Passing by Nella Larsen (first published 1929) captures the conflicts that young African-American women face in 1920s America. Although solidly a part of the Harlem Renaissance in the ways it tackles racial issues, Passing also magnificently captures a young woman’s repressed sexuality.
The terms “passing” refers to a light-skinned African-American acting as white in order to gain the social opportunities otherwise denied them. Larsen describes three young light-skinned women who occasionally “pass” in 1920s society. The first is Irene, who married a black man and passes only when she’s away from family, such as when she wants to stop in a restaurant or hotel otherwise denied her. Clare, on the other hand, is the other extreme: she has married a racist white man and lives exclusively as a white woman. Gertrude remains in between the two cultures: she has married a white man, but he knows of her black heritage and accepts it.
The beginning of the novel focuses on these different ways of straddling the two cultures. Although it seems that to some extent Larsen does not either condone or condemn any of the women in their life choices, she does focus on Irene’s perspective as she sees the other women straddling the two cultures. Although Irene has passed occasionally her entire life, she seems to be seeing the concept of “passing” in a new light when she realizes that Clare has abandoned her black heritage. Irene sees the blending of the cultures as “dangerous” and the concept frighten her; she determines to avoid Clare in the future.
Maybe this is my own sheltered ignorance of the world, but I think it says something about the progress of society that it seems the need to “pass” has receded. Places do not deny entrance on the basis of race, and mixed racial marriages are, at least in my experience, not an issue to hide, as Clare hid her heritage from her husband. The world Larsen describes seems foreign, but since I’m white myself, I may be wrong in this: I’d be interested in others’ perspective on this novel and its applicability today.
The second half of the novel shifts in focus. When Amanda shared her thoughts on the novel, she indicated that the second half frustrated her since it seemed to lose focus: “There was just a certain amount of disjointedness in the flow, and I felt the end message was far different from what the beginning of the book said it would be” (read her review). I can understand not liking the second half of the novel for those reasons.
But I liked the shift in the novel. Instead of focusing on Irene’s frustrating with Clare’s “passing,” the later part of the novel focuses on Irene’s frustration with her repressed sexual life, and this part of the novel is what made the novel a classic for me, for Irene’s repressed sexuality is a parallel to her conflicted racial identity. The novel of a whole shows that Larsen was not just addressing race: she was addressing what it means to be a woman, to be repressed sexually and not just racially. This is not just a novel about race.
*The next few paragraphs have spoilers.*
Larsen makes it clear that Irene and her husband are not sexual happy. “If sex isn’t a joke, what is it?” says her husband Brian, after Irene has asked him to lecture her boys on not making inappropriate jokes (page 59). Irene sleeps in a separate bedroom from her husband, and they obviously don’t communicate well. The reappearance of the dazzling Clare brings Irene’s sexual inadequacy to the forefront, much as Clare’s racial confidence had brought Irene’s feelings of racial inadequacy to the forefront in the first half of the novel. Brian’s lengthy night absences are no mystery to the reader (we know an affair is well underway), but much as Irene couldn’t come to accept Clare’s racial self-assignment, she now seems blind to Clare’s sexual promiscuity with her own husband.
Because I’d read some criticism of the novel last year while preparing for the Classics Circuit, I knew the ending (the Window) before I got there. When I did get there, I thought it brilliant. Yes, it is odd and sudden. It is mysterious. What really happened? I don’t know that it matters. What I found fascinating was Irene’s response to it, and that is, I think, Larsen’s purpose. Irene was relieved. No longer would she feel sexually or racial insufficient, for it was the ever-confident Clare that had given rise to Irene’s personal racial and sexual dilemmas.
Some commentary I read claimed that Irene was denying her homosexual love for Clare, but I didn’t read her in that way. I saw her as a woman who lived a repressed life because of her race and because of her poor sex life. (Am I wrong to suspect that many 1920s women may have been sexually repressed?!) The effervescent Clare, who had crossed over into the free “white” culture, threatened Irene’s personal status quo by putting her in awkward situations (such as the meeting with Clare’s racist husband and Clare’s affair with Brian). On Clare’s sudden demise, Irene’s relief is potent, for she can return to being satisfied as things were: there is no more reason for her to step outside of herself.
*end spoiler section*
Immediately after finishing the novel, I became quite excited to write my thoughts and explore some of the issues that Larsen wrote about. This is why I love having a book blog so I can do just that! It’s been a few days now, and some of that initial focus has been lost. I can’t completely recall just what fascinated me when I finished this book on Sunday night; this post is not doing a great job of capturing the novel.
Passing has been on my “to read” list since the Harlem Renaissance Classics Circuit Tour last February. I’m glad I finally got to it!
If you’ve read this novel, what did you think it was about? Did the shift in tone bother you?