Boundaries of class, race, and gender intersect in the tragic demise of an interracial woman in this early 20th century novel by Nella Larsen. Hailed as a major text of American modernism, this novel explores the permeability and subjectivity of these socially constructed distinctions.
Nella Larsen’s short novel, Passing, is set first in Chicago after the Race Riots of 1919 and later in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920's. The story follows the relationship of two women bound together by race, yet separated through societal representations. Larsen uses the opinions, thoughts, and accounts of her main character, Irene Redfield, to offer both a critique of the emerging new black bourgeois of which she was herself a member, and an exploration of the intersection of the controversies surrounding race and gender in the eyes of a nation preoccupied with defining the post-reconstruction boundaries of racial segregation at the beginning of the 20th century. This use of the third person limited narrative mode also allows Larsen to avoid stating a direct personal judgment. (Judith Butler 167) Using gaps in the narrative to express Irene's powerful conflicting emotions, Larsen draws the reader into making their own decisions about the issues she raises via the plot and dialog.
The characters in Larsen’s story each represent distinct social groups in the discourse surrounding racial segregation in America. Irene Redfield represents the emerging black bourgeois, caught between a desire for the power and advantage of whiteness while resentful of the need to conform to white cultural norms in denial of their personal and racial identities. John Bellew, the international banker, with his racist bearing, illustrates dominant white male authority. Clare Kendry, meanwhile, is the line between these two perspectives. When she passes, she becomes mysterious and flaunts the ambiguity of the racial divide by refusing to acknowledge it as a limitation. When she is exposed, first to Clare and then to Bellew, she is condemned for having taken advantage of white privilege without having paid the price of choosing a racial identity.
Throughout the novel, Clare begins spending more and more time with the Redfields without the knowledge or consent of her husband. In this way Clare puts Irene in uncomfortable positions where Irene must hide the truth in what she perceives as a sardonic twisting of loyalty to her race. "She couldn't betray Clare, couldn't even run the risk of appearing to defend a (her) people that were being maligned (by Bellew) for fear that that defense might in some infinitesimal degree lead the way to final discovery of her (Clare's) secret!" (Larsen 52)
At the same time that Irene is facing this conflict over racial divides, she is also threatened and enthralled by Clare's physical beauty and strong feminine sexuality. "Before her tired eyes, Clare Kendry was talking to Dave Freeland. ... The man hung rapt on her words, though he was the husband of Felise Freeland,.... And all because Clare had a trick of sliding down ivory lids over astonishing black eyes and then lifting them suddenly and turning on a caressing smile. Men like Dave Freeland fell for it. And Brian."(Larsen 93). Eventually she determines, without any direct evidence, that her own husband and Clare are engaged in an affair.
The stress and anxiety of this unspoken, often unarticulated conflict causes Irene to wish for Bellew to become aware of the regular visits of his wife to black Harlem. By chance, Irene later encounters Bellew on the street with a friend, Felise Freeland, who "golden, with curly black Negro hair" (Larsen 99) "queers" or exposes Irene's familiarity, and by association, Clare's, with the black community. A short time later, Bellew appears at a party that Clare and the Redfields are attending and calls Clare out on her race. The ensuing confrontation between Clare, Mr. Bellew, and Irene ends with Clare at her demise on the pavement eight floors down. At the end of the novel, the reader is left to determine whether Clare's fall is suicide or murder. Both Irene and Bellew express guilt and horror over the "accident", but the rapidly deteriorating rationality of Irene's internal discourse gives the impression that she may have resorted to violence after all.
Significance of "Passing"
In the 1920s the society that was being made and developed after the reconstruction was a separate but equal society. It was physically divided among racial lines of who the majority considered as white and black, and also placing a label on people as either superior or inferior. Who was designated as black depended on if there was any African heritage in the lineage, even if it was from a relative a couple of generations away from the person and leaving less of an imprint on their appearance.
In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of "separate but equal". This caused the lightness of skin color to be more important than what the individual had to offer. It also caused the whiteness of skin to become a much needed commodity in order to gain access to the privileges appointed white. If one was able to “pass”, they were they longer suffered the abasement that occurred because of their skin color.
Along with these laws that were being made to declare the separation of people, there was also lynching. This public display of violence by the white middle class was to instill fear in people not to break out of the standard that was being established. The standard being the separation of white and black.
These laws and violence surrounded the type of environment and society that the black middle class was developing. It added more pressure on black women at the time that their womanhood was being defined. Black women were not quite in the position of not being an "angel of the house," this was considered a role filled by a white woman, and trying to be this while holding onto their own racial identity. This is something that shows through the character of Irene. Irene constantly brings up the children as a guide for life decisions. She keeps the pressure on her husband to stay in order keep the normal family. This is directly opposite of Clare.
