In Passing, Nella Larsen has composed a novel that simultaneously engages several levels of the human experience and, through insightful psychological portraiture, illuminates the often subtle and complex passions roiling about a society whose dilemmas are compounded by racism. She brings about consideration of challenging issues through her penetrating treatment of characters whose emotional dilemmas are highlighted by an intricate series of personal interrelationships.
One valid critical approach is to insist that the major theme in Passing is not race at all, but marriage and security. Although Irene Redfield is not passing as white, she is passing as an upper-middle-class American with full access to the opportunities and privileges of any wealthy citizen. Feeling safe and secure, she is even waited on by black servants. Indeed, though Irene does not deny her negritude—as Clare does—she is still, in a sense, passing, all the while trying to ignore her husband’s dissatisfaction with life in the United States for a black family. Although Irene Redfield is active in the Negro Welfare League (NWL), she remains apart from her struggling brothers and sisters in the ghetto and in no way wishes to endanger her safety. Irene enjoys material comfort; she will not risk starting a new life in Brazil, although her refusal means sacrificing her husband’s happiness.
Thus it is that Irene subconsciously appreciates—though she does not outwardly condone—her friend Clare Kendry’s passing, for Kendry, aggressive and impetuous, has taken a risk that has brought her complete access to the upper-middle-class American Dream. From this vantage point, Irene’s psychological reaction becomes clear: Her ambivalent attraction toward and repulsion from Clare stems from what she perceives as shortcomings within herself; namely, her inability to take risks, rationalized in the need for safety and security, and her own distancing from less-fortunate black people in Harlem’s ghetto. With the dangerous Clare hovering about her secure home, Irene is unable to eliminate her friend’s presence even though she begins to live in fear that this “mysterious stranger” will take away her husband and destroy the safety that is her life. It is no wonder, too, that subconsciously Irene wants Clare to disappear, to vanish, to die. Although there is no evidence of an affair between Clare and Dr. Redfield, Irene has become emotionally distraught at the possibility, a turbulent package of nerves fixated...
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Nella Larsen’s Passing destabilizes the traditional conception of ethnic, racial, and gender integrity, revolutionizing the very idea of an accepted definition of identity. By developing unstable characters, Larsen conveys how easy it is to lose one’s sense of self. Clare Kendry, who breaks the tragic mulatto stereotype, never has the chance to align to a particular race because of her untimely death, while Irene Redfield, who becomes obsessed with and jealous of Clare, single-handedly destroys her own sense of self by committing psychological suicide. Nella Larsen herself wrestles with identity, as she was raised in an all-white household after her father, a black West Indian, disappeared from her life; her own struggle identifying with other people leads to a modernist expression of delusion, uncertainty and ambiguity in her novellas. While overtly discussing racial passing, the novella also covertly analyzes gender passing, or a person’s ability to reify society’s expectations of a certain gender through physical and behavioral cues. Irene’s relationship with Clare is based on desire, jealousy, and obsession, and she develops an infatuation for her that combats societal expectations. In addition, Larsen attempts to pass not only her characters, but herself as a novelist and her novel as a fiction. By exposing the convention of the mulatto as unsympathetic instead of tragic, Larsen ironically captures her readers. She tries to “pass” her novel by writing about something she thinks they will want to read, but destroys their expectations by shattering the mulatto stereotype and concentrating more on gender passing, eventually exposing presupposed identity for what it is: malleable, even nonexistent. Both Clare and Irene fail in trying to pinpoint their identities, and by offering nothing but ambiguity in the point of view and the final scene of the novella, Larsen presents identity itself as ambiguous, transient, and never fully identifiable.
In order to successfully destabilize the determinacy of identity, we must first define identity, and then understand how that definition does and does not work in an analysis of Passing. A person with identity possesses a sense of self, or a sense of belonging within a certain culture or people, and a personality that rarely changes. Identity, therefore, is the condition of being oneself, and not someone else. The women in Passing do not adhere to the above characteristics. They remain detached and isolated from their race and gender, even though they try desperately to sustain identities appointed to them by society. Clare, by overtly passing from black to white across the color line, attempts to remain white when in her husband’s company, and Irene, by covertly passing from heterosexuality to homosexuality, attempts to remain straight when in superior Clare’s company. Both, eventually, fail; Clare falls to her death, and Irene destroys the one person she desires most. Thus, Larsen shows that passing, while useful to some in order to gain momentary coherence, ultimately restricts a person’s individuality to the extent of death, or psychological suicide.
