The Ending of Passing: Making Sense of Chaos
Nella Larsen’s novella Passing tells a compelling story about two mixed-race women, Irene and Clare, from drastically different outcomes who shape contrasting perspectives on the notion of “passing” as one race over another, as Irene is content with being her black self while Clare grew up as a white woman. This crescendo narrative escalates exponentially towards its explosive yet abrupt finale in which Clare falls out of a window and dies and Irene suffers a mental breakdown. The narrative takes a drastic turn from realism to a bizarre hyperreality drenched in subjectivity and impressionism. The ending is stylized to be vague on purpose, and many different interpretations can exist of it. Many readers will come up with different ideas about who murdered Clare, or if she was “murdered” to begin with, and these various interpretations impose different messages on relations between the characters and what they represent as motifs. Larsen projects the sensation of passing on the reader through how fractured and fragmented this finale is, which shows readers how fragmented one who passes through different races feels.
One possible interpretation is that Irene pushed Clare out of the window to her death. This appears to be the most shared belief, and it’s hard to see why once one gets past the shock of the protagonist, a seemingly sane and reasonable person, would commit such a tragic murder. Irene is seemingly the last person to touch Clare shortly before she falls out of the window. The scene leading right to Clare’s fall is described as follows: “Clare stood at the window, as composed as if everyone were not staring at her in curiosity and wonder as if the whole structure of her life were not lying in fragments before her. She seemed unaware of any danger or uncaring. There was even a faint smile on her full, red lips, and in her shining eyes. It was that smile that maddened Irene. She ran across the room, her terror tinged with ferocity, and laid a hand on Clare’s bare arm.” (Larsen 209) It is quite a sinister scene that Larsen paints. Irene’s frenzied run across the room towards Clare succeeding a declaration of her being “maddened” imposes a disposition of malice or at least unfortunate circumstance. This passage feels at home with a noire novel describing how the murder attacks its victim, with Irene preying on Clare in a seeming fit of rage. However, there is one piece of detail that stands out amongst the rest, the fact that Irene “laid” her hand on Clare. “Laid” is a passive verb and, rather than add to a murder scene, appears to be a calming act. This would lead one to assume that there would be no way Irene could have harmed Clare, but before assuming so, one must consider the following events. After Clare’s death, the narrative becomes broken and perplexing. Irene keeps reassuring herself that everything is okay. Irene, physically weak and dizzy, mutters fiercely “’It was an accident, a terrible accident.” This reassurance signals the Kübler-Ross Model, also known as the Five Stages of Grief. These are stages that one goes through after a great trauma. The first stage, Denial, is described as the individual believing that their perception of the event is “somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality” (Santrock). The reader knows Irene as a generally good person, and so this “preferable reality,” should the reader choose to believe Irene killed Clare, is that Clare instead fell out on her own with no help from Irene. Not to mention how earlier, prior to this entire sequence, Irene imagines Clare dying before stopping herself, saying it was vile “to wish that” (187). With this in mind, it would make sense that by saying she “laid” her hand on Clare, she really did something more drastic, such as “forced.”
The significance of this interpretation is that understanding this lens and viewing the novella under it transforms the entire work into something closer to a tragic romance. Throughout the novella, tension exists between Irene and Clair that suggests frustrated infatuation. Even in Irene’s last remarks at Clair, she wonders at her “soft white face, the bright hair, the disturbing scarlet mouth, the dreaming eyes, the caressing smile, the whole torturing loveliness” that had been tearing at Irene (210). One of the primary factors in Irene’s frustration with Clare is her belief that she is stealing her husband, Brian, away from her. However, with this lens, it would be more accurate to say that Brian was stealing Clare from Irene. Irene is not shown to be particularly fond of Brian on numerous occasions, often getting into arguments with him and lamenting his habit of staring at other women. Irene, reuniting with Clare could have sparked a new desire, a breaking away from her husband to pursue this newfound lust. Irene in the entire final Part of Passing becomes flustered whenever Clare is present, despite her appearing cool and collected in every other instance in the novel. Irene’s constant frustrations with Clare could be not out of a disdain for her, but out of a desire for her to be a better person in her eyes as if she is wanting to idolize her. Irene is unable to articulate her feelings for Clare properly, perhaps due to those feelings being so alien in Irene’s society and life. Reading into the story not only with the frame that Irene killed Clare but also with the lens that Irene loved Clare flips the entire story and transforms it into a tragic romance of unrecognized love, and Clare’s death, ignorant of Irene’s feelings, shows how such a romance could not be prescribed in their time and place. Coincidentally, the novel titled Passing could very well be “passing” a queer novel as a race one. Due to this context and interpretation, the notion that Irene killed Clare is a significant one that radically alters one’s perception of the novel. However, that does not mean there are other interpretations that aren’t worth examining.
