Passing by Nella Larsen

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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?

Reviewed on February 10, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Great post, Rebecca!

    I didn’t actually perceive there to be a shift in focus at all between the first and second halves of the novel. For me, the focus from the beginning was intermingled between race and sexuality (which I think, for Irene and others writing about light-skinned blacks, are inextricably linked – their light skin itself points to the taboo subject of sexual mingling between whites and blacks). That first scene, when Irene meditates on the allure of Clare’s intermingled white and Negro characteristics, united in one body – it ties in perfectly with the scene at the end when she laments the loss of “that disturbing scarlet mouth,” “the whole torturing loveliness” of Clare. Obviously, I am one of the ones who read it as a repressed lesbian attraction, at least on Irene’s part, but I think both readings can coexist pretty easily—and actually, the whole theme of repression is so multi-faceted here, what with Irene pressuring Brian throughout their married life to repress his dreams of moving to South America, etc.

  • I think you did a good job of capturing the issues! I knew about the racial stuff, but I was less aware of the sexual repression stuff, and both sound fascinating. I’m glad to know there’s even more to this book than the already intriguing racial stuff.

  • I haven’t read this book, so I can’t comment on the situations therein. But I did enjoy reading your thoughtful review.

    As to whether “passing” has diminished in our society today, I think it takes different forms now. Sure, we don’t have light-skinned individuals taking on a white identity (as far as I know), but we still have situations where people are said to be “acting white” or “acting ghetto” or slang terms like “coconut” to describe a person of dark skin who is said to be “white on the inside.” I think passing was abandoned when it became both legally and socially unacceptable to judge people by the color of their skin, but that doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that our society has completely abandoned its fixation with identifying and adhering to lines of difference between races.

  • I’m so glad to read this review – I’ve long wanted to read this novel but never got around to it and it sounds fascinating, as well as being a historically significant book, too. I do think that racially, there is less need for people to ‘pass’, but I think that it is a function of society to impose normalising rules. There’s still huge pressure for people to be achieving and optimistic and to earn a lot of money, which may be well and good seen in one light, but can become a straitjacket to identity for those who have different goals or who have fallen on tough times. We all try to ‘pass’ as something that we’re not, at some point in our lives, I think.

  • Your review makes me want to reread the book! I didn’t really think of the second half in terms of sexuality, but in terms of relationships and fidelity. I didn’t dislike it, I just felt like it was a different kind of book and I wanted to read more off the beginning. I really do wish the book had been longer than it was!!

  • I was fascinated by the concept of passing, which was new to me until the Classics Circuit last February when I read Plum Bun, which was also about this issue.

    For me, it was eye-opening to read about the concept of passing. I can’t imagine walking around, hearing someone insult me to my face and expect me to join in since they don’t know I’m part of the group they’re insulting. It’s hard to understand how someone could marry someone who clearly would hate you if they knew the truth about you. I suppose it’s part of desperation to fit in, which makes people do crazy things.

    I put Passing on my TBR list at that point, but haven’t got around to it. Maybe now would be a good time to go ahead and read it!

  • Fascinating post. Being sexually repressed doesn’t necessarily mean that she wasn’t also repressing a homosexual love, but it doesn’t mean she was, either, so, I guess I’ll let someone else figure that out! This sounds like a really thought-provoking book. RE: losing the thread of what you were thinking about when you finished, that happens to me a lot too and I’ve found jotting down some notes just after I finish reading helps me, especially if I’m not going to be able to write the review for a while. But then I forget sometimes anyway, LOL 🙂

  • I love the twinning of her repressed/hidden/denied sexual identity and her repressed/hidden/denied racial identity. Have you read Charles Chestnut, by any chance? His “House Behind the Cedars” explores a similar terrain.

    • LifetimeReader, I have NOT read Charles Chesnut yet, although he’s definitely on my list. Do you recommend beginning with House Behind the Cedars? I wasn’t sure where to begin. I think I tried a short story and it was just…bad. (Dare I say that about a classic writer? lol)

  • This is one of my favorite books. Irene and Clare are one of my favorite couples in fiction. It’s a cleverly written novel. I found Irene to be quite the unreliable narrator. Your review captures all the issues. BTW, while there may not be quite the need for “passing” these days, lots of people still pass.

    • Kinna Reads » I think most narrators are unreliable in some ways. And yes, I do see the point about how people pass today, even though it may not be necessary. The story still stands the test of time in being applicable, huh.

  • Ohhh: I have this on my Nook, and you reminded me that I should read it sooner rather than later! When I have read it, I’ll come back and read your full review including spoilers. 🙂

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