The Harlem Renaissance was a turning point for many African Americans. A vast amount of literature was created specifically for this group during this era. It was a period when the African American “was in vogue” and “white thinkers and writers were devoting a considerable amount of attention” to them (Taylor 91, 90). For the first time, African Americans were being told that it was okay to be proud of who they were. This new consciousness and self-awareness was prominent in many works of literate, but several writers began exploring the darker side of this movement with literature that concentrated on the negative aspects of race relations in America. Nella Larsen’s novel Passing concentrates on this theme with the story of Clare, a tragic mulatto who “passes” as a white person. Not only is Passing representative of the plight of the “tragic mulatto”, it is also a novel that explores the complexities of human relationships.
Clare Kendry’s life is a perfect example of the plight of the “tragic mulatto.” This is a conventional “character who ‘passes’ [as a white person] and then reveals pangs of anguish resulting from forsaking his or her black identity” (Tate 142). In Passing, Clare “seems to have one overriding urge: to return to the [African American] world she left” (Davis 98). However, once she does return back to the African American community, her story leads to a tragic ending.
Clare’s desire to return to her African American heritage is obvious. She tells her childhood friend Irene Redfield that “she can’t know how in this pale life of mine I am all the time seeing the bright pictures of that other that I once thought I was glad to be free of…It’s like an ache, a pain that never ceases” (Larsen 145). She also realizes how much she want[s] to see [African Americans], to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh” (Larsen 200). Although Irene feels that there is “nothing sacrificial in Clare’s idea of life, no allegiance beyond her own immediate desire,” it is apparent that Clare’s desire to return to her African American race is honest, even if the motives seem rather one-sided (Larsen 144). Irene considers Clare to be “selfish, cold and hard” (Larsen 144). Irene also feels that Clare does not have “even in the slightest artistic or sociological interest in the race that some members of other races displayed…[She] cared nothing of the race, she only belonged to it” (Larsen 182). This may be true, but it does not diminish Clare’s own pain at having to deny her African American heritage, and her desire to return to it. Irene represents a portion of society who feel that people who pass must have a morally acceptable reason to return to their African American roots such as a desire to rebel against a white society that has forced them into the role of a white person. Just because Clare feels “no permanent allegiance to either the black or white worlds or any of the classic anguish of the tragic mulatto” does not mean that she is not a tragic mulatto (Washington 48). In her own way, “Clare Kendry belongs with that group of tragic mulattos…emerg[ing] as an individual, not as a stereotype” (Davis 98). Because she wants to return to her own race on her own terms illustrates her individuality in the face of the stereotypical tragic mulatto. Clare may not be the typical tragic mulatto, but her actions prove that she definitely belongs in this group of literary figures.
Clare Kendry passes in order to secure a more stable life. Her desire to do this begins when she is young, after her African American father dies and she is left with her white aunts. While there, Clare begins to want more than what she has as an African American. She “used to go over to the south side, [and] used to almost hate all [African Americans]. [They] had all the things [she] wanted and never had had. It made [her] all the more determined to get them” (Larsen 159). In order to get what she wants Clare marries a white man, John Bellows, under the pretense that she is white. Clare is then required to “deny everything about her past – her girlhood, her family, her language, places with memories, folk customs, folk rhymes, her language, [and] the entire long line of people that have gone before her” (Washington 50). She realizes that this is the only way she can get the middle-class stability she craves.
It is obvious that Clare eventually pays a price for this stability that she feels is so necessary in her life. Passing for Clare, “entails secrecy, deception, loss of identity, and eventually tragedy. It means to be separated from a lifestyle which offers up romantic image of sensation…and to lose something of one’s soul” (Gayle 113). The fact that she has to deny her identity in order to feel safe eventually leads to her realization that her life has become a lie. Clare tells Irene that she “nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery [her daughter] was born for fear that she might be dark” (Larsen 168). Her husband even calls her “Nig” as a nickname, completely unaware of her African American status. Eventually, Clare realizes that she is “not close to a single soul…[with] never anyone to talk to” (Larsen 196). Although Clare’s desire to return to the African American community outwardly seem merely whimsical, inwardly Irene begins to see “something groping, and hopeless, and yet so absolutely determined” inside this woman (Larsen 200). Clare will stop at nothing to leave the life she once desired in order to re-enter the African American community.
