Passing by Nella Larsen

passingAfter rereading Their Eyes Were Watching God, I decided to seek out books published by women pre-1950 to add to my 2018 TBR. You can see the whole list on a past Fierce Feminist Friday. I started with Nella Larsen’s Passing, first published in 1929.

Passing concerns two black women living in Chicago and Harlem in the 1920s: Irene Redfield and her childhood friend, Clare Kendry. Irene and Clare grew up together, and the book begins when they meet by chance after having fallen out of touch. Irene discovers that Clare has been passing for white, and has, in fact, married a white man who doesn’t know her true identity. Clare invites Irene back to her house for tea, where she meets Clare’s husband, Jack Bellew, who, unaware that his wife and Irene and a third friend are all black, makes racial slurs and expresses openly racist views, making Irene deeply uncomfortable and angry. She vows to keep Clare out of her life.

In the second section, Irene and Clare meet again in New York, many years after the previous incident, and become a part of each other’s lives. Though Clare is still passing, she expresses a fervent desire to be among her own people, and spends much time with Irene and her husband at their home in Harlem. In the final section of the book, events come to a head at a dinner party hosted by a friend of Irene and Clare’s. Various truths are revealed and Irene is forced to reexaime her relationship with Clare, and with her husband.

Passing is a wonderful book: readable, engaging, and complex. In my desire to consume all the new books! I sometimes forget to step back and read books published a long time ago. Passing was a fantastic reminder of how important those books still are. It was a short read–I listened to the audio, narrated by the incomparable Robin Miles, which was only four hours. The book felt elegant and sharp. It was simply plotted, but packed a punch, and within the confined structure of three meetings between Irene and Clare, Larsen explored not only race, but issues of gender, sexuality, class, parenting, and marriage.

Passing, of course, is a theme at the heart of this novel. Both Irene and Clare are able to pass for white, but only Irene choses to do so, and thus their lives take vastly different tracks. Larsen explores not only what it means to take on an alternate identity, but how a person’s shifting identity affects everyone else in their life. Both Irene and Clare long for what they do not have, and they both see something desirable in the other. Though their characters play off each other thematically, they never felt like constructs or archetypes.

Irene struggles, throughout the book, with her feelings for Clare and her actions. She is at turns angry, appalled, impressed, jealous, intrigued. Likewise, Clare is not only defined by her actions. She is not merely a woman who gets herself into a dangerous situation in order to get something she wants, and regrets it. She is unapologetic and proud, sometimes regretful, sometimes sad. Both of these women are complicated and sometimes make bad–but relatable–decisions.

For me, this gets at the heart of what makes good fiction: people are messy and do things for many different reasons. Compelling characters, in my opinion, are not always good or decent or likable, but relatable. The question is: can I imagine being this person, can I empathize with their actions and situations, can I understand where they’re coming from? Irene and Clare are not always good and kind to each other, but they are fully human, and that

I found myself thinking about the nature of freedom–where it comes from, what it means, how it is achieved. Irene, who could pass if she wanted to, decides instead to live her life in Harlem, and so experiences one kind of freedom: the freedom to be seen and not to hide. She’s known and respected and deeply engaged with her community. Clare, who chooses instead to pass as white, experiences another kind of freedom: the freedom of opportunity that would not have been available to her as a black woman. Both of these freedoms have consequences, and though the novel makes clear the dangers of passing, Larsen avoids moralizing. Clare longs to be away from her husband, and spends more and more time in Harlem with Irene. Yet Irene’s life is far from perfect. I appreciated the nuance, which made this short book feel vast.

It’s not just a book about race, either. Quietly, Larsen delves into many other issues. Irene wrestles with motherhood, and specifically, how to raise black children in a racist society. There’s a poignant scene in which she and her husband argue about whether or not to discuss a recent lynching at the dinner table with their children. It was chilling to read because of its similarity to scenes in so many contemporary books in which black parents discuss police brutality with their young children.

Passing is as much about the mechanics of marriage and friendship as it is about race. It is compelling read, I think, because it is so many things at once: a family drama, an exploration of female friendship, a lush portrait of black urban life in the 1920s, and a multi-faceted examination of racial identity and politics.

At one point, Irene says that what she values most of all is security. In the context of the novel, security is a word of many, many layers. The book comes to a dramatic climax, which Larsen leaves open-ended. During that last scene, I found myself thinking about this question of security, and what it means. Freedom and security are not the same thing, but this novel has me wondering if perhaps they’re more interrelated than I thought.

 

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