Essay on Passing by Nella Larsen


Passing; Life and Death as the Other Race

Early reviewers of Nella Larsen’s Passing focused on Clare as the protagonist. Readers reacted to her passing as white and her innate desire to return to her roots and the problems that came with it. Contemporary critics such as Mary Mabel Youman focus on Irene as the protagonist and her racial passing. They see her as a character who is living and behaving in an anti-black way. The change in opinion is because our society’s view of race has evolved over time, but this alone does not explain the shift. It is the desire to draw a conclusion and figure out who was passing. “Passing” is a well written haunting psychological tale which describes the internal and external battles faced by both Irene and Clare in their struggle to promote and protect their own race and survive in society at large.

In this novella Larsen uses Irene Kendry -a black woman who passes through society’s color lines as white- as the lens to show the childhood, adulthood, death (or change) of her characters. Larson dedicates the book to two beloved white friends shows them and other readers the circumstances of life that are presented to women who are Negro but able to pass as white. This may point to her motivation for writing her story as an explanation to all about what it is like to live in both worlds.

Young, Irene Redfield witnesses Clare Kendry,-a girl of her own race who later rises up in status by passing completely as white-, being abused by her father. Later in life, Irene hears that Clare has disappeared from Negro social circles and only re-appears in spurts becoming a topic of negative gossip. She had been seen with, “white folks” this was reduced to, “she must be working for them,” or her presence was denied, “it may not be her”. Coming from the same neighborhood and background, Irene wanted what Clare had, success, carefree, wildness, but not at the price of social gossip.

While society was putting down Clare Kendry, Irene envied her. She wanted Clare’s mysterious upper class life that ensured security and happiness. Irene solved this by entering a loveless marriage to Brian, a Negro surgeon. Irene as his wife embraces the white domestic ideology and acts accordingly in her new society role. She hosts tea parties; she doesn’t speak to her Negro servants. And though she participates in The Negro Welfare League but the negro problems are not hers.

In her world there is no lynching or “nigger” problem to be discussed at the family dinner table. When her son is having ‘queer” problems in school Irene resolves to have him change schools. She will not hear of her husband moving to Brazil because there is nothing wrong in her Harlem. She is content repressing her entire family to ensure that not a word of bad could be said about her. In her mind she had not abandoned her people as she tells Clare, “Why should I?” (20). She sees the external white world as something to gravitate to, the right, and if she can mimic their lives she will.

From the beginning of the story we know that Irene is judgmental. She has heard others being judged and in fear of becoming a topic of negative gossip she controls herself and her family to avoid it. She laughs at the world around her, as she “passes” through it. As a white woman she is practically lifted into a cab, allowed at the top floor of the Drayton where she looks at the people below, “thinking how silly they looked” (9). She laughs hysterically at Clare’s openly racist husband. She is both uncomfortable that he is attacking her race, but the laugh is of power and control. To her in that moment he is an ignorant rich white man. She is later brought to tears when she remembers Clare’s face in the moment, “she tried a tiny laugh and was annoyed to find that it was close to tears”(33) a fit of hysteria.

Her husband Brian wants to relocate to Brazil where race lines are more blurred. Irene must, “check” him because to her Brazil is wild, unknown, and unknown she can’t control. She actively turns a blind eye to the happiness of her own family. Her own happiness is even pushed under the rug. Even when faced with the possibility that Brian was sleeping with Clare, she held him to his duty as husband and father; the outwardly appearance of her marriage had to remain solid. She doesn’t want to do anything that could get her talked about negatively. Irene does everything in her power to live up to the standards of upper class white America. He would rather go wild in Brazil but she refuses to let her carefully built life crumble or change. She realizes through Clare that she is unhappy, that she didn’t really love her husband, but still she didn’t like change.

Abandoning Irene’s thoughts and only seeing and hearing what Clare does and says we can tell that she has always envied Irene. The wanting that drives her to reach for the upper-class by abandoning her people is motive to have what Irene had. They are of the same race, but the choice that she has made has left her a bit lonely and broken. Motivated by protection from the problems with race, Clare puts her daughter in boarding school and then she escapes the haunting words of her racist husband and her lie of a home by meeting with other men.

Clare was raised in a home where she was physically abused by her father, and then treated like a slave by her poor white “Christian” Aunts. If her skin hid it, her aunts made sure that she knew she was a Negro. Her Aunts forbade her to talk about the colored friends she envied and suppressed her desires to be with her own kind. She told Irene, “You had all the things I wanted and never had” (19), the material things her poor racist aunts refused her. At 16 and unaware of the world, she knew she liked having and that she “…wasn’t bad looking…” and that she “…could pass” (19) for white in order to get them. Clare so easily gains her material wealth in her marriage to a white man she wonders why women like her don’t pass to get it too. Larson shows through Clare is that the years of repression lingers, and for Clare is brought to the surface when Irene tells Clare in their reunion, “I’ve everything I want” (20).  The desperate letters to Irene, “Rene” her childhood friend confess a need to reconnect. The cheating she does with other men is done from a need to feel fulfilled by connecting with her roots.