Another possible interpretation is that Clare committed suicide. During Larsen’s time, there was a trope called the “tragic mulatto” which is an extension of what will be called her the “Other” character. The “Other” is a figure which does not belong in a society or world. The story consists of the “Other” coming into conflict with the world and the inability to assimilate into the world is the drive for conflict to the character in the story. As the “Other” does not have a place in its world, the typical end is a tragic death which causes the survivors to rethink their places in life. Examples of “Others” in literature include the Monster in Frankenstein, John in Brave New World, and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. The Tragic Mulatto is not much different. Per David Pilgrim in his essay The Tragic Mulatto Myth, the Tragic Mulatto is a mixed-race individual, typically female, who is depressed or even suicidal due to her inability to exist between two drastically different worlds, typically a “white world” vs “black world…fitting into neither, accepted by neither” (Pilgrim). The two main characters of Passing are mixed-race women, but Irene, the protagonist, is not a “tragic Mulatto” by any means. Though she is mixed, she is comfortable in her place and being and wholly identifies and connects to her black world. Clare on the other hand, while seemingly happy in her white world, still suffers from a loss of identity. The killing of her black self could be a metaphoric suicide. However, with an interpretation of the ending being Clare purposefully falling out of the window, it makes her status as a tragic Mulatto literal. Clare killed her black self to preserve her white self, but when she realizes that social life is coming to an end due to the revelations preceding the finale, she sees no choice but to kill her white self. By doing this, metaphorically speaking, she loses all sense of identity and is no longer a human being. Thus, this suicide is a literal one, terminating her life once and for all. This interpretation works as a way of fleshing out Clare’s character into an entirely self-tragic one, and making the novella Passing a defining tragic mulatto work.
Finally, another perspective is that Clare’s husband, John Bellew, pushed her out of the window. Bellew, from his introduction, is established to be a radically racist man. It is not much of a stretch to assume he would kill Clare after concluding that she was black. When Clare rhetorically asks Bellew what he would do if he found out she was black, he confidently dismisses the notion, reminding her that there are “no niggers in [his] family. Never have been and never will be.” (Larsen, 69) Bellew’s realization of Clare’s identity adds context to this exchange with him, and him putting the pieces together would serve as a complete mind break. For all these years, he had assured himself he was right, that such a revelation was too far out of notion. In such a moment, all that time spent intimately with Clare becomes to him works of devious seduction into a forbidden world. It would be impossible for Bellew to still love Clare since this would require backpedaling on a hardcore stance he held for his entire life, that he enforced so strictly upon every second of every day. As said in the quote above, Bellew had convinced himself that there never would be any black people in his family. The only way to make that true since he had unknowingly married a black woman would be for her to die. This adds credibility to the idea of Bellew shoving her out of a window. Bellew, a proud man, would probably not stoop to having to commit murder with his own hands, and rather placing Clare into a deadly situation would, according to mental gymnastics, free him from blame. Think of when someone would say “I didn’t break his arm, the ground did!” after pushing someone to the floor. Even if Bellew did not push her out of the window, his actions nevertheless lead to Clare’s demise. His violent outburst at the party upon realizing Clare was indeed part black is what causes Clare to run towards the window. No matter who pushed her out of the window, even Clare herself, Bellew is to blame to a degree. Clare’s demise therefore can be framed as a hate crime, and having Bellew be the one to directly cause her death it adds onto that perspective.
The end of Passing is significant because of how it fits into the narrative of racial passing and identity while translating into another medium its effect on an individual. Passing, for many, can cause them to develop a fragmented self-identity and perspective. The notion exists to some mixed race or cultured people that they do not fit nicely into one picture, like a jigsaw puzzle made from different brands. While the fragmented narration of Passing is literally due to the protagonist’s frantic state of being, this deconstruction of the narrative’s reality conveys such a feeling to the reader as one broken of a self-identity. Such individuals will ask themselves questions and constantly re-examine memories and events trying to fit them into different lenses to gain a greater and more cohesive whole. The lack of closure could be a projection of the empty feeling created by dedicating a lifetime to pursuing the seemingly unachievable task of finding one’s self, a task that is amplified the more fragmented a person is. Passing is a story that is ripe with conflict, both within the self and within the self vs the outside, as individuals in it are forced into situations where they must either relinquish their identity, don a false one, or pay the price for being an “Other” out of their world.
