The Vanishing Half Analysis
The phenomenon of “passing” forms the basis of the plot and many of the themes of Brit Bennett’s novel. In some sense, the narrative is a contemporary analogue to two fictional stories of the early twentieth century: Jesse Redmon Fauset’s 1928 novel Plum Bun and Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel Imitation of Life. The latter, in its film versions, is alluded to by Bennett in the Afterword to The Vanishing Half. In all of these works, a young Black woman establishes a new identity for herself as a white person, essentially abandoning her own family and her roots by doing so. The Vanishing Half is itself a novel that deals with the past, specifically the 1940s through the early 1990s. The racial divide portrayed in it is not so different from that of the earlier, similar stories, though it is obviously viewed from the perspective of a contemporary writer who is aware of the cultural and social developments of the twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.
But Bennett does not write about prior periods of American history as if to praise the present. In the year 2020, it is impossible to say that racism, institutionalized or otherwise, is a thing of the past. Indeed, Bennett’s technique, and perhaps her core message, is to focus on the likeness between the past and today’s world. This sense of recurrence is reflected in the multigenerational drama at the center of the novel: three generations of women confront the racially charged landscape of American life.
The novel explores the falseness and hypocrisy motivated by racial tensions. Stella Vignes, in becoming “white,” creates a false reality not only for herself, but for her husband and her daughter, Kennedy. It reaches the point where Stella seems convinced that this new version of life is somehow true, somehow real. She behaves in the stereotypical manner of an ignorant, bigoted white person when the Walkers move into their neighborhood, though out of guilt she makes half-hearted attempts to remedy this by befriending Loretta Walker. But arguably it is Stella who precipitates the incidents that drive the Walkers out of Brentwood. Although this part of the story takes place in the late 1960s, ten years or more after the Civil Rights Movement began, the whites in Brentwood are racist and show no empathy for Black people. When the Walkers’ home is vandalized, Stella’s husband Blake, a basically innocuous person, is more concerned that the vandalism makes the Brentwood residents look like crude, rural whites than he is with the fact that the Walkers have been subjected to an unspeakable injustice. The white residents seem unaware of their hypocrisy: that they have acted barbarously in the name of upholding decorum.
The novel is concerned as much with polarities and the extremes of American life as it is with the theme of falseness and hypocrisy. Desiree’s world, after she has returned to Mallard, is the opposite of Stella’s. She works in a diner and cares for their elderly mother. Instead of a husband like Blake, who gives Stella everything the material world has to offer, Desiree has Early, a good but insteady man. The moral is that in her materially sparse world, Desiree is living a truer and perhaps spiritually richer life than Stella. Yet although Desiree, in a nonmaterial sense, may somehow be better off than Stella, the disparity between the twins’ lives is a metaphor of the racial disparity and injustice of America.
Two prime elements of the story, however, serve as a counterpoint to this grim status quo. The first is the possibility of progress. Desiree’s daughter, Jude, overburdened with the disadvantage of poverty and her very dark skin, for which she is discriminated against even within the Black community of Mallard, becomes a doctor. The next generation, despite the racism that continues to...
(The entire section is 990 words.)