Contrasting Beliefs and Lifestyles Give Purpose and Affirmation: Irene and Clare in Passing
Desmond Tutu once said, “A person is a person through other persons…. I am because other people are.” In essence, what Tutu is saying is that without other people to influence and affect an individual, a person is not really anyone. It is the things that other people do and say, and how an individual reacts to those things, that build personality, depth, and character. In Nella Larsen’s novella, Passing, protagonist Irene Redfield embodies Tutu’s quote. She lives a life in which her children, husband, and greater race guide her every move, and she abides by rigid social rules in order to maintain harmony within her community. On the contrary, her peer, Clare Kendry, disrupts this balance by making decisions purely in an individualistic manner, threatening Irene’s concept of a society in which everyone belongs to and lives for their respective communities. Because Clare is a personification of everything that Irene fears, Clare’s life gives Irene an affirmation of her ways of life, but also threatens Irene’s lifestyle by challenging the social constructs that give her safety, comfort, predictability, and security.
Irene and Clare have extremely different definitions of safety, which consequently threaten the other’s security. Irene’s security is dictated by other people – her husband, her children, and the greater black community; she is always a part of a collective identity. After Irene and her husband Brian get into a fight about their son, Irene expresses: “It was only that she wanted [Brian] to be happy… all other plans, all other ways, she regarded as menaces… to that security of place and substance which she insisted upon for her sons and in a lesser degree for herself” (90). The definitive and conclusive tone of this quote shows the self-sacrifice that guides Irene in her life. Additionally, the choice of the word “menaces” to describe all other plans that do not have to do with the happiness of her husband and her sons, and the word’s negative connotations, display the high degree to which Irene has dedicated her life to others. Lastly, the phrase “security of place and substance” clearly defines for the reader what safety is for Irene: happiness for her husband, her kids, and doing whatever it takes to achieve that, even that the expense of her own happiness. On the other hand, Clare’s security is dictated by her own individual desires, and her identity is not bound by that of anyone else. When she and Irene discuss their contrasting lifestyles, Clare explains, “‘Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe’” (125). The blatancy of this quote and the ease in which Clare is able to articulate these emotions reveal her selfish and individualistic mindset. Also, the use of such all-encompassing words as “anything” and “anybody” suggests the extremity of Clare’s egotistical personality, as there is not a single person or thing she would not harm to get what she wants. Lastly, the use of the phrase “not safe” in respect to Clare shows the the mutual exclusivity between being selfish and being safe. Overall, their contrasting definitions of safety create conflict between the two, causing Irene to want to distance herself from Clare, but causing Clare to be more motivated to reintegrate into the black community.
As a result of their different definitions of safety, Clare and Irene are bound to one another; each of their lifestyles creates contrast to the other and either reaffirms or destroys their beliefs in the rightness of their respective ways of life. As a result, their differences each give them purpose: Irene needs to distance herself from Clare, while Clare wants to get closer to Irene. When Irene gets a letter from Clare, she reflects that “Clare Kendry cared nothing for the race. She only belonged to it” (76). The unquestionable and confident tone that Irene uses here demonstrates the strength and purpose that Irene gains from Clare’s disrespect toward the race. Irene wastes thought and energy on Clare because it reminds her of her own dedication to her race, and allows her to isolate Clare from the group. The fact-like conciseness and conclusivity of this quote indicates that Clare’s own treason to the race gives Irene an excuse and outlet to separate herself from those who do not commit their entire lives to their race. Besides giving Irene someone and something to speak out against and to separate herself from, Clare’s lifestyle also reaffirms Irene’s belief that her way of life is the right one. When Irene and Clare are talking and Clare begins to cry about the struggles she is having, she says to Irene: “‘How could you know? How could you? You’re free. You’re happy. And… safe” (100). This clear, concise, and powerful statement by Clare to Irene validates Irene’s lifestyle. The words such as “free,” “happy,” and “safe” are all of the things that Irene aspires to be in life, so Clare’s acknowledgment of this serves to prove to Irene that all of her self-sacrifice is worth it. Overall, Irene’s ideas of safety and freedom are bound to Clare because without her, Irene would not have such personal and firsthand experience with those who pass to the white world. As someone so entirely dedicated to her race and collective community, interacting with Clare gives Irene purpose and confidence in her own way of life.
However, as the novella progresses, Clare’s unfiltered honesty brings out the flaws in Irene’s seemingly perfect life, causing her to further isolate herself from Clare and from the truth. Irene and Brian have had many difficulties in their marriage throughout the novella, but it was always something that Irene swept under the rug in order to protect her sons and the stability of her life. However, after she develops a suspicion that Clare and Brian are having an affair, she tries with all of her might to suppress the painful memory. At a party at her house, she distracts herself and cuts the thought out of her mind rather than confronting it: “Downstairs the ritual of tea gave her some busy moments, and that, she decided, was a blessing. She wanted no empty spaces in time in which her mind would immediately return to that horror…” (138-9). Here, Irene’s ability to realize her husband might be cheating on her but then to completely distract herself with something as insignificant as pouring tea suggests an unfailing ability to hide her feelings. Even if it is her marriage being threatened, she never fails to hide the painful truth and go on with her life. Her coping mechanism is to repress and refuse this truth, and distance herself psychologically from anything that might threaten her security. She further demonstrates this later on in the scene, where she is finally able to actually think about the situation rather than just pushing it out of her mind: “It hurt. It hurt like hell. But it didn’t matter, if no one knew. If everything could go on as before. If the boys were safe” (147). Here, she conveys a more introspective and analytical approach to this painful truth that Clare has surfaced. She is able to recognize her own emotions and bring to light how she is feeling. However, the arc of her thought process ending with her decision to once again suppress her feelings shows her inability to do anything to threaten her life and security. The solution to Irene’s conundrum being hiding her feelings and continuing to serve everyone except herself implies her undying dedication and almost enslavement to others, but never to herself. Finally, at the end of the novella, it becomes clear that Clare’s very existence poses a threat to the security, predictability, and comfort of Irene’s lifestyle. Irene decides that the only way for her to be freed of the discomfort and vulnerability that Clare brings to her life is to get rid of Clare: “She was an American. She grew from this soil, she would not be uprooted. Not even because of Clare Kendry, or a hundred Clare Kendrys” (169-70). The end of the novella makes reference to the American dream, and the American identity to which Irene lives so strongly by. Her connection to America and her feeling that Clare threatens this connection is what makes her decide that nobody, not even Clare, can stop her from pursuing the American lifestyle that she wants. However, even when she has this realization, she continues the same habit of pushing whatever threatens her and her lifestyle away, rather than dealing with the issues in front of her.
The end of the novella is a tragic one, as Clare dies from falling out of a window. It is unclear how exactly the tragedy occurred, but it is clear that Clare’s death is a symbolic one. Clare is the only character in the novella who successfully and wholeheartedly takes control of her own life and destiny, rather than letting social constructs or the demands of a collective identity get in her way. Unlike Irene, who fears individuality and self-reliance, Clare is able to threaten the society in which she lives by passing from one world to another, never picking one, and living in the in-between. Irene, on the other hand, continues to repress the truth in order to keep living in a predictable, comfortable, ideal world dictated by social constructs. However, the fact that Clare dies suggests that unfortunately, the only way to be truly safe and free is to stick to the status quo and conform to societal norms. This is because the perpetuation of any social constructs requires people to believe in and sustain them; when one person attempts to disrupt such an ideologically homogeneous society, he or she unfortunately cannot change the fixed views or behaviors of anyone else.
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