While the ultimate outcome of the ending is concrete, the way to get to that end can be seen in a variety of ways. No one way is “correct” and each possibility says much about the motifs controlling the characters and how they played out in Larsen’s contemporary world. Irene killing Clare turns the novel into a queer tragic romance far ahead of its time, Clare killing herself paints her as the archetypal tragic mulatto, and John killing Claire feeds into the racial tension that exists in America and the rejection of the “other” within. Each of these interpretations speaks volumes about identity, and the way the finale is so split up conveys this feeling to those who may not have ever experienced such issues and illuminates the tragedy of race relations in Larsen’s time.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York: BN Publishing, 2012. Print.
Pilgrim, David (November 2000). “The Tragic Mulatto Myth”
Santrock, J.W. (2007). A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-338264-7.
Nella Larsen’s Tragic Mulatto: Understanding the Purpose of Clare Kendry in Passing
Passing by Nella Larsen tells the story of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two light-skinned women with contrasting lives during the Harlem Renaissance. As a Harlem resident, Irene Redfield prides herself on her dedication to African American people and their culture. From her point of view, marrying a black man and living in a black community affirms her loyalty to her people. Conversely, Clare Kendry lives outside of Harlem and chooses to “pass” as a white woman, relishing in the white privileges acquired through her deceit. When Larsen causes the women’s lives to converge, she creates a compelling novella about African American women in this time. Simply, Passing is a mulatto story following the rise and fall of its tragic figure: Clare Kendry. By characterizing her tragic mulatto figure through Irene Redfield’s biased perspective, Nella Larsen critiques conventional African American female roles during the Harlem Renaissance to present her support of womanism.
In Passing, Clare ostensibly fills the role of the archetypal tragic mulatto, yet Irene’s perception of her adds complexity to Clare’s characterization. Tragic mulatto characters typically evoke eroticism and represent sexuality in their respective stories (Nittle). Irene frequently elaborates on Clare’s sexual appeal in stirring detail, focusing on her physicality. Irene describes Clare’s “lips, painted a brilliant geranium-red, were sweet and sensitive and a little obstinate. A tempting mouth…Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about them” (Larsen 161). Inadvertently, Irene distinguishes Clare’s characterization by going beyond arousing imagery, hinting at Clare’s tenacity and secrecy–two qualities not necessarily typical of a purely sexual character. The added mystery of Clare makes her more than merely a tragic character and compels the reader to desire a deeper understanding of her. Noticeably, Irene’s somewhat shallow preoccupation with Clare’s appearance suggests a misplacement of priorities. Irene is evidently more concerned with Clare’s physical features than her personality or emotional state. This obsession with outward appearances becomes increasingly perturbing as Clare displays emotional depth later in Passing.
Clare’s emotional complexity deepens once she exhibits another tragic mulatto quality: a desire for acceptance in the black community. Midway through the novella, Clare starts sneaking away from her white husband to visit Harlem regularly to attend functions within the black community. In accordance with her conservative values, Irene entreats Clare to forego her selfishness for the sake of her child and–most importantly–her reputation. Once again, Irene shows her focus on outward appearances. To Irene’s assertion, Clare laments, “‘You don’t know, you can’t realize how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh.’ And in the look she gave Irene, there was something groping, and helpless” (Larsen 200). Here, Clare admits to Irene that she has a longing for a deeper connection to the black community. Her attraction to Harlem stems from loneliness. From Irene’s perspective, Clare seems to be selfishly enjoying her exploitation of the economic conveniences provided by her white status and her experience of the camaraderie provided by black brethren. Her neglect of Clare’s apparent authenticity makes her look rather insensitive. In fact, her reaction should disturb the reader because it unveils a hypocritical facet of Irene’s personality. While she claims to be loyal to her race, Irene hesitates to assist or sympathize with Clare, a fellow black woman. Even though a look into Clare’s thoughts would illustrate a more accurate picture of her state of mind, Irene’s reactions to her conduct reveal Larsen’s motives in choosing this particular narrative.