The following paragraphs examine Clare and Irene separately, analyzing the way they view each other as carriers of racial and gender identity, and how Larsen deconstructs those through ambiguous writing or plot devices. Clare fulfills the “tragic mulatto” criteria for a story well received in the Harlem Renaissance, but flouts the convention satirically. The tragic mulatto refers to someone of both black and white descent who passes as white in present society, and experiences some sort of tragic longing for the culture they left behind. Thus, the tragic mulatto perpetuates the idea that someone born of mixed races lives in a persistent state of confused self-identity, and that the only freedom from this confusion is death. Clare perpetuates but simultaneously deconstructs this stereotype, as she “does not seem to be seeking out Blacks in order to regain a sense of racial pride… She is merely looking for excitement” (Tate 142). Therefore, she is an exception to the case. Clare Kendry is not a “tragic” mulatto; she is an unsympathetic mulatto. Even though Clare’s fate is predictable, as most stories about tragic mulattos end in death, everything else about her is not. Her only motive for passing is to obtain money and social worth, which she achieves by marrying a prestigious yet racist John Bellew. Clare is an outsider to her race, but expresses no fear or grief upon deserting that identity. When she finally does express those feelings, she merely professes a vague yearning for her “own people” (Larsen 35). She is an enigmatic, selfish character, as evidenced when she says “’Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really ‘Rene, I’m not safe’” (Larsen 58). Clare represents a dramatized version of the other women in the novella; like them, she depends on her husband for class stature, desires material possession, security, and identity. But the strain of keeping up appearances is too much, and her untimely and often criticized death in the end of the novella, analyzed later in this essay, shows how Larsen spins the problem of the tragic mulatto to encompass the problem of identity. By expressing the mulatto as dangerous instead of tragic, Larsen flouts the identity most associated with the mulatto, showing that trying to identify identity is not only futile, but fatal.
Irene’s identity is closely related to her relationships with others, as she has a proclivity for comparing herself to others as a means of bolstering her sense of worth. She considers herself high-ranking in society because of her marriage to a prominent doctor, and thus judges other women by their husbands, as well. “Gertrude, Irene thought, looked as if her husband might be a butcher,” (Larsen 25) Irene speculates, and from there dismisses the passionate Gertrude’s assertions of racial identity as superficial. However, when comparing herself to Clare, Irene falls short; Irene’s husband may not be racist, but he certainly cannot provide the luxury and security that Bellew can. Thus, Clare “felt dowdy and commonplace” (Larsen 53) compared to her. As a result of her insecurity, Irene becomes paranoid, constructing a situation wherein her husband is cheating on her with Clare; thus, her psychological paranoia takes over her once calculated actions.
Irene’s insecurities are a result of her confused sexuality and her proclivity for comparisons, and not a result of racial confusion. Although she states that she is “bound to [Clare] by those very ties of race… that Clare had been unable to completely sever” (Larsen 36), Irene’s loyalty to race is merely a veil, hiding the intense homosexual feelings she has for Clare. Eventually, in trying to reject and renounce these feelings, Irene commits psychological suicide. The passage below exemplifies how Irene’s sense of desire for Clare dictates her psychology, and eventually leads to her demise.
“She remembered her own little choked exclamation of admiration, when, on coming downstairs a few minutes later than she had intended, she… had found Clare there. Clare, exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting, in a stately gown of shining black taffeta, whose long, full skirt lay in graceful folds about her slim golden feet; her glistening hair drawn smoothly back into a small twist at the nape of her neck; her eyes sparkling like dark jewels” (Larsen 53).
