Tragic, complex and enlightening, Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing, explores the complexities of racial and sexual identity through the tumultuous relationship between two mixed-race women, Irene Redfield and Claire Kendry.
As a mixed-race woman herself, Nella Larsen was well-versed in the stigma and racism faced by black and mixed-race people in the US in that period, and this understanding is evident throughout the novel. Beautifully written, the story is thick with frustration, suspense and passion, and deals with many themes beyond the titular ‘passing’. But, ultimately, it is the two main characters ‘passing’ as white that raises some of the biggest questions, particularly around the subject of denial.
While Claire has escaped her difficult past and claimed the material possessions she yearned for by passing herself off as white within high society, Irene also utilises her own olive complexion and looks to ‘pass’ – but only for ‘convenience’. A common enough practice, she feels little concern at denying her racial identity to make her every-day life in pre-war New York a little easier. As a reader, I did a little metaphorical fist pump at the mild deception she utilises to claim what is rightfully hers. Claire, on the other hand, has forged her entire life and success on denying her race, even to the point of marrying a man who can provide her the things she wants, while living every day with the fear of exposure and, potentially, violent retribution when he discovers her race. While you cheer Irene on, the depth of Claire’s deception and the length to which she will go to achieve an easier, more profitable life have led her to disown her entire community and racial identity, something which, as a reader, I found both little distasteful and difficult to understand.
Throughout the novel Claire shows little to no concern for the community she has left behind, nor for the denial of her origins. Although her renewed connection with Irene makes her yearn for her past life, it seems to be less desire for what she calls ‘her people’, and more her desire for Irene’s husband, that prompts her about-face. In the meantime, Irene is caught in an emotional tug of war, veering between worry over her husband – who is himself raging against the denial of his own aspirations - to fury, to what appears to be blind passion for Claire.
Critical theory accepts that Claire represents the ‘tragic mulatta’ – a standard character in literature whose mixed-race heritage decrees they can neither identity with whites nor blacks, creating a feeling of isolation that invariably leads to low self-esteem, depression and suicide. However, it also suggests that the pair’s obsessive relationship and Irene’s reaction to it (as well as her lack of passion for her husband) reveal her denied homosexual feelings for Claire, revealed through her passionate and unconcealed admiration of the other woman, and her final, violent act.
This is the second time I’ve read Passing, and it remains something of a conundrum to me – the themes of racial identity and betrayal complex enough to make it a book I wish I’d studied, rather than just read. But, to me, whether it’s racial, sexual or aspirational, the ultimate message of the novel goes beyond any one theme, revealing the damaging effects of social pressure, and the danger of pretending to be what you are not to your own psyche, and to those around you.