Critical Context

Larsen’s Passing, like her first and more ambitious novel Quicksand (1928), explores black middle-class milieus and the lack of choices and alternatives available to women who are a part of them. Although on a surface reading the women in Passing appear to have choices, a closer scrutiny of the text suggests that they have few real options available to them. For those such as Clare who choose to pass, a white middle-class life-style, with its restrictions on possibilities for women, is offered. For women such as Irene, the same choices are present, only couched within middle-class respectability. In Quicksand, Helga Crane, the protagonist, travels across the United States and then to Europe in search of a place where she can live an authentic life. She spends much time complaining about the limited choices available to black middle-class women. For many of them, being respectable and good, which often means marrying a professional black man and having his children, are the only acceptable roles. In both novels, Larsen demonstrates the toll such limited choices take on her protagonists, who are both psychologically defeated.

Larsen’s novels, furthermore, examine black middle-class women’s lives from a different and more aesthetically challenging position than those of her contemporary, Jessie Fauset. Fauset usually had her protagonists not only acquiesce to marriage but also enjoy the subservience of it. Larsen’s...

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