Irene, initially surprised by her reaction to Clare’s gorgeous appearance, “chokes back” all the words she might have said, just as she chokes on her feelings. Larsen supplies what words she might have said in the description that follows, containing adjectives of veneration such as: “golden,” “exquisite,” fragrant,” “graceful,” “glistening.” The constant alliteration of the “g” sound makes Clare sound like gliding chimera, a hallucination too gorgeous to be real. Irene even idolizes Clare in this passage, Clare who is “golden” like a sculpture, an idol. The description above furthers the claim that Irene considers Clare as a superior of her and other ordinary people, and serves to romanticize and hyperbolize Clare’s own exoticism. Irene most often comments on Clare’s eyes, those “dark jewels,” because they cannot pass; they are more exotic than any other physical aspect of Clare. In those eyes, Irene sees her own insecurities, her own vulnerability, reflected back at her. Eyes, however, aren’t normally physical aspects characteristic of blacks, and thus Irene’s obsession with them advocates her own homosexuality. At this moment, too, Irene notices Brian in Clare’s proximity, and immediately becomes suspicious because she herself realizes Clare’s attraction. Irene “chokes back” her feelings towards Clare in order to remain as inconspicuous and commonplace as society has her to be, when she should be embracing them in order to remain sane. Thus, her own uncertainty about her gender-specific feelings toward Clare lead to her acute paranoia, which eventually manifests itself enough that she decides that she must be “rid forever of Clare” (Larsen 69).
Larsen’s own novel, as well as her characters, attempts to pass. In the novella, Larsen portrays race as a deciding factor in identity diagnosis. Racial passing connotes the transition of a member of the black community into the white community. Not surprisingly, this form of identity classification was popular in the 1920s. In fact, the story between Clare Kendry and her husband John Bellew in Passing closely mirrors the case of mulatto Alice Jones and white Leonard Rhinelander in 1924. In this case, Rhinelander accused Jones of falsely identifying herself as white, deceiving and taking advantage of his “mistaked belief that she was white” (Kennedy 4). Nella Larsen knew that her novel, therefore, responded to the times by addressing the tragic mulatto story, but that it differed largely from other stories by addressing something other novelists had rarely touched upon: gender passing and homosexuality. While the golden, extravagant Clare, as the embodiment of the tragic mulatto, attempts to pass as white and straight, security-loving Irene attempts to pass as sane and straight. Both are unsuccessful: Clare dies moments after her husband learns her secret, and Irene spirals to jealousy and paranoia, and that is how Larsen shows the impossibility of defining identity.
Larsen’s own struggle for identity is exemplified in Passing, as she identifies herself as a novelist instead of as a member to any particular race. In a letter to Dorothy Peterson, she writes “I’ve been trying to get my book finished before giving up” (Kaplan 164), and in one of her many letters to Carl Van Vechten she remarks “What things there are to write, if one can only write them” (Kaplan 158). In the same letter, she refers to the many things to write about, “all presented in an intensely restrained… manner, and underneath the ironic survival of a much more primitive mood” (Kaplan 158). Here, she refers to Passing, a much restrained, even “choked-back” novella supposedly addressing race, but also secretly addressing primitive homosexual desire. She praises Langston Hughes, saying he “made middle class negroes interesting” (Kaplan 168). The way she addresses “middle class negroes” is detached, showing how isolated she is from her race. In order to understand clearly how Larsen, like her characters and her novels, tries to pass, not as a heterosexual or as a member of a race but as a successful novelist, we will first delve into her vague history, and then discern how the ambiguity in the end of the novel is a manifestation of modernity, a lamentation of fragmentation, and a mourning of the vagueness of the word “identity.”
