This is one of my occasional series where I share my thoughts on the whole of a book, so if you don’t want to know how it ends, look away now …
First published in 1929, Passing is a complex story about the tense relationship between two light-skinned black women each negotiating the ‘colour line’.
Irene Redfield has a comfortable life. She is married to a doctor, Brian, and they live at the heart of the Harlem black elite. Her sense of equilibrium is shaken when she visits Chicago and has a chance meeting with her childhood friend, Clare Kendry.
Unlike Irene, Clare had a traumatic childhood, They lost touch when she was orphaned and then brought up by her white aunts, who treated her like a servant. But Clare is transformed. She is poised, beautiful and married to a wealthy white man whose business interests mean he is often away from home. She wants to spend time with Irene and be among black people again. Irene resists her overtures, but over time Clare becomes a part of her life in Harlem.
Larsen’s writing is beautiful, with elegant phrasing and startling imagery. From the beginning there is a sense that Irene is taut with fear – the sweltering day in Chicago that leads her to the hotel terrace, her terror as an (apparently) white woman watches her and she is afraid she will be challenged for being there, the way her anxiety is hardly reduced when she finally recognises Clare and they speak.
Irene experiences both antagonism and fascination as she sees a woman who is everything she is not. Irene embraces her black identity. Clare appears deceitful and manipulative. Irene remembers her as heartless, even in childhood, showing no grief at the death of her father. However, we only see Clare through Irene’s eyes and Irene’s motives are clouded by her own fears. Clare might also be seen as a survivor, someone who made the best of a tragic childhood which might otherwise have crushed her.
I like what Larsen leaves out. She leaves the reader space. We don’t know how Irene and Brian met, or how she came to be living in Harlem. We don’t know what Clare does when she’s not with Irene and her Harlem friends, although we have some hints – at that first meeting in Chicago, Irene sees her with a white man who is not her husband.
Clare claims she wants to spend time in Harlem because she only feels she belongs when she’s with her black friends. Is this a heartfelt cry to regain her identity or simply a desire for drama and a new set of people to impress? Why is she so determined to insert herself into Irene’s life?
Clare is living a lie. Her husband does not know she is black and this puts her in jeopardy, just how much becomes clear when Irene and another light-skinned black friend are visiting Clare. Clare’s husband, Jack, appears and speaks offensively about black people, believing they are three white women. Irene is again conflicted, torn between shame that she doesn’t challenge him, and the justification that she needs to stay silent to protect Clare.
Irene is feeling stultified by the Harlem social scene, the rigid hierarchies of class within the black community, the way questions of race are inescapable, even in their comfortable home. When her young sons hear about a lynching and ask the meaning of the word, her husband, Brian, tells them. She objects, saying they are too young. He retorts that as long as they live in America, they will have to understand the threats they face.
Brian wants the family to move to Brazil, to a society where he believes they will be free of racial division. She wants to stay, because this is her home, despite everything. However this disagreement leads to increasing tension between them. Clare’s increasing insinuation into their lives and his discontent become entwined in Irene’s mind and she becomes convinced that Clare and Brian are having an affair.
Later Irene meets Clare’s husband in the street. Irene is with a woman friend who is clearly black and seeing her in this context, he makes the connection that she, and possibly Clare, are black too. Irene knows she should warn Clare, because this exposure puts her in danger, but her motives are now confused. If Clare becomes estranged from her husband, will Brian leave Irene to be with her? She is in a state of despair, unable to judge what is right or fair or expedient and so she does nothing.
In the climactic scene, they are at a party with some black friends in Harlem when Jack arrives and confronts Clare. She is standing near a tall open window when Irene steps forward and touches her arm. Irene can’t remember what happens next, but afterwards she learns Clare has fallen to her death.
After such restraint and tension, the ending does seem to shift into melodrama. It was also pretty heavily signposted, particularly if you’re a crime fiction fan – the long walk up to the apartment and the tall, open window are described in detail. However what it does is make explicit and real what Irene has unconsciously desired.
The ending is ambiguous. Irene’s narration suggests that she pushed Clare, but is unable to acknowledge it. Is this her unconscious guilt for what she wanted to happen, or is it true? Brian tells the police he saw Jack push Clare. Did Brian really see what he claimed to see, is he protecting his wife, or does he feel justified in scapegoating an avowed racist?
This is my favourite kind of writing, beautiful, spare, understated. Larsen draws together so many themes – race, sexual jealousy, trauma, but Passing is also the story of two individuals whose contrasting temperaments lead them along very different paths. Is Clare really a threat to Irene or is she projecting her fears onto her? The beauty of the novel is that Larsen leaves it to us to decide.
Want to know more about Nella Larsen?
I also enjoyed In Search of Nella Larsen by George Hutchinson. This biography is both fascinating and frustrating. Nella Larsen was intensely private and did not leave much of an archive, so, as with her fictional characters, the reader has to fill in the gaps. The book offers a fascinating insight into the period and the worlds she occupied – from her childhood in Chicago, to her time in the Harlem Renaissance, to her later life as a nurse, estranged from her literary friends.
It’s expensive, but I was lucky enough to get hold of a library copy.