How is Larsen using Irene to comment upon social conventions of the time?
Passing centers around two light-skinned African American women described as psychological doubles in a drama of class and social mobility and racial “passing,” a phenomenon which describes a light-skinned African American’s choice to live in the society as white without revealing his or her true racial history.
Irene strives for stability and security, hoping her lifestyle as an upper-middle class African American woman will provide that. Her obsessive desire for security derives from the lack of it in the society at the time due to racism and mistreatment of African Americans. Her fear of rejection for being African American, both by the hotel restaurant and by the white society, causes her feelings of instability. Having in mind that Clare’s “passing” is motivated by the same desire for economic survival, safety, and security, the two of them are, actually, not different at all in their overall perception of what is important in life.
Nella Larsen employs the character of Irene as a means of showing the challenges and struggles which African American women had to grapple with at the time. Just like Irene, African American women were the victims of racism and were undervalued. They were expected to be good wives and to take care of children. Irene shows us that she wants to stay in her marriage despite not loving her husband, just because she wants to retain her social status. The effects of that turn out to be rather damaging - in the end, she realizes her life is a failure.