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 A tempting mouth…Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about them” (Larsen 161).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.