Passing by Nella Larsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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Passing by Nella Larsen follows two fair-skinned Black women who reconnect as friends but sense danger every moment they spend together because one decides to pass as White and the other fears the consequences of her friend’s secret life.
White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, fingernails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a Gypsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro. No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn’t possibly know.
Irene Redfield goes into the Drayton in Chicago to escape the heat. She gets into the fancy hotel due to her complexion. She’s assumed White, so she keeps her head down and sips her tea. Until an unfamiliar woman comes up to her calling her by her childhood nickname ’Rene. It takes more conversation for Irene to realize she’s talking to Clare Kendry. They grew up together until Clare’s drunken father died and Clare was sent away to live with relatives. There, she began to pass as White leading her to have a White family who doesn’t know she’s Black. When Irene learns Clare is living her life as a White woman, she’s taken aback by the revelation. Irene lives in Harlem with her Black family, and walking into the Drayton is the only time she passed for White.
Catlike. Certainly that was the word which best described Clare Kendry, if any single word could describe her. Sometimes she was hard and apparently without feeling at all; sometimes she was affectionate and rashly impulsive. And there was about her an amazing soft malice, hidden well away until provoked.
As they try to rebuild their bond, they have trouble figuring out how each other fits into their lives. Irene can’t risk Clare being around her, her Black friends, and even her White friends in case someone realizes she’s passing. And Clare can’t risk anyone finding out she’s Black. The will-they, won’t-they friendship notches up when Clare shows up at Irene’s home in Black Harlem wondering why her friend hadn’t answered a letter she sent. That’s when Clare admits she misses the Black community and asks Irene to introduce her to the Redfields’ social circle. Irene obliges but knows Clare’s true racial identity could be exposed. She feels an inkling of guilt as opportunities open up for her to reveal Clare, whose charisma has sucked the air out of every room Irene is in. One major opportunity does open up, but as Irene wrestles with the idea to take it, she realizes Clare is already in grave danger.
The danger and fear rises in the portrayal of Clare’s marriage and Irene’s marriage. Clare’s racist husband John Bellew calls his wife Nig, a shortened version of the n-word he gave her in response to her tan. This repulses Irene and forces her to understand the danger not only outside in the world Clare has to deal with but the danger sleeping beside her at home. With Bellew’s temperament, the reader gets the assumed vision of Clare’s marriage that she purports as a perfect union.
On the other hand, Irene’s doctor husband, Brian, tells her to not get involved with Clare’s dangerous antics. We also see Irene’s desperation to read Brian’s distant emotions. He seems unhappy with their home life and the racist world they live in. When Clare enters the Redfields’ lives, Irene is hesitant to invite Clare to social functions whereas Brian, originally repelled by Clare, now is too eager to accompany Clare. This makes Irene even more fearful for her marriage and fearful for what she is capable of in imploding Clare’s life.
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.
Overall, the novel’s two main characters warring internally with themselves and each other over their racial identity brings other issues into the light. The story examines a friendship that isn’t meant to be reestablished as Irene, whose voice resonates more, and Clare, whose voice remains buried, question their race and the circumstances it has put them in. The novel, written in 1929, is in the same vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby yet doesn’t have the same stature in American literature. It shows two Black women instead striving for riches with Clare presenting herself as a White woman married to her White international banker husband as they prepare to send their daughter to boarding school in Switzerland; and Irene deciding to identify as Black in Black Harlem with her Black doctor husband and two sons and still having the means to afford a maid. Clare senses that Irene may not have as much money as her, but at least she has the freedom to be herself. It’s the themes of what is considered a luxurious life and what sacrifices have to be made in order to live that life that resonates a century later.