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.
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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 […]