Clare begins to realize that her desire to return to her African American heritage overshadows the disaster it will cause. In order to “get the things [she] wants badly enough, [she]’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away” (Larsen 210). In reality, Clare’s ultimate “loss of soul” is realized in the fact that she is willing to forsake her family, including her daughter, in order to reclaim her racial identity. This, not her eventual death, becomes Clare’s ultimate tragedy. She loses something of her own soul living in the world of white men. Thus, in Clare, one “finds in her a tragic symbol of the whole irrational concern in America over color and race” (Davis 98). She feels that society forces her to abandon her family simply because part of her is African American.
The fact that Clare pretends to be white in order to secure an economically stable life is crucial to understanding the motivations for people who pass. First, for these people “there was an economic motivation. When almost every job of any consequence in the white world…were closed to the Negro, it was only natural for those who could pass to take advantage of their color” (Davis 97). Clare also passes “because it enables her to marry a man of means. Because she, like most other black women of the 1920’s, if she achieved any middle-class status, did it by virtue of a man’s presence in her life by virtue of his status” (Washington 48). Clare tells Irene that “money’s awfully nice to have. In fact all things consider…it’s even worth the price” of passing (Larsen 160). Clare’s motivation for passing does not mean that she feels that the African American race is beneath her. Instead, she understands that passing allows her to escape the poverty she faces as an African American. Clare passes “into the white world, and becomes [a wife] of a white man in order to have greater economic and professional opportunities” (Singh 58). Clare’s reasons for entering the white community are based solely on her desire for economic security, which John Bellows can provide.
Although Irene can pass if she desires, her marriage to a respectable African American doctor already secures her status in the middle-class black society. She does not have to hide her true identity because she has already achieved the same kind of social status that Clare so desperately desires. Ironically, however, Irene does occasionally pass seemingly out of convenience. Her feelings of being discovered in the Drayton passing as a white woman illustrate her conflict:
Irene felt, in turn, anger, scorn, and fear slide over her. It wasn’t that she was ashamed of being a Negro, or even of having it declared. It was the idea of being ejected from any place, even in the polite and tactful way in which the Drayton would probably do it, that disturbed her. (Larsen 150)
It is difficult to believe that Irene’s only concern about being identified as an African American at the Drayton is that she will be embarrassed if she is asked to leave. She casually passes out of convenience but at the same time loses some shred of her dignity because she denies her identity, just as Clare does. Irene’s passing is also hypocritical because she disapproves of it for Clare, but considers it acceptable for herself. Her “protestations about race are disproportionate to the situation” because even she is willing to pass if the situation warrants (McDowell xxviii). Although Irene does not completely pass into the white community as Clare does, her willingness to deceive in order to gain social status, like tea at the ritzy Drayton, illustrates another motivation behind passing.
The theme of passing is significant in Larsen’s novel, however, Passing also centers on the complexity of human relationships. The racial dilemmas of the novel “illuminate intricate personal relationships between Clare, Irene and Brian [Irene’s husband]” (Ravitz 393). Passing is told in an omniscient point of view that centers on the life of Irene Redfield. Because of this, her thoughts and feelings remain the backdrop of the story, giving her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to her reactions to the events that transpire.
Irene Redfield is a woman whose most prized possession is the security of her life. She regards “all other plans, all other ways…as menaces, more or less indirect, to that security of place and substance which she insists upon for her sons and in a lesser degree for herself” (Larsen 190). This is why her relationship with her husband Brian is strained. She cannot understand why he dreams of moving away from the United States. This would mean change, and Irene does not “like changes, particularly changes that affected the smooth routine of her household” (Larsen 188). The middle class life she so desperately clings to threatens to be torn from her because of Brian’s unhappiness with their life. Eventually, “For the sake of security and control, life with her husband becomes a series of routine gestures, interaction becomes staging, talk becomes dialogue, and relations become the public performing of the privately rehearsed”(192). Brian is “always the attentive husband” to Irene, whose own desire to control her life inevitably threatens to destroy their marriage (Larsen 215). Irene also knows that “prestige and standing in the black community amount to nothing in the absence of her husband” (Gayle 215). This is why Irene becomes determined to keep her marriage together when she feels that Clare is threatening to tear it apart.
