Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ – By Ellen Musgrove

NellaLarsen3Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) is an exploration of racial identity in 1920s America. In particular the novel concentrates on the phenomenon of “passing,” or posing as a member of a social group to which one has not been assigned. Larsen focuses on two mixed­race people who “pass” as white: the protagonist, Irene, narrated in third person omniscient form; and her childhood acquaintance Clare Kendry. The two meet by chance at the novel’s opening whilst “passing” in Chicago’s Drayton Hotel, and their reignited connection highlights their different experiences of race. Clare was raised by white relatives and married a white man, whereas Irene has married into, inhabits and associates with the African American middle­class of Harlem. Clare misses this community and attempts to re­assimilate unbeknownst to her racist husband Jack.

Irene, however, begins to see Clare’s return as a threat to her own ordered life. She becomes jealous and obsessive, even concluding that her husband is in love with Clare. She considers removing Clare by revealing her race to Jack, which is achieved during an accidental encounter with him. At the novel’s end he intrudes on a party attended by Clare and the Adlers, infuriated by his realisation. Confusion follows, in which Clare falls from a high­rise window to her death, possibly pushed by Irene, whose erratic mental state allows no clarification of these events.

As a specific part of the broader African American experience, Larsen uses the phenomenon of “passing” to highlight the performativity of race, class, sexuality and gender, and the potentially dangerous implications of an intersectional existence. The identity of African Americans was highlighted as a vital discussion point by Larsen’s contemporaries, primarily those of the Harlem Renaissance seeking to define the ‘New Negro’. Living in New York City, Larsen became involved with this black bourgeoisie and exposed to their attitudes towards racial identity. The ‘New Negro’ was educated, culturally productive, racially proud and equal to any white counterpart. Larsen herself was held up as a specific example of this social and cultural advancement though her acceptance to the Library School of the New York Public Library (Ibid, p. 151). However, this advancement ideology sometimes blurred into an ‘inverted racialistic nationalism’ using whiteness as an aspirational measure. This features in Passing, with Larsen’s characters inhabiting a materialistic socialite world displaying a ‘capitalist ethos’, far superior to the black working classes and the inferiority associated with them via racist stereotypes. Larsen uses this to expose the shaping of racial identity by the ‘political economy of capitalism’ (Dawahare, p.24).

By focusing on complex characters, Larsen also complicates the “tragic mulatto” trope found in literature of this period and prior to it (Tate, p. 142). This literary image was created primarily to appeal to a white audience, and painted a picture of a mixed­race individual inspiring pity and sympathy through their heroic struggle with the consequences of their racially mixed parentage. Their whiteness was emphasised above their blackness,


Tate, Claudia, ‘Nella Larsen’s Passing: A Problem of Interpretation’, Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Winter, 1980), 142­146, p. 142.

Anthony Dawahare, ‘The Golden Standard of Racial Passing in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and
Passing’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 52.1 (Spring, 2006), 22­41, p. 22.

Holmes, Eugene C., ‘Alain Locke and the New Negro Movement’, Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Autumn, 1968), 60­68, pp. 65­66.


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