Normally, when a child is answering the urge to adulthood, she has guides, such as friends, parents, teachers, and the corset of society. Frankie however, is truly alone in her journey. Her father is effectively absent, and her mother is dead. Her only friends are John Henry, her six year old cousin, and Berenice, the African american cook who has raised her since her mother died. Often, in coming of age stories, a character like Berenice would stand in for the adult mentor, but Berenice is portrayed as only obliquely interested in Frankie’s development. Berenice has been married four times “each one worse than the one before” (McCullers 23), and seems to be in a perpetual state of searching for rituals herself.
Frankie’s society is unavailable also. Frankie is coming of age during World War II, in the deep South. The war has begun to break down the longstanding structure of hierarchy and segregation that gave some semblance of tradition and ritual to a way of life destroyed by the Civil War and Reconstruction. Women, both black and white, are working outside the home, and some regiments of the army are desegregated. The Tuskegee airmen, a unit comprised solely of African Americans is the first to serve in a combat capacity. The war is changing things; a wisp of the Civil Rights Movement hints and the South is spinning, because its center does not hold. It is, itself, operating in liminal time.
This leaves Frankie with only her own resources to consult as she searches for the rituals that will propel her out of liminal time and into the mythic time that will support her through her rite of passage into membership into the community of adulthood.
With no external guides, only internal urge, she clings, limpet-like to the only ritual she sees in her current world—her brother’s wedding. The wedding represents to her a passage, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively in that the enactment of ritual is something her pre-pubescent self is demanding, and literally, because Frankie knows her brother and his fiancée are going away after the wedding and she expects and longs to go with them. With the idea of the wedding firmly planted in her mind, Frankie begins to create for herself the rituals she feels must accompany this passage.
Frankie begins by observing that her brother and his fiancée have the same “JA” at the beginning of their names—Jarvis and Janice. She begins to call herself F. Jasmine, so that she, too, has a JA. By naming herself, an act that ostensibly declares independence, F. Jasmine is responding to the urge to establish an identity of her own. However, because her impetus for the name change is to copy, rather than individuate, this ritual is hollow, not holding the power of mythic time.
- Jasmine’s next attempt at ritual is the ritual of courtship. She dresses in her best Sunday dress and buys some lipstick and goes into town, ending up at the bar, when she meets a soldier. He asks her to come back later, and she does, and he brings her to his room. Being naïve, Frankie does not at first know his intentions. But when he begins to force himself on her, she fights back, leaving him unconscious. Although brutal, the soldier has been her first real guide since she began her self-schooled rituals. By fighting back, and winning, she has claimed the beginnings of the power of the individual who says what they will and will not tolerate. Still in utero, this conception goes unrecognized by F. Jasmine, however, and she is not ready to let her illusory rituals go. When her brother’s wedding does take place, she acts appallingly and has to removed, like a child having a tantrum, from the event. This treatment of her as child destroys her illusions once and for all and exposes them for the hollow imitations they are. Ironically, it is the destruction of hope in her misguided rituals that propels Frankie out of liminal time and into mythic time, where true ritual resides, and where true hope can grow. “True hope is. . . rooted in the hard facts of the past and the present, but it desires to transform—not to replace nor merely rearrange, but to transform. . .” (Smedman 93). The destruction of her hollow rituals, anima like, creates the space for something new to grow. In other words, it is the birth of the adult Frances.
Throughout the story, young John Henry acts as a counterpoint to Frankie’s emerging adulthood and her uncertainty about her journey is highlighted by her relationship with John Henry. At first she lingers with him, feeling lonely for the childhood she is no longer a part of saying to Berenice: “’I just now invited John Henry to eat supper and spend the night with me.’” Berenice replies, “’I thought you were sick and tired of him.’ ‘I am sick and tired of him, ‘said Frankie. ‘But it seemed to me he looked scared.’ ‘Scared of what?’ [asks Berenice]. Frankie shook her head. ‘Maybe I mean lonesome,’ she said finally.”(McCullers 8) But later she rails, “He is a child! It is hopeless! Hopeless! Hopeless!(14). Frankie’s words speaking of her own confusion and despair.
As the symbol of the child has left behind in the journey to adulthood, John Henry must die. His death is a hard, painful one, occurring at the end of the book, underscoring Frankie’s hard painful journey. To die is itself the ultimate rite of passage, and John Henry’s death, when transposed into mythic time represents an affirmation of Frankie’s emergence into adulthood. Indeed, at the end of the book, Frankie, then F. Jasmine has now become Frances, her given name, bestowed on her at birth by her parents. By claiming it, she accepts her adult identity and her place in adult society.
And in the end, as it turns out, Frances does indeed become a member of the wedding. Discussing the ritual marriage at the end of the fairy tale, Leeming says “the prince and princess live happily ever after; they reunite the male and female principles—the Yin and the Yang. . . The ritual marriage. . . represents the mystic’s idea, the reunion of formerly deluded man with the universal and eternal reality” (237). Frances successfully navigates a marriage of herself to herself, adolescent to adult, adult to society, uniting her former deluded view with her rightful place.