Irene’s middle class life not only represents her desire for security, but also illustrates why Clare’s passing, a very risky way of living, fascinates her. It is as if Clare “who had done this rather dangerous and, to Irene Redfield, abhorrent thing successfully and had announced herself well satisfied, had for her a fascination, strange and compelling” (Larsen 161). Irene finds passing both detestable and attractive at the same time. She believes that “it’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we admire it. We shy away from it like an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it” (Larsen 185-86). Irene’s ambiguous feelings about passing illustrate her fascination with Clare Kendry’s plight.
Because of Irene’s status in the African American community, she cannot understand Clare’s desire to re-enter the African American community. Clare, as a white woman, has all of the prestige and power that Irene has and giving it up would be a direct threat the security that Clare fought so hard to gain. Irene, “as the wife of a doctor…has servants, security, and near dictatorial powers over her family. As a black woman she has more prestige, let alone power, than would be accorded her were she white under similar circumstances” (Gayle 113). She feels that “it was as if Clare Kendry has said to her, for whom safety and security were all-important: ‘Safe! Damn being safe’” (Larsen 195). However, Clare Kendry realizes that her own social status is meaningless if she is forced to hide her African American identity. Ironically, Irene’s own adoption of white middle-class values makes it impossible for her to understand Clare’s desire for acceptance in the African American community she feels most comfortable in (Gayle 113). Irene has no desire to “assist Clare to realize her foolish desire to return for a moment to that life which long ago, and of her own choice, she had left behind” (145). The fact that Clare left the African American community to realize the same kind of social status that Irene achieves completely escapes her. Larsen’s creation of Clare allows this character to “explore avenues, economic or otherwise, that would have been open to [her] in American life but for her racial identity” (Singh 93). Irene’s inability to understand Clare’s plight clearly illustrates the complexities of such explorations.
Clare Kendry outwardly seems to be the complete opposite of Irene. She is described as “catlike” by Irene, who believes she is at times “hard and apparently without feeling at all” and that “there was about her an amazing soft malice, hidden well away until provoked” (Larsen 144-45). On the other hand, Irene admires Clare’s “dim suggestion of polite insolence with which few women are born” and considers her “an attractive-looking woman…with those dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin (Larsen 161, 148). It is apparent that Irene is both attracted to and repulsed by Clare Kendry just like she is with her passing. Irene’s observations indicate that “Nella Larsen chooses to tell the story from [her] point of view so that the main interest of the book is not the psychology of the woman who is passing but the complex and ambivalent responses of the woman who could have passed” (Singh 99). This is illustrated by Irene’s responses to Clare’s characteristics as well as her passing. Instead of concentrating on Clare’s experience, Larsen’s decision to concentrate on Irene’s view of Clare’s actions make Passing a more provocative novel. Although Irene’s view of Clare may be biased, still “one tends to pity, in spite of her ruthlessness, this poor, mixed-up child of a bad background, married to an [African American] hating white husband” (Davis 98). Clare does not seem to have “any proper morals or sense of duty” because she is forced to fight dishonestly in order to get what she wants (Larsen 210). Society does not offer her any other options to be a successful woman.
Although Clare Kendry’s plight might at times illicit pity, her actions occasionally appear to be incredulous. She can also be described as “hard, amoral, and utterly selfish in her search for happiness or, at least, contentment” (Davis 97). One instance that illustrates this is when Clare doubts the intentions of an acquaintance who becomes Jewish. She does not accept the idea that “everyone doesn’t do everything for gain” because “it [does not] occur to [her]” (Larsen 169). Obviously, Clare’s intentions always depend on what will be gained by her personally. Her selfishness is also apparent when she allows her husband to call her “Nig” in the presence of Irene and Gertrude. Irene finds it “hard to believe that even Clare Kendry would permit this ridiculing of her race by an outsider, though the chanced to be her husband” (Larsen 170). Even when Irene reminds Clare of the implications her return to the African American community might have on her daughter, Clare tells Irene that “being a mother is the cruelest thing in the world” (Larsen 197). Clare’s insensitive reactions to what is going on around her illustrate another side of her character that is hard to pity.
