Author: Nella Larsen
Year of Publication: 1928
LC Call Number: PS 3523 .A7225 .A6
Passing is the book I’d planned to read when I picked up this volume; I’d heard about it and was intrigued. It’s about the relationship between two light-skinned black women whose lives take two different paths; Irene marries a black man who is also an activist, while Clare marries a white man and moves into the upper echelons of society, passing as white the whole time.
The relationship between Irene and Clare is a strange one; they knew each other in high school, but at the narrative’s present, they are not close friends by any means. Since the entire story is told from Irene’s point of view, the reader has little insight into Clare’s real attitude, but on Irene’s side there is a lot of irritation and resentment. She remarks often on what she calls “Clare’s ‘having’ nature,” by which she means Clare’s apparently naive tendency to accept all gifts and invite herself into people’s lives. Clare does not show a great deal of self-awareness and takes all invitations at face value. Failing to bow out gracefully, she writes to Irene without noticing Irene’s intention to cut off contact. Then, too, Irene has a tendency to feel put upon in general; she has work to attend to and two children and a closer relationship with her husband than Clare has with hers. Irene is working very hard to maintain herself as a respectable person and to feel as if she is in charge of her life, so she sees Clare as spoiled and childish; as she spends more time with Clare, her irritation increases.
For Clare’s part, it seems that she is lonely and longs for the company of other black women. Her husband is terrifying and openly, loudly racist; she passes not only in white society generally but also within her marriage. When he was introduced, I feared for Clare. Later in the novel, Irene speculates about the potential for divorce if Clare’s husband learned of her race, but she overlooks the possibility of violence, which did not to me appear out of the question. Clare has one child, and tells Irene that she has not had any more because, throughout her pregnancy, she worried that the child would come out dark. Her marriage is not seen in detail, but it sounds awful. Is it worth it for Clare? It doesn’t appear that she’s consciously evaluated this, actually. Tearfully, she tells Irene:
It’s just that I haven’t any proper morals or sense of duty, as you have, that makes me act as I do. … Can’t you realize I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe.”
Notably, this moment comes when Irene is encouraging Clare not to shirk her parental duties—that is, to go back to her own life and leave Irene alone. So the question here is of whether it is worth it for her to take the risks of temporarily escaping from her “passing” life to spend time in Irene’s social circle. This is a very relevant question in terms of the plot—the danger that Clare will be exposed is ever-present—but I think that it also explains her thought process in making the decisions that led to her marrying Bellew.
Irene is quite willing to shake her head at these decisions of Clare’s, with a feeling of superiority at her own life choices, which to her appear manifestly better. But the thing about Irene is that she is a hypocrite. Although she doesn’t approve of Irene passing, the novel opens with Irene sitting in a presumably segregated rooftop restaurant because she, Irene, is herself able to pass, and she hopes not to be exposed because she is enjoying this restaurant and does not want to be kicked out and humiliated. Later, she explains that she’s only ever used “passing” for petty things, not for anything important.
Furthermore, Clare disapproves of passing at least partly because she is invested in what she calls “the ties of the race,” which Clare has evaded and yet still uses. Irene, however, employs a maid named Zulena, who is constantly present throughout the novel but to whom Irene barely speaks. Next to Zulena, though, Irene’s privilege stands out clearly. Unlike Zulena, Irene’s name does not mark her as a black woman and she enjoys middle-class status. I cannot remember whether the shade of Zulena’s skin is mentioned, her presence points up the ways in which Irene is closer to attaining the status which Clare covets. There is little sign that Irene feels any such “ties” to Zulena. Clare, on the other hand, sits and talks with Zulena—and Irene is irritated by this, finding it inappropriate, precisely because she feels that Clare would have been less friendly with white servants.
Thus, Larsen avoids setting up a contrast between duplicitous Clare and upright Irene; Irene isn’t so truthful as all that, especially not with herself, and Clare seems, in many ways, guileless. Irene, however, does think of it this way and eventually becomes convinced that Clare is having an affair with Irene’s husband. Interestingly, the narrative does not confirm or deny this. Any evidence one way or the other is filtered through Irene’s perception, which makes it already suspect because this is what she wants to believe, in order to justify her frustration with both parties. The introduction to this volume (by one Deborah McDowell) argues that this suspicion is Irene’s way of covering up her own attraction to Clare in her mind, and this is persuasive so far as Irene seems to have very strong feelings about Clare. She responds to Clare’s letters even when she does not intend to, thinks about her more than she would like, and often observes Clare’s beauty. (Brian, Irene’s husband, on the other hand, declares Clare too light for his tastes.) Casting Clare in the role of homewrecker allows Irene to project her own feelings onto her husband, to clarify her relationship to Clare, and to justify thinking about her constantly. Still, I have another interpretation of Irene’s obsession; I wonder if what Irene feels toward her is not just sexual jealousy but also simple envy. Clare’s carelessness, the ease with which she inserts herself into any situation, and her ability to inspire love and admiration in nearly everyone who sees her are all qualities which Irene does not want to envy. She’s invested in her idea of herself as a serious person who works hard and thinks of others instead of herself. However, her constant exasperation with Clare’s determination to have pleasure in her life and her desire for Clare to be punished (in fact, she considers outing her to her husband) do suggest an envy to which she will not admit. Reinterpreting it into jealousy allows Irene to feel more reasonable, even if it undermines her feelings of superiority about her own marriage versus Clare’s.
I think this explains a lot about the ending, too, but it was shocking enough that I don’t want to write about it here…