In particular, seeing Clare through Irene’s eyes allows the reader to recognize Larsen’s disapproval of conventional mindsets in African American women. By highlighting Irene’s shallowness and discrediting the validity of her narration, Larsen calls the reader to question Irene’s principles regarding female roles. Irene loses her credibility as a narrator when she shows a lack of compassion for others and self-awareness. In a flashback about a trip to Chicago, Irene recounts an experience on the Dayton Hotel’s roof━a white-only space━where she met Clare for the first time in twelve years. Their conversation comes unnaturally, beginning with Irene not recognizing Clare until she laughs at Irene’s flustered reaction. Throughout the rest of the conversation, Irene struggles to conceal her misgivings about Clare, the one who is “passing.” Considering herself a loyal member of the black community, Irene cannot fathom stooping to Clare’s level. Her attitude is reflected in her personal thoughts and a moment when she speaks to Clare in an openly disdainful manner. However, as Cheryl A. Wall points out, “Irene ignored a stricken pedestrian whom she passed on the street. Hardly the good Samaritan, Irene has no grounds for the moral superiority she claims” (Wall 122). Lacking self-consciousness, Irene misses the hypocrisy of her quick criticism. She questions Clare’s morality directly after she walked by someone in clear distress without a second thought and used her light-skin to gain entrance into The Drayton. Because African American society has instilled in Irene a distaste for “passing,” her momentary thoughts of intrigue are trumped by her acquiescence to social conventions of the time. While usually this opinion would be considered admirable, Larsen’s disparaging portrayal of Irene associates this outlook with hypocrisy. Even though both ladies are “passing” on the hotel roof, Irene’s self-righteousness convinces her that she is beyond reproach. Perhaps the dramatic irony of Irene’s disposition is not lost on Clare, for she laughs at Irene several times during this conversation. Using moments like this, Larsen makes Irene’s character and ideology worthy of criticism by exposing her pettiness.
Irene’s credibility suffers further when her jealousy begins to taint her portrayal of events. In the falling action of Passing, Irene views Clare as a threat to her respectable way of life. Hints of Irene’s discomfort with Clare appear throughout the text, foreshadowing her eventual full-blown envy. At one point, Irene describes Clare using three words: “selfish, willful, and disturbing” (Larsen 202). The third and final adjective, “disturbing,” exposes Irene’s aversion to Clare and her ways. The use of the word disturbing evokes a sense of foreboding, as if Irene feels endangered by Clare’s divergent behavior. This paranoia begins to contort the tone of Irene’s narrative. For instance, when Irene’s husband–Brian Redfield–invites Clare to a party Irene wished to exclude her from, Irene concludes that Brian acted thusly out of a hidden passion: an affair with Clare. Irene draws this conclusion based on his tense demeanor. She feels “an instinctive feeling that it hadn’t been the whole cause of his attitude. And that little straightening motion of the shoulders…Her fright was like the scarlet spear of terror leaping at her heart. Clare Kendry!”(216-7). Quite plausibly, Irene’s suspicion–or what she calls an “instinctive feeling”–may be accurate, but considering that her relationship with Brian is passionless and strained, this conclusion seems unlikely. Additionally, Brian’s “little straightening…of the shoulders” could be indicative of his overall discomfort with his stoic wife. Most importantly, the speed at which Irene arrives at this conclusion–whether it is accurate or not–shows her prejudice towards and fear of Clare Kendry.
Contemplating Irene’s insecurity leads to a better understanding of her faulty ideology. Her fear develops from the uncertainty she feels in Clare’s presence. Like Corinne E. Blackmer states, the “alluring Clare becomes for Irene both an exotic object and a projection of her profound dread of taboo desires for sexual pleasure, worldly experience, independence from men, and escape from the narrow conventions of the marriage plot” (Blackmer 54). In other words, Clare’s conduct contradicts the accepted belief that African American women must remain dependent on their male counterparts and should prioritize housekeeping instead of their happiness. While Irene adheres to these expectations, Clare defies them without being caught until the end of Passing. Clare’s successful disregard for the restrictive female role irks the trapped Irene. In an effort to erase the uncomfortable jealousy from her life, Irene pushes Clare out of a window seventeen floors high, bringing about the tragic mulatto’s end.
Although Clare Kendry meets a tragic end, her demise lacks the sense of justice in other mulatto narratives. By casting Irene as the perpetrator of this sudden and brutal death, Larsen once again calls the reader to question Irene’s judgement. The following passage serves to subtly denounce Irene further as it describes her initial reaction to Clare’s death:
Gone! The soft white face, the bright hair, the disturbing scarlet mouth, the dreaming eyes, the caressing smile, the whole torturing loveliness that had been Clare Kendry. That beauty that had torn at Irene’s placid life. Gone! The mocking daring, the gallantry of her pose the ringing bells of her laughter.
