Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Passing is a conventionally structured novel in which the tale is told from the controlled omniscient perspective. It is a story whose tension emanates from the three main characters and which concludes in a web of ambiguity and mystery. The unmistakable purpose lies in the psychological-social problem area, for the racial dilemmas illuminate intricate personal relationships, all of them possibly doomed.

Nella Larsen, an African American writer and prominent participant in the Harlem Renaissance, explores the consequences of “passing” (a phenomenon sometimes, in social science, called “crossing”; both terms are used to describe a light-skinned African American’s choice to live in society as white without revealing his or her true racial history). She also studies potential marital problems precipitated by jealousy and suspicion, dilemmas of child rearing and infidelity, and financial security versus personal fulfillment. There is no doubt, however, that the catalyst propelling the narrative, initiating examination into personal values, and forcing a confrontation with individual racial identity is Clare Kendry, the woman who is, indeed, passing, and whose characterization embodies the theme noted in literary history as “the tragic mulatta.”

Larsen’s challenging novel focuses on two African American women whose lives have taken radically different paths, it would seem, and who meet after years of separation. In passing, Clare has deliberately distanced herself from the past, but Irene quickly remembers, with more than a touch of uneasiness, her old friend as unpredictable, an aggressive, risk-taking woman who delights in living dangerously. Irene Redfield, proud of her black identity and disapproving of Clare’s way of life, instinctively fears the imminent intrusion into her own safe and secure home. Yet, fascinated with the possibilities, she allows it, even encourages it, to happen. The persistent Clare, aided and abetted, however reluctantly, by Irene, makes herself part of the Redfield circle. When her husband, the racist Bellew, goes off on his frequent business trips, Clare and the Redfields are together, for at these moments the passing woman feels that, in a sense, she is openly validating her own identity, reaching out to...

(The entire section is 932 words.)

Passing Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Dedicated to Carl Van Vechten and his actress wife Fania Marinoff, both prominent patrons of black artists during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, Passing established Nella Larsen as one of the most promising writers to come from that important aesthetic movement. With this novel, her achievement as an African American woman author is especially notable, for the book examines the psychological divisions and challenges in modern middle-class marriage, emphasizing the women’s perspective. The book further explores the limits that society of the mid-1920’s imposed on all women, with, naturally, the additional restrictions put upon women of color. Passing deals, too, in subtle fashion with female sexuality and its role in the context of racism as well as its power within the emotional drama acted out among Irene, Clare, and Brian, for much of the tension in their unhappy confluence appears to be unleashed by overtones of a suggestive sensual energy. While Larsen has studied the chaotic emotional ambience surrounding the woman who passes, and while her treatment of the tragic mulatta theme is possibly the best in American writing, the social burdens of both women are also demonstrated, with suffering and death finally epitomizing their individual struggles.

Nella Larsen does not sentimentalize women’s plight; she approaches the depiction of her women with realism. The limits to a woman’s actual freedom in the 1920’s were...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Passing Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Blackmore, David L. “‘That Unreasonable Restless Feeling’: The Homosexual Subtexts of Nella Larsen’s Passing.” African American Review 26, no. 3 (Fall, 1992): 475-484. Offers a complementary reading to Deborah McDowell’s essay (see below). Blackmore focuses on Irene’s husband’s enchantment with Brazil as a symptom of his homosexual desire; Brazil is portrayed as an idealized locus of sexual and racial experimentation and freedom.

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Considers Nella Larsen to be one of the most important novelists to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. Focuses on Larsen’s aesthetic issues and on her political and social critiques.

Christian, Barbara T. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. An important discussion of black female writers that helped to bring about a new assessment of their fiction. Significant analysis of Nella Larsen, the integrity of her fiction, and the forward-looking quality of her vision.

Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1981. Takes a historical perspective, focusing on Larsen’s fiction and its place in the larger aesthetic ambience of black American writing of the twentieth century.

Davis, Thadious M. “Nella Larsen’s...

(The entire section is 662 words.)