It’s Complicated: Identity In Nella Larsen’s Passing

After watching the film Lost Boundaries about a black doctor and his family passing in New England, I picked up Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), with no expectations other than to learn more about passing.   I hadn’t heard of Larsen before, hadn’t received any recommendations, and had been badly burnt earlier this year by one of those melodramatic potboilers so popular during the early twentieth century.

I found Larsen’s book to be a treasure. It’s a multi-layered exploration of racial identity as inflected by class, gender, and sexuality.

Irene Redfield encounters an old acquaintance, Clare Kendry, at the Drayton Hotel in Chicago.  Both women are passing, Irene for convenience and Clare because she lives permanently as white. Clare informs Irene that after Clare’s father died, her white aunts gave her a roof over her head but treated her as a servant, periodically hurling at Clare their Biblical judgments about the “curse of Ham.”  Determined to escape this misery and obtain wealth and status, Clare runs off with Jack Bellew, a wealthy white man.   But Clare does not disclose her black heritage to Jack.  Following her encounter with Clare, Irene and another light-skinned black woman, Gertrude, who has been open about her heritage with her white husband, take tea at Irene’s house.  Jack turns up while the women are visiting, and he turns out to be the vilest of racists.  He calls his wife “Nig” because of her darker skin tone.  He disparages blacks as “scrimy devils,” and insists that there are no black people in his family. To avoid detection by her husband, Clare does not hire black servants and refrains from having a second child who might be born dark-skinned.

Shocked by this episode and trying to justify her silence during Jack’s tirade, Irene is determined never to see Clare again. But when Irene returns to Harlem and Clare later moves to New York, Clare, claiming to be lonely for the life she discarded, “all the time seeing the bright pictures of that other that I once thought I was glad to be free of,” forces herself into Irene’s life.  Larsen creates a tug.  Irene is simultaneously attracted to the beautiful Clare, at times enthralled by “a fascination, strange and compelling” but is equally repelled by Clare’s decision to marry a racist and by the danger presented by Jack’s potential discovery of Clare’s background.  For Irene, safety is paramount. Irene’s definition of security centers upon middle-class respectability.  Her days are filled with the activities enjoyed by all ladies who lunch: shopping, raising money for charity (in Irene’s case for the “uplift” of blacks moving North), attending parties, and of course lunch and tea. She spends time vacationing at a black resort, dreams of a European private school for her son, and expends a good chunk of her day dressing and coiffing her hair.  Irene’s so conscious of image that she can stop her tears from falling because “weeping did not become her.” She has black servants, whom she regards with as much warmth as the furniture and dismisses Gertrude’s husband as a butcher. Irene’s status is tied to her marriage to Brian, a physician, whom she’s linked herself to in a loveless marriage. In fact, for Irene as well as Clare, strategic marriages are the only route to a better life.  Brian’s own response to racism—to move to Brazil, where he insists racism will not be an issue—frightens Irene and she plots to distract him.  She demands that Brian stop instructing their children about racism in America and, like any respectable bourgeois matron, insists that Brian stop their older son from talking about sex.

The tug and rivalry between Irene and Clare is magnified by the ambiguity that Larsen deftly injects into the novel.  These are complex women.  The novel is written in third person from Irene’s perspective, and Irene is not a reliable narrator.  Is Clare genuinely lonesome for her roots, does she thrive on danger or is she simply predatory, “catlike” as Irene describes her and able to “secure the thing she wanted in the face of any opposition,” a woman with a “having” nature? Is Clare instead like the white hanger-ons who venture to Harlem to listen to jazz and to dance at parties, drawn, in Irene’s view, by “emotional excitement…the sort of thing you feel in the presence of something strange, and even, perhaps, a bit repugnant to you; something so different that it’s really at the opposite end of the pole from all your accustomed notions of beauty.”  Why does Irene protect Clare’s secret, out of allegiance to  the race as she tells herself or out of self-interest?  Irene notes the ambivalent attitude toward passing in her community: “We disapprove of it but at the same time condone it.  It excites our contempt but we rather admire it.  We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.” Is Clare jealous of Irene and out to grab everything that Irene has, including Brian, or has Irene’s fixation on security caused her to unravel?  And what causes Clare to fall from a window at the end of the novel?

I haven’t stop thinking about this book since I finished it two weeks ago.  The richness of the characterization and the uncertainty of motives, perceptions, and events make for a thought-provoking read.   It’s a great reminder that identity is multi-faceted.  And it’s a great reminder that all actions are complicated.

While the practice of passing does not deserve a second chance, Nella Larsen’s Passing does.  Larsen herself was a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of black culture during the 1920’s.  She was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.  However, a divorce followed by unproven charges of plagiarism aimed at one of her short stories pushed Larsen away from writing.  She returned to nursing, her earlier occupation, drifted away from cultural circles and Harlem, and died alone.

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