Irene wasn’t sorry. She was amazed, incredulous almost….
“It was an accident, a terrible accident,” she muttered fiercely. “It was.” (Larsen 239)
Through this inner monologue, Larsen garners disgust for Irene and sympathy for Clare, the victim. Irene fully displays the depths of her shallowness and detest for Clare in this reaction to her death. She focuses heavily on Clare’s physical features–echoing her initial description of Clare. Additionally, negative adjectives, such as “disturbing” and “torturing,” remind the reader of Irene’s disapproval of Clare’s conduct. Lastly, Irene admits to not even feeling remorseful for the woman who fell to her death from a seventeenth floor window. Larsen heavily implies that Irene pushes Clare out of the window, but this fact is never stated explicitly; however, if a reader were to believe Irene was innocent of the murder, her selfish preoccupation with worrying about incrimination rather than Clare’s well-being warrants sufficient reproach. By this point if not sooner, Irene’s faults in judgement are unmistakeable. Subsequently, Clare is established as a victim who is punished by Irene for daring to defy restrictive gender roles. For this reason, in the words of Wall, Clare represents “ultimately, the high cost of rebellion” for African American women (Wall 131). By “passing” and pursuing her own happiness, Clare transcends feminine conventionalism and dies because of it.
In itself, the novella is “passing” for a conventional tale of the tragic mulatto; nevertheless, the nuances of Irene’s reactions to Clare allow the reader to look past the facade to understand Larsen’s true intentions. Without ever explicitly advocating for feminism in her text, Larsen characterizes Irene as a hypocritical and narrow-minded character to critique the conventional notions Irene endorses. Passing’s overall subtlety permits it to remain a palatable novel for those expecting the typical fare of the Harlem Renaissance, yet provides a refreshing case for feminism for those willing to dive deeper into the text.
Blackmer, Corinne E. “The Veils of the Law: Race and Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing.” Rpt. in College Literature. Vol. 22. Columbia Law School. 50-67. Web. 19 Jan. 2016.
Larsen, Nella. “Passing.” Quicksand ; And, Passing. Ed. Deborah E. McDowell. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1986. 143-242. Print.
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. “Tragic Mulatto Myth.” About. About.com, 2016. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.
Wall, Cheryl A. “Nella Larsen: Passing for What?” Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 85-138. Print.
The Unconscious in Nella Larsen’s “Passing”
Nella Larsen’s renowned novel Passing was written shortly after a period of significant breakthroughs in psychological research and in how we view human behavior. Sigmund Freud was the man who introduced these novel and revolutionary ideas, bringing up the notion of the human conscious and unconscious. It was proposed that the human unconscious is at work and rules an individual’s behavior without the person being able to control it. Through the use of the character Irene, and through Larsen’s modernist writing style, the novel is able to support this notion of the unconscious ruling the mind without having jurisdiction over one’s own thoughts and actions, In fact, Passing proceeds by taking the reader on a journey through Irene’s internal psychological drama.
The novel is centered around the protagonist, Irene, and on precisely what goes on in her mind, allowing us to see the instances when Irene’s true feelings and desires emerge, even though she has no idea why. Often, her unconscious is repressing feelings of desire for her friend Clare, making her question herself and her marriage. Irene tries so hard to distance herself from Clare, but always gives in to Clare’s attempts to solidify their social and personal connection. While looking at Clare, Irene at one point “had a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling” (Larsen 65). The key word is “inexplicable”; the novel is showcasing how the character truly has no control over what she is feeling. Irene doesn’t know why she experiences romantic inclinations, but the reader sees her unconscious occasionally peek through unintentionally. Because the novel is told in such a way that it showcases Irene’s thoughts and actions, it enables the reader to see what she’s feeling and thinking. At one point, Irene is admiring Clare’s beauty and sees her husband observing Clare as well, thinking that there is some confusion on “who desires whom” (Larsen 41). Irene seems to harbor an attraction for Clare, and also is jealous of the thought that her husband shares that same attraction. Through the use of a modernist style, in which the reader doesn’t get an omniscient narrator, and thus doesn’t know what the other characters are thinking and feeling, the novel can focus on one character’s unconscious — in this case, Irene’s.
