Passing Themes

  • Nella Larsen's classic novel Passing explores the themes of race and identity via the phenomenon of "passing." Clare's decision to pass as white carries with it the assumption of self-hatred and the oppression of her identity as an African American woman. Her attempt to reconnect with her roots ends in tragedy, which emphasizes the dangers of denying one's true identity.
  • There are many different kinds of relationships in the novel: Irene's friendship with Clare, their marriages, and their connections to the African American community. Each relationship is fraught in its own way, informed by deceit and betrayal. Ultimately, the novel suggests that, while friendships and marriages end, communities remain strong.
  • At heart, Passing is about an individual's place in society. Thanks to her light skin, Clare can choose whether or not she belongs to the African American community. Her disavowal of and subsequent reconnection with her roots underscores the power that society has over individuals. Clare returns to Harlem out of loneliness and a desire to be honest with herself.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Passing develops many issues that converge on the novel’s larger theme of the consequences and nuances of racial passing in the 1920’s. Larsen extends her understanding of passing to more than its obvious racial considerations. In her extended coverage of the phenomenon of passing, her focus is on those who do not live authentically. To Larsen, living inauthentically is a human tragedy. This idea is advanced most directly in her scrutiny of the Redfields, particularly Irene.

Larsen critiques racial passing from the position that racial uniqueness, which in the United States includes a historical and cultural African American tradition, is not something that one should dismiss. Even as she details Clare’s reasons for passing, which include economic and social opportunity and sometimes peace of mind, Larsen suggests that these do not take the place of one’s racial culture. Clare’s reasons for wanting to reenter the black experience make the point. In spite of the wealth and leisure she has in her marriage to John Bellew, Clare misses her people. Although she is not always sincere in her determination to be a part of black people’s lives, Clare is sincere when she tells Irene how much she misses black people.

The price individuals pay when they choose to pass racially is high. Many remain trapped in their new white world, forever geographically and socially separated from their people, but always spiritually connected in some...

(The entire section is 501 words.)