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Passing’ by Nella Larsen Literature Analysis Essay

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Updated: May 18th, 2020

Characters in passing

In Nella Larsen’s novel entitled Passing, the portrayal of how individuals identify with race, family and ancestral past is an issue of concern in the contemporary American society. Through the story of two women, Larsen focuses on how some individuals are highly influenced by the society and the idea of self-identity. Larsen is concerned on how people perceived identity during the 1920’s in America. In this regard, early life experiences among the whites and the blacks were integral in determining future racial and sexual identity. In normal circumstances, passing is referred as the idea of assuming a white racial identity besides being a black person. During the 1920’s, the white and black racists perceived the idea of passing as a psychological problem for those who did not embrace their original identity. On the other hand, the meaning of the concept passing has broadened with time as evidenced with the change in how women perceive sexuality.

Irene Redfield is the first character who engages in passing. Larsen describes Irene as a light-skinned woman who passed as a white person irrespective of being an African-American. Irene distances herself from the low-class in the black community by portraying herself as a white woman. Perhaps, Irene admires the sophistication of the upper-middle class and the wealthy that came from the white community. In fact, this explains Irene’s reaction to Clare Pendry’s letter as “mysterious, flaunting and dangerous” (Larsen 35). Irene passes as a white woman according to Clare and fellow white people. Larsen portrays how the white people are confused of Irene’s identity. In one instance, Irene visits the Draytone hotel in Chicago after passing as a white woman. Therefore, the intention of Irene’s passing is to enjoy the opportunities that are available to the white people. For Irene, being white has its advantages in America. In addition, Irene is attracted to the beauty of being white. Irene is attracted to Claire whom she describes as “white with blond hair, dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower” (Larsen 51). The fact that Irene does not recognize her friend Clare at the hotel reveals how passing is sophisticated and is confusing to the common people.

To Irene, passing is a way of retaining security and control over life. Through passing, Larsen portrays Irene’s struggle in maintaining her affection towards Clare. Irene’s insecurities as a black woman reveal her intention to manipulate her family members and friends as she tries to fit in a white community. In fact, Irene masters the art of passing to ensure that her husband is not attracted to other light-skinned women. Clare Kendry is another character who struggles with passing. Apparently, Clare is light-skinned woman who passes as a white person. Clare’s blurred racial identity leads to an interracial marriage with a white man who is a racist. In this regard, Clare attempts to reach out to a person of the same identity is an act of passing. Apparently, her passing as a white person is successful, but as a black person it becomes a challenge. Irene is suspicious of Clare attempts to reconnect with black people. Irene is aware that Clare passes as a beautiful white woman among the black people. In fact, Irene is insecure that Clare will tempt her husband into an extramarital affair. As time progresses, Clare attempts to pass as a black person succeed. Clare’s husband who is a racist refers to her as “Nig” (Larsen 67). Apparently, Clare identity as a black woman becomes clear as she associates with Irene. However, the affection between Irene and Clare implies an element of lesbianism.

Through Claude Jones, the perception that passing is a way of deserting race or religion becomes imminent. At a women party, Clare’s friends are quick to judge Jones’s passing attempts as unnecessary for a man.

Larsen’s portrayal of passing is related to marriage in various ways. During the 1920’s, the American society awakened to the reality of interracial marriages (Jacobs 32). Interracial marriages led to siring of children who were torn between their parents racial heritage. In this regard, children born of interracial relations tend to pass towards the most influential or dominant race. From this perspective, the whites were still dominant in terms of social, economical and political affluence in the American society during the 1920’s (Jacobs 37). In subsequent years, the idea of passing as white or black person in order to get married into another race became a critical issue. Larsen’s portrayal of marriages that involved passing is that the insecurity and lack of satisfaction led to wrecking of families. For example, the trouble in both Irene and Clare’s marriages implies how passing has created a rift in family institutions. While Irene is insecure about her husband cheating, Clare cannot tolerate an abusive husband who doubles as a racist. The struggle of passing to start a relationship with a preferred partner is the same cause of marriage problems. Larsen’ portrayal of passing shows the pretense of people in a marriage context. Passing overlooks an individual’s personality by focusing on racial boundaries. With time, the desire and need to belong is too much to bear and leads to insecurity, attraction or repulsions. Clare’s desire to reach out to Irene is out of marriage frustration. On the other hand, Irene’s attraction to Clare’s life, beauty, glamour and marriage causes additional problems.

Lesbian threat

Larsen’s awakens a lesbian threat by empowering African American women in embracing ethnic pride. In fact, Larsen’s portray of the 20th-century black woman creates a new discourse in regard to femininity. Larsen disregards the importance of masculinity in African American culture by portraying a black woman as a superior, powerful and controlling character. Apparently, a black woman American is perceived to be beautiful and easily lures both black and white men into marriage. Perhaps, this explains why Clare, Irene and others are light-skinned because of interracial marriages. Larsen enlightens the reader about how women of mixed ethnicity are anxious and curious of their identity. In this context, women of mixed ethnicity are independent of racial and gender stereotyping, thus, exonerating men from chauvinism. The mixed desires by both Irene and Clare spark an element of lesbianism. A critical analysis on lesbianism in Larsen’s passing reveals that Clare initiates Irene’s lesbian desire by striving to become black. On the other hand, Irene is assimilated into whiteness by desiring Clare’s high-class status and safety. The two women are drawn into each other lives and persona as evidenced in lesbianism. The manner in which Iren suspects her husband of cheating with Clare is a reflection of how a woman is viewed from a man’s eye. In addition, Irene envisions how Clare rebelled against her father, and which is an action associated with masculinity. Larsen’s portrayal of Irene and Clare as women of mixed ethnicity with independent desires disrupts the common mode of thinking. In fact, such portrayal of women in the society threatens popular narratives especially those of marriage and family life.

Christina Simmons

Christina Simmons’s article Companionate Marriage and the Lesbian Threat provides an insight into how Irene views Clare. Simmons’s article articulates on the sexual revolution of the 1890’s, 1910 and later years. According to Simmons, the sexual revolution of the 1920’s started when elite women started wearing flappers and became educated (Simmons 56). From this perspective, Irene views Clare’s sophistication as a less domesticated woman who is empowered as an individual. In addition, Irene’s view on Clare is that of a socially powerful woman. The fact that Clare is a liberated woman emanates from her efforts to seek personal happiness. Irene notices Clare’s eagerness to have a happy marriage by reaching out to friends for advice. Irene perceives the idea of easy sexuality that has no social or moral pressure. From her experience, Irene contemplates that having a sexual relationship with Clare will not have any implication on their marriage contracts. From Simmons’s perspective, Irene’s feelings for Clare are that of a woman deprived of her autonomy and independence within the context of marriage (Simmons 58). Irene feels that Clare desires to possess a man and not vice versa. Clare actions are that of a woman deprived of sexual pleasure and resorts to lesbianism as a psychological support mechanism in resisting gender oppression.

Works Cited

Jacobs, Margaret. “The Eastmans and the Luhans: Interracial Marriage between White Women and Native American Men, 1875-1935.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 23.3 (2003): 29-54. Print.

Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York: Start Publishing LLC, 2013. Print.

Simmons, Christina. “Companionate marriage and the lesbian threat.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (1979): 54-59. Print.

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