Like Irene, Brian Redfield’s feelings towards Clare appear to be ambiguous. It seems as if “his own attitudes toward her move from rejection to attention” (Ravitz 395). When he first becomes aware of Clare’s desire to return to the African American race after years of passing, he believes that people like Clare are “scared enough most of the time, when they give way to the urge and slip back” (Larsen 185). Once Brian meets Clare, Irene witnesses him giving her “one of his amused, slightly mocking smiles” (Larsen 203). Brian, as seen through Irene’s eyes, seems to hold no attraction for people like Clare. However, once she is regularly invited to join their company, Irene begins to feel threatened by her presence. Brian’s personal invitation to Clare at Irene’s tea party confirms her suspicion that he is attracted to her and that they quite possibly could be having an affair. Ironically, “it becomes clear that Redfield sees and admires in [Clare] the chief virtue that he believes is lacking in his wife: a fearless, risk-taking personality that leads her to choose a means, however onerous, to escape the sting of racism in America” (Ravitz 395). Irene’s constant obsession with security drives Brian to admire Clare’s ability to sacrifice her own security in order to be happy. Although Irene’s suspicions are never confirmed, the very fact that Clare disturbs “the pleasant routine of her life” with her “menace of impermanence” causes Irene to realize that she, like Clare must now risk everything in order to have the live she strives for (Larsen 229).
In the end, Irene becomes just as depraved as Clare in order to keep her life intact. She “ironically, detail for detail…manifests the same faults for which she so harshly accuses Clare” and with “cold, hard, exploitative and manipulative determination, tries to protect her most cherished attainment: security” (McDowell xxv). Irene never tells her husband or Clare about her suspicion that John Bellows may know that Clare is passing after running into her on the street. Irene is afraid that Clare might end up being free and “of all things that could happen, that was the one thing that she didn’t want” (Larsen 228). Irene realizes that Clare’s freedom might mean the end of her security, and she cannot let that happen. Instead, Irene believes that the death of Clare is the only way she will truly be free of her, foreshadowing the tragic ending of the woman who passes. Although it is not clear exactly how Clare falls from the window after John discovers her deception, just before the fall Irene discloses “that she couldn’t have Clare Kendry cast aside by Bellow…she couldn’t have her free” (Larsen 239). This reveals that Irene is very likely responsible for Clare’s death. Although the ambiguity surrounding the incident prevents determining “Irene’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” she seems to be the one character who benefits the most from Clare’s death (Tate 145). Like Clare, Irene will “do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away” in order to “get the things [she] wants badly enough” (Larsen 210). In the end, the differences between Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield are overshadowed by their similarities revealing that their relationship is just as significant as the issue of passing. Clearly Larsen “is able to present her subject with wide perspective: a personal problem can be expanded to a racial problem, then to a universal one” (Sato 89).
Nella Larsen’s Passing successfully deals with the plight of the “tragic mulatto” and the complexities of human relationships. Her literary contribution is significant because of her ability to confidently handle a sensitive racial issue while also exploring the ramifications of this issue on human relationships. It is clear that Larsen meant to include both the social and psychological aspects of passing in her novel. Because of this, Passing remains a novel that is clearly representative of the Harlem Renaissance.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
McDowell, Deborah E. Introduction. Passing. By Nella Larsen. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1986. ix – xxxi.
Petesch, Donald A. A Spy in the Enemy’s Country: The Emergence of Modern Black Literature. Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1989.
Ravitz, Abe. Rev. of Passing, by Nella Larsen. Masterpieces of Women’s Literature. New York: Salem Press, 1996. 393 – 96.
Tate, Claudia. “Nella Larsen’s Passing: A Problem of Interpretation.” Black American Literature Forum 14 (1980): 142-46.
Taylor, Patricia. “Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.” The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. Ed. Bontemps, Arna. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972. 90-102.