By choosing to portray the black woman as an outsider in Passing, Nella Larsen conveys a dilemma with which many readers could identify. Larsen’s mother was white, her father was black, and for a while she did not know where she belonged. Her mother, soon widowed, remarried to “her own kind,” wherein Larsen’s “blackness was an embarrassment” (Washington 351). After living at home, Larsen became devoted to studying the rift between black and white. She studied at Fisk University, then at University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and then at Lincoln Training School for Nurses. She finally settled for eight years at Tuskegee Institute, where she worked as a nurse and a librarian. Nella Larsen was recognized in 1930 by winning a Guggenheim, a creative writing award, and then traveled to Spain to write a third novel. However, she never finished, and instead entered a “30-year silence” (Washington 352) until her death in 1963. Larsen arguably never solved the problem of ambiguity about how to define herself. “A deep-seated ambivalence about her racial status combined to reinforce her sense of herself as the Outsider and may finally have pushed her into a life of obscurity” (Washington 353). Like her characters, she struggles with identification and finally veers towards self-destruction, if not towards her body, then towards her self-professed identity as a novelist. Her problems of duality are most clearly depicted in Passing, and by creating characters who are detached from the black community, she mirrors herself. In Passing, Clare Kendry takes a risk, living without the comforts of her race and rebelling against the white-dominated, male-dominated society. But Larsen shows that passing is a ridiculous means of salvation for woman, and this is most clear when Clare either falls or is pushed from the window, falling to her death, just as Larsen is pushed into obscurity. It was even difficult for biographers to find her obituary. The exact specifics behind both Clare’s and Irene’s death are uncertain, but the end of the novel is abundant “with images of numbness, suffocation, blunted perceptions, loss of consciousness and invisibility” (Washington 355). Larsen, , living detached from any racial or cultural identity just like her characters, predicts her own obscurity. In the ending of Passing, one can see that she laments the society that allows for such a complete destruction of The Outsider.
In the end of the novella, Clare Kendry, when her racist husband John Bellew confronts her about being black, backs into a window. Irene, confused by conflicting instincts to protect one of her race and to be “rid forever of Clare” (Larsen 69), holds on to her arm. The ending’s ambiguity begins here. Although Irene grips her arm, Clare suddenly falls to her death, and Irene refuses to remember the moment with any sort of clarity. “One moment Clare had been there, a vital glowing thing, like a flame of red and gold. The next she was gone” (Larsen 79). Irene’s paranoia resurfaces for a moment, as she wonders if people will think she pushed Clare, but she finally succumbs to body-wracking sobs, completely overtaken by her simultaneous love and hatred for Clare, who impressed and aroused her like no one else. Irene, in refusing to remember the facts clearly, commits psychological suicide. Although many would argue that she did commit verifiable homicide, and is responsible for the death of Clare Kendry, readers should in fact embrace the ambiguity in this ending. Obviously, Larsen intends for no right or wrong answer, for one should not find the answer to all their questions in this novella. Its ambiguity directly reflects the ambiguity of Larsen’s own life, and her thoughts that identifying identity is impossible. Clare, a creature so revered and yet so unreal, embodies something that cannot exist in the story frame: certainty. For by the end of the novel, Clare knows who she is and to where she would like to return, and once she makes that decision, she is doomed. Larsen portrays the impossibility of identifying identity, but also allows for multiple perspectives (did Clare commit suicide, or did Irene commit homicide?) and uses her characters to represent more than cardboard cut-out representations of women of color. By showing the hopelessness of identifying identity as a fixed landscape (for when Clare decides who she is, she dies, and Irene lives only in murky psychological memories), emphasizing subjectivity in Irene’s narrative, and underscoring fragmentation in the plot, Nella Larsen’s Passing works as a modernist fiction.
Larsen’s own ambiguous, obscure life is reflected in Passing through her characters, her plot devices, and the fiction medium itself. Her own confusion about racial or gender passing, her aspiration to pass as a novelist, and her endeavor to pass her fiction from obscurity into popularity directly affects the plot and characters in Passing. Ultimately, as both characters veer towards destruction, Larsen deconstructs the very idea of identity. Passing, therefore, is a modernist commentary on the fleetingness of gender and racial identity.
Kennedy, Randall. “Racial Passing.” Ohio State Law Journal. 62.3 (2001): 1-28. Print.
Tate, Claudia. “Nella Larsen’s Passing: A Problem of Interpretation.” Black American Literature Forum. 14.4 (Winter, 1980): 142 – 146. Print.
Wall, Cheryl A. “Passing for what? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen’s Novels.” Black American Literature Forum. 20.1/2 (Spring-Summer, 1986): 97-111. Print.
Washington, Mary Helen. “Nella Larsen: Mystery Woman of the Harlem Renaissance.” Ms. Magazine (December 1980): 44-50. Print.