In Passing, what is the relationship between race and gender?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Larsen's Passing links race and gender in its suggestion that living inauthentically encompasses tragedy.  One sees how failure to openly acknowledge and live with realistic and authentic conditions results in suffering.  Duplicity in terms of "passing" on racial levels and on level of friendship between Irene and Clare brings about pain and hurt for which there can be no release.

The exploration of this inauthenticity can be seen in the novel's treatment of race.  Clare and Irene fail to authentically reconcile their own psychological conditions with a racial reality.  Both of them live in a liminal world and revert to different racial explorations without authentically defining their own notion of identity.  Irene reverts to "passing" for White when she wants a better seat at the theatre or in catching a cab.  Clare lives a racially isolated existence.  She lives with a bigot for a husband, alongside a desire to reconnect with the African- American community without divulging her own racial identity.  

Both women find themselves in the position where living inauthentically coincides with their attitude towards race. Neither one possess a definitive understanding about race. Irene's condition on race is one where she "figures" it out with the idea that "It hurt. It hurt like hell. But it didn’t matter, if no one knew."  This inauthenticity is one where pain and suffering are the only constants.  The exposition of the novel reveals that Clare's inauthentic condition regarding race has constructed a being of longing and regret: “For I am lonely, so lonely…cannot help longing to be with you again, as I have never longed for anything before…”  Neither one is really happy.  Larsen seems to be suggesting that a reason why would be due to both characters' lack of authenticity regarding racial identity.

This inauthenticity extends to the realm of gender, as well.  As women, neither one is able to be completely honest and forthright with the other one.  There are layers to their duplicity in terms of how both of them interact with one another as women.  Irene is bound by conventionality and refinement in her communication to Clare. It is evident that she does not like Clare, but yet fails to openly communicate it.  She was offended by the presence of Clare's husband and harbors resentment towards Clare: "The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well." Irene fails to authenticate Clare's "yearning for my own people."  All the while she harbors these feelings, Irene never fully communicates her misgivings towards Clare. In terms of Clare's own inauthenticity, the base of her unhappiness comes from being unable to communicate openly with her husband, in effect living a lie. Clare's duplicity is what causes her death at the end.  Her husband confronts her, admonishing her because of her duplicity.  Being close to the window and the force of his own acknowledgement of the lie that she has lived, a lie she cultured as his wife, is a contributing factor to her death.  The lack of authenticity that both women display towards one another is seen in how Irene believes that her husband is being seduced.  In their relationship as women, Larsen displays how inauthenticity tragically forms the arc of their shared narrative. Accordingly, inauthenticity and a lack of sincerity is what weaves the narrative of both race and gender in Passing.