Larsen’s novel lets readers make the generalization that Irene and Clare are opposites of each other. Irene claims, “. . .they were strangers. Strangers in their ways and means of living. Strangers in their desires and ambitions. Strangers even in their racial consciousness.” The differences between the two characters are classified within the boundaries of class, family, and their level of commitment to race. Clare passes with the belief that marriage to a wealthy white man will gain her economic security and thus elevate her social status, giving her free access to high-class arenas. She is devoid of race consciousness, seeming indifferent and displaying neither racial self-hatred nor a great desire to be white. As Irene describes her, “. . .it wasn’t. . . that Clare cared at all about the race or what was to become of it. She didn’t. . . No, Clare Kendry cared nothing for the race. She only belonged to it.” Clare also doesn’t seem to think family is very important, or at least worth worrying about. For instance, when Irene discusses what the consequences would be for Clare’s daughter, Margery, if her husband found out she was black, Clare is startled, but then interrupts and ignores Irene. She later tells Irene, “Children aren’t everything. . . There are other things in the world. . .” Irene, on the other hand, is very family oriented, replying, “I know very well that I take being a mother rather seriously. I am wrapped up in my boys and the running of my house. I can’t help it.” Everything Irene does is either for the good of the race or for the good of her family. She is identified as the “race woman” with her contributions to the “Negro Welfare League”, and her marriage to a doctor allows her to climb the social ladder without having to sacrifice part of her identity. Although she passes from time to time (in order to have tea at the Drayton, for instance), she chooses not to permanently pass to keep her sense of security.
Safety and security in life have two different meanings for Clare and Irene. Irene finds that honesty and acceptance with who she is will keep her secured within a community that she trusts and feels safe within. Clare is quite the opposite for the reason that she lies about her background in order to find the security she is looking for. Here is where there is a definite line between the elements in which these characters feel the most uncomfortable or hidden in their surrounding community. For Clare this means going to black Harlem where she must be stealth and conceal her whereabouts from her husband. It is a very dangerous maneuver when weighing the chances of getting caught and ruining the high societal life she leads. In reversal, Irene feels most nervous when she is passing in white society. These worried thoughts are indicators that Irene feels she is putting herself into dangerous situations in which there may be embarrassment or even consequence. The male figures that are paired to the leading female characters represent a play on white and black male power. Irene’s husband can be described as the emasculated male that has the typical rankings in society as an African American male, which is almost powerless. This is supported by the concept of Irene always passing in white society only when she is without her husband. Clare is an opposite representation for the white male in white society which is all powerful and dominating. This is displayed through her accommodating everything in her life around sustaining her husband. She accepts his crude talk and feelings towards black people and makes conscious efforts to never reveal her true race.
While the text describes the two characters as “strangers,” others suggest that Irene and Clare are really mirror-like images of each other. Ann duCille claims that they are one and the same because they want to inhabit each other’s bodies. Clare functions less as Irene’s “alter ego than her alter libido, the buried, long-denied sexual self.” Whereas Clare desires to reconnect with her race, Irene remains intrigued by “this hazardous business” of passing.
Passing & Queering
Passing only exists when it fails; that is, it is only open to discourse if it is acknowledged, and in that acknowledgment the act of passing is nullified or ‘queered’. In the racially segregated 1920's Clare does not necessarily have a choice whether she passes or not, she will be ‘queered’ out of the black community because of her white heritage or ‘queered’ out of the white community because of her black heritage. While Irene is jealous of the power and prestige that Clare's passing has given her, she is not annoyed by Irene not claiming her black race, it is actually Clare's desire to reclaim her association with the black community that causes Irene to become conflicted.
"She (Irene) groaned inwardly as she thought of the endless explanations in which it would involve her, of the curiosity, and the talk, and the lifted eyebrows. It wasn't she assured herself, that she was a snob, that she cared greatly for the petty restrictions and distinctions with which what called itself Negro society chose to hedge itself about; but that she had a natural and deeply rooted aversion to the kind of front-page notoriety that Clare Kendry's presence in Idlewild as her guest, would expose her to." (Larsen 23-24)
From a "Foucaultian" perspective, this and many other passages illustrate how Irene’s concern for the public discourse around the racially ambiguous Clare causes her to want to exclude Clare from her family and her life.
Larsen is, however, offering a positive response to Foucault’s questions surrounding sexuality and power. By passing Clare denies the need to conform and affirms her right to do so on the basis of her own strength and resourcefulness as an individual. At the same time she exploits her beauty and feminine charms to trump the consideration of race. Clare is not denying her race as good the way it is, she is denying the need for her race to exist on the terms of its relationship to whiteness and affirming its ability to create its own definitions.
Clare is unable to bring about her hearts desire, to "have her cake and eat it too" (Larsen 51), because she is stopped by Irene who gains the basis for her power and status in society on her assumption of white cultural norms, including segregation, as an acceptable part of black culture. Once Clare is discovered in public as having subverted racial norms, neither Irene nor Bellew can accept her continued existence because it calls into question the basis of their respective powers, which is the unfounded idea that there are two separate, distinguishable groups - "black" and "white".
Hazel Carby. "Woman's Era" and "The Quicksands of Representation: Rethinking Black Cultural Politics." Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. 3-19,163-176.
Judith Butler. “Passing, Queering: Nella Larson’s Psychoanalytic Challenge.” Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.
Ann duCille. “Blues Notes on Black Sexuality: Sex and the Texts of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larson.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3.3 (1993): 418-444.
Evelynn Hammonds. “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence.” Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. Ed. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. New York: Routledge, 1997. 170-182.
Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 18.