What is the theme of the novel Passing by Nella Larsen?

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Passing 's main themes all relate to the act of racial passing. The two central female figures in the novel are black women who are light-skinned enough to pass as white women. This grants them specific social privileges they would not otherwise get in a white-dominated society in which black...

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Passing's main themes all relate to the act of racial passing. The two central female figures in the novel are black women who are light-skinned enough to pass as white women. This grants them specific social privileges they would not otherwise get in a white-dominated society in which black individuals are treated as second-class citizens. However, this creates major problems for the characters.

The main theme is how identity and community overlap. Passing as a white woman disconnects Clare from the black community because she must keep up the charade that she is white in order to maintain her marriage to a white man and keep all her privileges. However, she never feels like she truly belongs among the whites, since she knows they would never accept her as she is. To return to the black community would make her happy, but she cannot do this if she wants to keep her life comfortable.

This is why Clare treasures Irene so much, which highlights another theme in the novel: friendship. As another black woman who can pass (and occasionally does, such as when she wants to eat at a white-only tea room at the beginning of the novel), Irene understands Clare's position, even if she does not condone Irene's massive deception. She is torn about Clare, jealous of her allure and distrustful of her subversive drives, even as she seems attracted to her.

Unfortunately, this friendship is destroyed when Irene learns Clare has had an affair with Irene's husband. In the end, Clare proves deceptive even to the people she clings to most. The biggest lie of her life infects every other aspect of it. In the end, the lie unravels, and Clare loses not only Irene's friendship but her own life in the chaos that erupts when her racist husband learns the truth about her race.

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The theme of Passing is the harmfulness of American racism and its nonsensical nature. Clare Kendry, an African American woman who passes as white, is married to a racist white man named John. He has loved her for years, but he is disgusted by black people. He jokingly calls her "Nig," as he tells her that her skin is getting darker over the years (however, he is still unaware that she is black). Their relationship symbolizes the sickness of racism in the United States. When Clare's husband, John, thinks Clare is white, he marries her. When he finds out he is mistaken, he perhaps tries to kill her by throwing her out the window (the cause of Clare's death is unclear). Clare herself might have thrown herself out of the window when she was discovered to be black, or Irene, her African American friend, might have pushed her out of the window. Clare's death symbolizes the impossibility of race in America, where it is believed that "blackness" is totally distinct from "whiteness" and where never the twain shall meet. The interactions of Clare, Irene, and John show the sickness of American racism.

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Two of the most significant themes are identity and belonging.  Clare is a light skinned black woman who is passing for white in white society, so a large part of the novel looks at the idea of how we define ourselves as individuals and how we let others define us.  Is skin color a part of one's identity?  How?  Is it a question for all ethnic groups, or some more than others?  What is revealed about the attitudes of blacks and whites in this novel as it relates to skin color and identity.

The other important theme is that of "belonging."  Clare, because she is passing for white, has to be very careful how she lives her life, and must be constantly protecting this carefully created veneer, but that leaves her a bit outside of her roots.  She must be careful to not reveal her black background, or she will lose everything she thinks she has accomplished with her "passing" for white.  She reaches out to Irene, a childhood friend because she seeks a connection with the past and with her personal truth.

The novel also hits on themes of racism, friendship, betrayal, loyalty, feminism, and a host of others as well.

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