Passing by Nella Larsen

She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. Clare, herself, or the race. Or, it might be all three. Nothing, she imagined, was ever more completely sardonic.
Sitting alone in the quiet living-room in the pleasant fire-light, Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a Negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well. IT was a brutality, and undeserved.

I think I’ll need to read Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) again. Just so that it can all sink in. I read it a few months ago so one would assume that would be plenty of time for sinkage. I think the section above does a good job summing up the tug that both women feel in this book. They are old friends and meet coincidently one day at a restaurant in New York. Clare is passing for white and is married to a white man who is decidedly racist. She has left her family and friends behind and lives a tense life deceiving those around her. Irene passes when it is convenient (she was passing the day she and Clare met at the restaurant), has married a black man and raises her children in Harlem to be aware of their racially charged world. She plans charity events and generally leads a pleasing life. After learning about Clare’s situation Irene struggles with acceptance and is increasingly alarmed by the danger that Clare is creating for herself. She also begins to wonder about her own actions. Irene’s internal struggle is most prominent because the novel is written from her point of view. But through her eyes we also see that Clare is torn and that her deception weighs heavily on her. The mental taxation and stress of their situations is sharply painted. Identity is a major theme in this book, particularly what it means to be yourself, and to be accepted by others. The biggest realization I think they come to is what are the personal implications for not being able to be accepted for who you really are.

One response to “Passing by Nella Larsen

  • Aarti

    I’ve had this on my radar after reading House Behind the Cedars. I didn’t realize the plot was so intense, though. WOW- I can see why you need time to let it sink in!

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