Passing is a conventionally structured novel in which the tale is told from the controlled omniscient perspective. It is a story whose tension emanates from the three main characters and which concludes in a web of ambiguity and mystery. The unmistakable purpose lies in the psychological-social problem area, for the racial dilemmas illuminate intricate personal relationships, all of them possibly doomed.
Nella Larsen, an African American writer and prominent participant in the Harlem Renaissance, explores the consequences of “passing” (a phenomenon sometimes, in social science, called “crossing”; both terms are used to describe a light-skinned African American’s choice to live in society as white without revealing his or her true racial history). She also studies potential marital problems precipitated by jealousy and suspicion, dilemmas of child rearing and infidelity, and financial security versus personal fulfillment. There is no doubt, however, that the catalyst propelling the narrative, initiating examination into personal values, and forcing a confrontation with individual racial identity is Clare Kendry, the woman who is, indeed, passing, and whose characterization embodies the theme noted in literary history as “the tragic mulatta.”
Larsen’s challenging novel focuses on two African American women whose lives have taken radically different paths, it would seem, and who meet after years of separation. In passing, Clare has deliberately distanced herself from the past, but Irene quickly remembers, with more than a touch of uneasiness, her old friend as unpredictable, an aggressive, risk-taking woman who delights in living dangerously. Irene Redfield, proud of her black identity and disapproving of Clare’s way of life, instinctively fears the imminent intrusion into her own safe and secure home. Yet, fascinated with the possibilities, she allows it, even encourages it, to happen. The persistent Clare, aided and abetted, however reluctantly, by Irene, makes herself part of the Redfield circle. When her husband, the racist Bellew, goes off on his frequent business trips, Clare and the Redfields are together, for at these moments the passing woman feels that, in a sense, she is openly validating her own identity, reaching out to...
(The entire section is 932 words.)