On account of this style, we see the story focused on Irene’s psychological drama. The confusion of feelings for Clare, whether Irene realizes it or not, eventually reaches a breaking point. Larsen included this dilemma so the reader could see how desperate Irene was to get rid of Clare later on in the novel. Towards the end of the novel, there are various scenes in which we see Irene’s unconscious completely take over her actions, ending in a tragic and wildly unexpected outcome. While the reader is in the dark over whether or not Irene really murdered Clare, there is significant evidence that suggests her unconscious may have brought Irene to do things without intention or realization of what she was actually doing. In the dead of winter, Irene describes feeling hot and having to open a window. Seems a little strange to be feeling so hot in December, doesn’t it? Perhaps she was feeling hot because of her guilty thoughts. While she’s standing by the window smoking a cigarette, she watches “the tiny sparks drop slowly down to the white ground below,” (Larsen 110). While this may not seem unusual at first glance, the connection between her unconscious and the actions that follow soon becomes apparent; later on, Irene goes on to describe Clare like “a vital glowing thing, like a flame of red and gold” (Larsen 111). By using the words “flame of red and gold”, Larsen indicates that Irene’s subconscious is associating Clare with the falling ashes of the cigarette, which may have lead her to unintentionally putting in motion Clare’s tragic death by falling out of the window. This symbolism is crucial understanding exactly how Irene’s unconscious is connected to external actions, which is essentially the idea the novel is attempting to get across to the reader. The story is explicitly portraying Irene’s unconscious as a powerful and real element, reinforced by Irene’s memories and her internal turmoil.
Further building off Larsen’s demonstration that Irene’s unconscious rules her without control, the conclusion of the story undoubtedly solidifies this theme. Irene and Clare’s relationship reaches a boiling point, and it soon becomes clear that Irene wants Clare out of her life, out of her marriage, and is tired of constantly giving in to Clare’s attempts at being friends. After grabbing Clare, Irene describes having “thought of nothing in that sudden moment of action,” (Larsen 112), highlighting that she consciously knew she was drawing a blank when it came to how and why she came to do what she did. It seems as though a foreign body has invaded and taken control of her; she literally had no thoughts when she suddenly grabbed Clare. Her actions were “sudden” because she had no time to consciously think about what she was doing- her unconscious was in control. Even if she believes that she doesn’t have hard feelings towards Clare, or even if she tries to make herself believe she has no malicious wishes for Clare, her actions show differently. Even after Clare’s sudden death, Irene “struggled against the sob of thankfulness that rose in her throat” (Larsen 113), but she tries to choke it down. She knows it’s not good to be thankful, but it’s happening involuntarily. It seems as though a part of her — the unconscious part — is thankful that Clare isn’t alive, probably because she feels as though it was her fault that Clare fell out of the window. Instead of wondering if her ‘friend’ was okay as she was going to see her, she was instead worried that she wouldn’t be dead. That alone stands out as a suggestion of a guilty consciousness. She not only struggled in choking down the sobs, but one could also say that she struggled with herself and what she was feeling. After all, it’s not normal to want a friend to be dead, something Irene recognized as she was shocked at her sobs of thankfulness. While the reader is left in the dark as to what really happened the moment of Clare’s death, there is substantial evidence that Irene’s physical actions were a big reason, if not the entire reason that Clare fell out of that window. Her actions up until this point perfectly set up this scenario, and it seems almost too perfect to be a coincidence whether Irene was conscious of it or not.
Ultimately, it’s apparent that Larsen’s novel uses both the character of Irene and a modernist style to show the reader how powerful Freud’s theory of the unconscious really is, and how it can control even a perceptive individual such as Irene. The story of Passing is told through Irene’s accounts of what happened, giving the audience a subjective story, where one can see her unconscious at work. That narrative format, combined with the symbolism and psychological drama inside Irene’s head, successfully allows the novel to argue in favor of Freud’s then-recent breakthroughs in how the world views and understands behavior.