Externally, Clare’s genes allowed her to pass in society as a white woman. She married a wealthy white (racist) man where she is once again repressed from her colored roots. She has a daughter who is away at boarding school, just like any other upper class white family. Like Irene she fills her free time of the domestic ideology of white women of her class; in her case shopping. She feeds her repressed wild side by taking adventures with men other than her husband. In her blind selfishness, she risks exposing her racial identity by taking every opportunity to leave Chicago and visit her people and Irene in Harlem.

In Irene’s eyes Clare is too beautiful, too desirable and with too suggestive a smile. She is unrestrained, wild. On the other hand Irene accepts her. They share a commonality in society, they share a common background. Though it would do her no harm to shut the door in Clare’s face, Irene doesn’t shun Clare when she intrudes on her family and social events. Clare’s visits prove to Irene how right she was to marry the man she did, to raise her kids the way she did. But Irene was eventually forced to look beyond Clare’s beauty and saw that her visits and her brave abandon posed a threat to Irene’s well constructed life and both of their marriages as she appears to be seducing Brian. Clare then becomes the woman that has to go.

Even though Clare poses a risk to Irene’s domestic life she decides she can’t have Clare free; divorced. She does not want her to be subjected to the scrutiny of a trial which would, by extension, affect Clare’s daughter. Larson hints at the Rhinelander case, a well known trial which would be fated to Clare. In mentioning the trial Larson reminds her readers of the, “ridiculous means” white people use to discover blackness, “palms of hands, shapes of ears…” (11)  and how a married women’s life can be destroyed even if only assumed to be passing. On a more personal note Irene doesn’t want her own husband Brian to become one of Clare’s men. She couldn’t handle the changes that would come if Brian left her for an available Clare. Irene had worked too hard to get to her place in society and didn’t want it blown apart because of Clare’s risky, recluse desires.

At the window, driven by this ferocious need to protect her own life and Clare’s, Irene, “laid a hand on Clare’s bare arm” to speak for her, to defend her to Bellew; to do whatever it took to protect Clare and herself, “She had to Clare Kendry a duty. She was bound to her by those very ties of race”(36).  Both women knew the “…inner disturbance…” the “…odious and hateful feeling…”(10), that happens once they are discovered. They are not ashamed of being Negro, but can’t understand being forbidden from an establishment or classes or people or be judged and juried based on a race that society so often has let them pass through otherwise seamlessly.

Clare enjoys her escapes to Harlem. Her life seems more complete. She is close as she can be to having the life Irene has. In Harlem she mixes with people of all classes and races; Brian, Irene and their servants and friends. Her daughter is the only thing left keeping her from exposing her true race to her husband, not security or wealth, or class as Irene would like to believe. Living with her racist white husband, left her desperate to be with her own kind. That desperation to connect is noted in her letters to Irene. The joy she feels in her escapes is threatened when her husband arrives at the party. She is the character that shows the reader that surviving entirely in both worlds is impossible.

What Larson successfully does through Irene’s life and Clare’s death is show that there remains no clear place for a race that is mixed with the upper most class of society and the lowest. Larson shows that they can maneuver through both races and must deal with racism on multiple ends. “Passing” is not a description of one character; it is enlightening Larson’s readers on the lives of two women who are able to do so. It shows, how they live, how they see the world, and the internal and external conflicts that ensue when they are confronted with racism.  The problems that arise for these two women would not exist if race lines were blurred as in Brazil. The repressions, suppressions, manipulations and life choices both women deal with as their personal desires are set against multiple standards.

Clearly the story is about both woman and their struggle with racism; not one or the other. Most readers assume that Irene pushed Clare or that Larson simply ran out of story and made her jump. I offer this conclusion-the depth of race solidarity. Given the struggles these women face to survival in a racist society, the mention of the Rhinelander case, and Clare’s daughter.  It is more likely that it is Irene’s race loyalty that drives her to save the confronted Clare. The socially doomed Clare, the Clare who has been trying to re-connect with her people, the Clare whose daughter survives by her deceived white fathers’ pretty penny, is empowered by the touch of her own kind and she jumps.

Larson has attempted to make people look beyond the black and white pages and walk the life of these women’s lives. Irene’s need to elevate her race has her shunning parts of it; the conversations she avoids as well as her Negro staff. Her families’ happiness and her own real happiness she comes to find are an illusion. Clare’s life of lies, trying to escape a racist husband, protecting a daughter and the (implied) affairs she had in order to be accepted as Clare; not as a Negro passing. Clare jumps to unburden herself from the nonsensical race game that she has grown tired of playing. In doing so, she unselfishly saves her daughter from abuse and from the kind of life she (and Irene) could not escape; the life that comes to whites who have,“…Negro eyes” (20).

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