Sexual and Racial Tension in Larsen?s Passing
Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield are the two main characters in Nella Larsen?s Passing. We do not learn about the both of them by seeing or hearing the story from a neutral point of view. Rather, we are subject to envision the entire novel from behind the eyes of only one of these characters, Irene. At first, forcing the reader to suspend themselves in only one of these two complex minds may seem like a biased action on the part of the author. However, as we read further into the book, we soon discover that the limited third-person view is necessary to bring both of these figures to life. This is because Irene?s perspective thrives off of Clare. Despite the fact that each have heavily contrasting personalities. Irene?s vivid but seemingly painful descriptions of Clare only augment the racial and sexual tension that exists between them.
From the very first page of the book, it is clear that Irene Redfield?s personality clashes with Clare Kendry?s. The moment Irene spies the second letter Clare has sent her, dressed up in ?Italian paper?out of place and alien? (Larsen 9), it is obvious that there are many differences between these two young women. As the book progresses further, we soon learn more and more why Irene?s feelings of resentment towards Clare are justifiable. Growing up, Clare had ?never been exactly one of the group? (Larsen 20) and always wanted more out of life. Her desires and light skin eventually landed her in the ?other world,? passing off as white. Irene finds especially shocking how Clare could just drop her entire heritage like a brick and live with someone who considers African-Americans ?black scrimy devils? (Larsen 40). Here we see the first signs of racial and sexual tension that exists between the two women. Irene is upset at Clare not only for completely denying and neglecting her own race, but also for letting herself be drawn to a man who does not appreciate her for who she is. Although Irene sometimes passes herself as white for certain perks in life, such as eating in fancy restaurants or associating with high class people, she still has kept most of her African-American ties in tact by marrying a upper class black man. There is sexual tension existing at this point as well.
Sex is a forbidden and terrifying thing for young ladies who are passing. In Clare?s case, there is fear. Fear that a black child may be conceived and her secret may be revealed. For Irene, sex is risky. She has set up such a perfect lifestyle with her husband and two kids that another child could threaten to ruin that.
As the story continues, we see a roller coaster relationship forming between Clare and Irene. At various points in the book, they are the best of friends and the worst of enemies. However, one omnipresent theme remains throughout the story: the fact that Irene is constantly drawn back to Clare, regardless of what shenanigans she pulls. After her first incident with Clare, Irene vows that ?[she] is through with Clare Kendry? (Larsen 31). Yet, it is not too far down the road when Irene once again finds herself drawn back to Clare. And like clockwork, she once again finds herself mortified by Clare?s behavior, this time for supposedly having an affair with her husband.
There is an obvious reason why Irene is constantly drawn back to Clare. She is sexually attracted and fascinated by her. Every time she talks about Clare, it is in a vivid and almost seductive way. The sexual attraction also goes both ways. Clare longs to return to her roots as a black person and stop living a life of secrecy. She expresses this desire through her allure towards Irene. The hints of sexual tension existing between these two women are peppered throughout the novel: ?looking at the woman before her, Irene Redfield had a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling?? (Larsen 65), ?Clare?s ivory face was what it always was, beautiful and caressing?? (Larsen 92). Clare?s husband finally confronts her for being black. Even then, Irene is the last one to hold onto Clare before she falls out of a window and kills herself. Although Irene would admit that she only held Clare?s arm to resist her freeing herself of her husband, I believe that Irene was attracted to her in an unconscious way and her first instinct was to protect Clare?s safety.
Thus, there is a heightened amount of sexual and racial tension between Clare and Irene present throughout the story. Both sexual and racial issues were like tightly wound corsets around women?s bodies at this time. These issues were considered too improper to be discussed amongst upper class black and white women, although these feelings still existed. Therefore, sentiments were often kept bottled up inside, and severe emotional problems could occur easily. Perhaps the author wrote this book to help ?one-eighth? black women cope with these issues in the ever-enigmatic world in which they live and are still dealing with today.