The Root of Jealousy
In Nella Larsen s Passing, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry show us a great deal about race and sexuality in the 1920s. Both are extremely light-skinned women of African-American descent. However similar they appear to be, their views on race, a very controversial issue at the time, differ significantly. Clare chooses to use her physical appearance as an advantage in America s racist and sexist society, leaving behind everything that connects her to her African-American identity. She presents herself as an object of sexual desire, flaunting herself to gain attention. Irene is practically the opposite, deciding that she wants to remain with the label of being black. She is subtle with her sexuality, never attempting to use her beauty to gain advantages. Linking these two women is a strange relationship, in which Clare and Irene both view each other in a sexually desirable way. Nevertheless, even with that desire for Clare, Irene obviously holds some contempt for her through jealousy, to the extent of wishing that she were dead. This jealousy is also based on social status. Irene is jealous of Clare s ability to succeed, even though she may not know it. The root of Irene s jealousy of Clare is in these three ideas of race, sexuality, and class, making Irene despise someone who she obviously also loves.
Irene s desire for Clare is revealed throughout the book, especially in the beginning when she is at the Drayton Hotel. She sees an attractive-looking young woman with those dark, almost black, eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin. (p. 14) She is taken aback by Clare s beauty, not fully understanding why she is so infatuated with the woman. Irene can t help but obsess over her beauty, the eyes that were magnificent! Dark, sometimes absolutely black, always luminous, and set in long, black lashes. Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about them. (p. 29) However much Irene is attracted to Clare, she is somewhat disgusted by her confidence. She sees Clare s odd sort of smile a shade too provocative for a waiter. (p. 15) Irene, being more restrained in her sexuality, is somewhat of a hypocrite in this sense. She desires Clare in a physical way, yet hates her for her ability to use her beauty so well. This shows us that jealousy is an inevitable phenomenon when it comes to female sexuality.
Another unsettled issue between Irene and Clare is race. When Irene finally realizes that this woman is Clare, someone who chooses to pass and hide all traces of her black heritage, Irene s opinion of her changes. She no longer wants to be involved with Clare in any way, and had no desire or intention of making the slightest effort about Tuesday. Nor any other day for that matter. She was through with Clare Kendry. (p. 31) Irene is appalled that someone can so easily throw away her background just for the sake of gaining privilege over another race. When Clare asks her if she had ever thought of passing, Irene replies, No. Why should I? You see, Clare, I ve everything I want. (p. 28) She is happy with what she has, not even having to give up anything to get there. Or at least that s what she convinces herself to believe. Irene is again hypocritical in her beliefs. Even when she opposes Clare s view of passing, she is still very interested in the idea. The truth was, she was curious. There were things she wanted to ask Clare Kendry. She wished to find out about this hazardous business of passing (p. 24) She even admitted that she held for her a fascination, strange and compelling. (p. 28) Irene doesn t seem to be able to decide if she accepts passing as reasonable. She forces herself to disagree with passing, allowing her to hate Clare for doing it. This shows us that sexuality and race are two matters that conflict with each other, at least in Irene s opinion. She uses race to reject Clare, letting it overpower even her strongest sexual desires for her.
However much race and passing seem to be the main reasons why Irene hates Clare, there is another. The book seems also to be a novel about women s jealousy, involving not only race and sexuality, but also success. It is a view on socioeconomic issues. With another approach of analysis of the book, we see that Irene s jealousy and contempt for Clare does not only originate with passing, but also class. Irene s oppression as an African-American is not blatantly displayed, and she makes herself believe that she is above it. Still, we are able to see this feeling of jealousy rooted in class issues when Irene observes Clare sitting across from her. She sees a polite insolence with which a few women are born and which some acquire with the coming of riches or importance. (p. 28) This proves that Irene is jealous of what Clare has because of her social status. Much of what Nella Larsen is focusing on is the conflict of class inside the African-American community, which is very much unresolved to this day.
Nella Larsen s novel presents us with a good view of women s issues of the early 20th century. We see in the two characters seemingly different interpretations of what race, sexuality, and class can and should be used for. For Clare, passing takes her into a whole new world of advantages that she would not have had if she had remained a part of the African-American community. She gains social status and can be seen as an object of sexual desire for many people, not only the black community. Irene leads herself to think that passing is unnecessary, and that she can live a totally happy life remaining who she is. What she fails to realize is that she is jealous of Clare s status and sometimes passes herself subconsciously. Larsen presents to us the main point of the book that the root of the love, hate, desire, and rejection that Irene holds for Clare is a result of social standing, not only passing and sexuality.