In Passing, Nella Larsen has composed a novel that simultaneously engages several levels of the human experience and, through insightful psychological portraiture, illuminates the often subtle and complex passions roiling about a society whose dilemmas are compounded by racism. She brings about consideration of challenging issues through her penetrating treatment of characters whose emotional dilemmas are highlighted by an intricate series of personal interrelationships.
One valid critical approach is to insist that the major theme in Passing is not race at all, but marriage and security. Although Irene Redfield is not passing as white, she is passing as an upper-middle-class American with full access to the opportunities and privileges of any wealthy citizen. Feeling safe and secure, she is even waited on by black servants. Indeed, though Irene does not deny her negritude—as Clare does—she is still, in a sense, passing, all the while trying to ignore her husband’s dissatisfaction with life in the United States for a black family. Although Irene Redfield is active in the Negro Welfare League (NWL), she remains apart from her struggling brothers and sisters in the ghetto and in no way wishes to endanger her safety. Irene enjoys material comfort; she will not risk starting a new life in Brazil, although her refusal means sacrificing her husband’s happiness.
Thus it is that Irene subconsciously appreciates—though she does not outwardly condone—her friend Clare Kendry’s passing, for Kendry, aggressive and impetuous, has taken a risk that has brought her complete access to the upper-middle-class American Dream. From this vantage point, Irene’s psychological reaction becomes clear: Her ambivalent attraction toward and repulsion from Clare stems from what she perceives as shortcomings within herself; namely, her inability to take risks, rationalized in the need for safety and security, and her own distancing from less-fortunate black people in Harlem’s ghetto. With the dangerous Clare hovering about her secure home, Irene is unable to eliminate her friend’s presence even though she begins to live in fear that this “mysterious stranger” will take away her husband and destroy the safety that is her life. It is no wonder, too, that subconsciously Irene wants Clare to disappear, to vanish, to die. Although there is no evidence of an affair between Clare and Dr. Redfield, Irene has become emotionally distraught at the possibility, a turbulent package of nerves fixated...
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