“Queer Ideas”: Sexuality, Race, and Repression in Nella Larsen’s Passing
Widely celebrated as a cornerstone text of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing is concerned with its titular subject in more ways than one. While racial passing undoubtedly constitutes the text’s thematic center, Larsen’s narrative also implicitly addresses the theme of sexual passing. This is most readily observable in Irene Redfield, who manages to “pass” as heterosexual while simultaneously harboring a desire for the enigmatic Clare Kendry. An analysis of Irene’s suppressed erotic desire for Clare not only contextualizes the former’s obsession with the latter but also sheds light on the exact nature of Irene’s troubled relationship with her husband, Brian. Moreover, such a reading offers another lens through which the reader can interpret Irene’s questionable actions in the novella’s finale. In response to critics who contend that queer reading and theorizing are little more than acts of ideological and political navel-gazing, I argue that to examine Passing from a queer perspective does not undermine the gravity of Larsen’s narrative. Rather, the thematic implications of this perspective harmonize with Passing’s moral message. Ultimately, Larsen’s work is a succinct treatise on the psychological dangers of repression and self-loathing. A queer reading does not muddle or detract from this message—it fortifies and enriches it.
Irene’s infatuation with Clare is evident from their first encounter at the Drayton Hotel, the remembrance of which causes “[b]rilliant red patches [to flame] in Irene Redfield’s warm olive cheeks” (Larsen 11). The feeling is obviously reciprocated: In her letter to Irene, Clare remarks, “I […] cannot help longing to be with you again, as I have never longed for anything before; and I have wanted many things in my life. [….] It’s like an ache, a pain that never ceases” (11). Irene’s descriptions of Clare are distinctly homoerotic in tone. To Irene, Clare is a “lovely creature” (17) with “strange, languorous eyes” (16) and a smile Irene considers “a shade too provocative” (15); later in the novella, she employs a similar figure when she notes that Clare “was just a shade too good-looking” (70). This bubbling sexual tension between Irene and Clare climaxes in a scene fraught with subdued sensuality: “[l]ooking at [Clare], Irene Redfield had a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling. Reaching out, she grasped Clare’s two hands in her own and cried with something like awe in her voice: ‘Dear God! But aren’t you lovely, Clare!’” (65). While Larsen never explicitly states that the relationship between these two women is a homoerotic one, one can glean from this textual evidence that the possibility of a romantic and sexual subtext would not be far-fetched.
Far from distracting from Larsen’s principal narrative of internecine racism and self-loathing, reading Passing from a queer perspective adds an extra layer of complexity to Irene’s already nuanced character. Much in the way that Clare “passes” as white partly by marrying a white man, one can argue that Irene “passes” as heterosexual through her participation in heteronormative marriage, albeit a sexless one. A successful and lauded doctor, prodigiously devoted to his profession, and also a thoroughgoing pushover, Brian is the perfect husband for Irene, who subconsciously seeks to maintain the illusion of heterosexual propriety and respectability without compromising her aversion to male intimacy. Larsen’s narrator leaves little room for interpretation concerning Irene’s motive in marrying Brian: For Irene, “security was the most important and desired thing in life. [….] She wanted only to be tranquil. Only, unmolested, to be allowed to direct for their own best good the lives of her sons and her husband” (107). When she begins to suspect that Brian is having an affair with Clare, Irene breaks down—not because she loves her husband and fears losing him but because she fears the loss of stability and heterosexual propriety that he represents. Irene’s marriage to Brian is one of pragmatism and control rather than love and respect; to Irene, Brian is merely “her husband and the father of her sons” (107), the key to the bourgeois security she so desperately craves. In this way, Irene’s marriage to Brian complements the novel’s textual politics by mirroring Clare’s marriage to the deeply racist John Bellew. Both Irene and Clare have forced themselves to suppress integral aspects of their identity—race and sexuality, respectively—to conform to a cultural metanarrative of white supremacy and heterosexism.
Larsen’s attitude toward these women’s choices is overwhelmingly evident, if a bit dramatic: For both Irene and Clare, repression and self-denial lead inevitably to violence and destruction. Clare voluntarily subjects herself to an abusive relationship with a staunch white supremacist. Moreover, unable to cope with the knowledge that her husband and conduit to a respectable heteronormative existence is possibly committing adultery with the true object of her affections, Irene is driven to homicide. Granted, Larsen leaves the question of blame somewhat ambiguous, but the text itself seems to support the claim that Irene is responsible for Clare’s death in the novella’s final chapter. Perhaps, then, the question to ask is not whether it was Irene who pushed Clare, “[t]hat beauty that had torn at Irene’s placid life” (110), to her death from a six-story window; rather, a more pertinent question would be whether Irene pushed Clare to keep her away from Brian or whether Irene pushed Clare to keep her away from herself.
