How is Larsen using Irene to comment upon social conventions of the time?

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Nella Larsen's novella Passing, first published in 1929, centers on Irene and Clare, two mixed-race childhood friends ("mulattos") who reunite after many years. The story, told from Irene's point of view, begins with her fascination of Clare, which soon turns to jealousy when she surmises that Clare is having an affair with her husband. Irene then begins to actively thwart Clare's attempts to ingratiate herself into Irene's social circle. Ultimately, Clare falls to her death under mysterious circumstances, and Irene is nearby when this happens, although the cause of death is never fully resolved or explained.

Larsen seems to portray the Clare character as departing from many of the negative mulatto stereotypes of the time. She is attractive, graceful, charming, and wealthy, born into a black community but living as a white woman. Unfortunately, her untimely death means she never truly aligns with one race or another.

Irene, on the other hand, is also prosperous but lives in Harlem and can only pass as white when she is outside her neighborhood. Irene develops an unhealthy obsession with Clare that causes her to wrestle with her own identity and eventually lose her sense of self. Larsen, a mulatto herself, wrestled with identity in her real life and seems to convey that confusion and uncertainty through Irene.

In so doing, she comments on society's expectations of people based on their physical characteristics—a point made all the more salient when considering the fact that Irene and Clare are living in segregated, pre-civil rights America. Irene's growing obsession with Clare contravenes those societal expectations and, at times, shows them to be almost anachronistic. In so doing, Larsen takes a sledge hammer to the "outsider's view" of mulattos by both whites and blacks and reveals identity as something pliant and adaptable.

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 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.

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