Passing by Nella Larsen
Originally published 1929 by Alfred A. Knopf
Edition read published 2004 by Dover Publications
(from back cover)
Married to a successful physician and prominently ensconced in Harlem’s vibrant society of the 1920s, Irene Redfield leads a charmed existence – until she is shaken out of it by a chance encounter with a childhood friend. Clare Kendry has been “passing for white,” hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband. Clare and her dangerous secret pose an increasingly powerful threat to Irene’s security, forcing both women to confront the hazards of public and private deception.
The concept of “passing” is one of those things that I’ve always been intrigued by and is honestly a concept that I could dedicate an entire blog post about concerning myself, my own biracialness, and what it’s like to “pass for respectable” in modern American society.
With all that being said…
I couldn’t find myself actively enjoying this novel (which sucks for a first read of 2019). There was something lacking in terms of the characters’ depth and reading about how Larsen had a half-sister who was white and who shunned Larsen when she tried to connect her made me look too deeply into (and expect too much from) the relationship between Irene and Clare.
The dynamic between Irene and Clare was intense. I loved how vividly Larsen wrote about Irene’s feelings toward Clare and I loved how deep into Irene’s mind she let the reader wander. The undertone of obsessiveness, insecurity, and jealousy that wove through Irene’s story made her actions seems plausible and to a certain extent, relatable. However, I felt as if Irene’s motives were only understandable through her reactions to Clare and I wonder as to what type of woman Irene was without those emotions driving her.
As for Clare, you never truly get to delve into her mind. You get to see her as Irene sees her and get her story as it’s given to Irene which drove me slightly mad. I would have loved to read a chapter or section that focused on Clare and examined what it felt like to constantly deny a part of yourself for the sake of external comfort.
There was a part of this short novel though that made me cock my head to the side as I read it and made me think about it for essentially the remainder of the novel. Irene is addressing a man named Hugh who’s been admiring Clare at a benefit that Irene organized.
“[…] It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don’t think it would be so simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for coloured.”
“Never thought of that.”
“No, you wouldn’t. Why should you?”
Today, white people attempt to ‘pass’ as biracial, black, or ‘colored’ almost all the damn time and it was only a few months ago where us PoC actually were confronted with the evidence that average white women were pretending to be PoC. You should give this article a quick glance if you have not the slightest clue what I’m talking about.
I mean…how crazy is it that 90 years after this book was written that instead of black people trying to pass as white we got white people trying to pass for black but the actual relations between the two races is still insanely tumultuous?! It’s one of those things that constantly has me scratching my head.