Du Bois’ Theory of Double Consciousness in “Passing”
In W.E.B. Du Bois’ manuscript The Souls of Black Folk, he explores the social construction of race and the view of racial identity among black folks by presenting the philosophy of double consciousness. The concept which refers to the sense of observing oneself through the eyes of others with the desire to fuse the double self into a better self is also explored in Nella Larsen’s Passing. The character Irene is illustrated as a personification of the notion’s influence in that she possesses twoness due to the conflicting societal identities as mulatto. Du Bois declares that black identity in America is dependent on how black people imagine the white populace perceives them. Irene’s main concern is the security of her family as she is aware of the external racial threats that loom upon an African American household. Hence wavers between racial identifications in order to achieve a safer and better unified identity. As the focus of the story, she is molded by this concept in several junctures in the narrative in both her personal identity and the perception of others. Thus, due to her double consciousness, Irene undergoes racial and identity contradictions influencing her perception of her own identity, others identity and her attitude towards racial passing.
Owing to her double consciousness Irene’s African ancestry makes her black before the white society hence strives to satisfy her role in the black community. Irene self-identifies as a black woman in society for respect, socioeconomic security, and in pursuit of racial stability. Larsen states that “she was aware that…security was the most important and desired thing in life” (Larsen). She therefore bases her identity on the sense of bourgeois safety and respect as a New Negro woman, inhabiting the role through activism and domesticity. Irene takes pride in progressing the black race through her involvement in the black community among the elites. As Du Bois states in his theory that the wish of their older selves not be lost and not whiten their Negro soul, simply wish to make it possible to embrace the twoness without prejudice from their fellows. Contrary to Clare, Irene strives for the ease of sustaining a seemingly stable racial identity avoiding the uncertainty and implications of abandoning her African identity. Irene’s awareness that she is considered black in contempt according to her racial heritage by the white America despite fair skin prompts the pursuit for the bourgeoisie lifestyle for security.
Similarly, double consciousness is observed in Irene’s inclination to integrate whiteness in her black identity to always feel in control and safe from contempt and external racial threats. Irene states about racial passing that “We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt…yet we…admire it. We shy away from it…but we protect it.” (Larsen). She is shown as displaying white racial and moral values in her stereotypic bourgeois lifestyle and elitism, wishing to integrate into the white-society to prevent her family from racial prejudices. In his manuscript he states black folks seek to escape the contempt of the white society and avoid the accesses for opportunities from closing (Du Bois). As Irene is occasionally passing for white to enjoy the convenience, her fears and doubts reflect the impact of double consciousness that involves the knowledge of the negative perception white people have of black folks. In spite of Irene’s security from racism in the margins of her black elite community, she still has proclivities towards embracing whiteness to ensure the true sense of security from the white society. Moreover, the internal conflict she experiences regarding protecting Clare’s black identity is fostered by her double consciousness. The precarious dynamic with Clare contradicts with Irene’s aim to sustain a sense of safety, stability, and permanence.
Consequently, her wariness and perception of Clare’s identity are driven by her double consciousness, as it makes her unable to reconcile Clare’s self-identification with her own sense of self. On Irene’s decision to either expose Clare, the author narrates, “She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race” (Larsen). Her attempts to place Clare on one or the other race fosters Irene’s internal conflict and insecurities regarding her own race and class. The quandary of her duality arises from deceiving her own race by abiding to white standards of identity while also trying to be loyal to her race, asserting her double consciousness. Her lifestyle represents the racial contradiction of double consciousness as she attempts to fuse distinct practices of each race in order to achieve an integrated identity. However, it is ironic, as an individual will remain loyal to a single race or else undermine their generated identity. As Du Bois states the double-aimed struggle, attempting to satisfy unresolved ideals has nurtured misplaced loyalties making some even ashamed of themselves.
Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness molds Irene through its influence on her perception of her identity, her opinion on racial passing, and subsequently her views on others identity. Her conscious awareness of how she is perceived by society prompts her to racially identify as black for a sense of permanence, security, and respect. Although the idea that Irene and her family will always be vulnerable to contempt and pity fosters the need to integrate white racial and moral standards to her lifestyle. Considering her main concern is a sense of security, Clare as a threat to that raises Irene’s jealousy and the unresolved perception of Clare driven by her double consciousness. Her external and internal conflicts regarding the complexity of integrating different races due to the question of identity, security, and racial loyalty is double consciousness in action.
Works CitedDu Bois, W.E.B. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” The Souls of Black Folk. Bartleby.com, 1903. Web.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York: Modern Library, 2002. Web.