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Passing by Nella Larsen

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In Nella Larsen’s “Passing”, she introduces a setting in the early 1920s where racial discrimination is mostly taking place. The main characters, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, are interracial (mixed of white and African-American descent) women living in a “passing” society. According to Larsen, “passing” is when African American men or women with a light skin complexion can pass themselves off as a white person in order to enjoy the privileges given to whites during this time.

Sometimes allowing yourself to pass can cause a downfall to your happiness in exchange for an idealized lifestyle you once had.

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Larsen shows us the various similarities between the lifestyles of Clare and Irene based on their marriages and parenting skills. In “Passing”, Clare is married to a white doctor, John Bellew. Her marriage with him seems like there are some truths left that should be revealed. As soon as John is introduced, he is described as “a tallish person, broadly made. His age… somewhere between thirty-five and forty.

His hair was dark brown and waving, and he he had a soft mouth, somewhat womanish, set in unhealthy-looking dough colored face. His steel grey opaque eyes were very much alive, moving ceaselessly between thick bluish lids”, according to Irene (95). This description of John is very precise and descriptive, but it was clear what race he came from. When greeting his wife, Clare, he refers to her multiple times as “nig”, due to the fact that she keeps getting “darker and darker” (95). Deep down inside, Clare is of African American descent, but does not want her husband to know.

Clare begins to question her husband, Gertrude and Irene, about racial identities. John believes that there are “no niggers in his family” (96). In this novel, blacks are portrayed as bad people, for instance, they are “always robbing and killing people. And worse” (97). In this relationship, John had more of the upper hand. Also, if he was to find out that Clare was African American, he would not want to be married to her anymore. The only reason she is married to him is to have a better lifestyle and be able to pass as a different race.

On the other hand, Irene is married to Brian, an African American doctor in New York City. He was described as “extremely good-looking…but he was, in a pleasant masculine way, rather handsome. And yet, wouldn’t he, perhaps, have been merely ordinarily good-looking but for the richness, the beauty of his skin, which was of an exquisitely fine texture and deep copper colour” (111). The description of both husbands, both being described by Irene, are entirely different. Her description of John was very suspenseful and blunt, while Brian’s description was more affectionate.

He does not approve of the relationship between Clare and Irene. He feels Irene will “let her pester her” (112) and believes that “the only sensible thing to do… is to let her miss you” (113). Mostly, Irene and Brian argue about their children, Ted and Junior. Junior is described as “tall for his age, was almost incredibly like his father in feature and colouring; but his temperament was hers, practical and determined”, while Ted is said to be “speculative and withdrawn and less positive in his ideas and desires” (122).

One evening at dinner, Ted and Junior became very interested in the lynching of coloured people. Brian was informative, while Irene was trying to avoid this conversation. She begins to state, “I do wish Brian, that you wouldn’t talk about lynching before Ted and Junior. It was really inexcusable for you to bring up a thing like that at dinner. There’ll be time enough for them to learn about such horrible things when they’re older” (169). Brian is against this statement because he tells Irene, “You’re absolutely wrong!

If, as you’re so determined, they’ve got to live in this damned country, they’d better find out what sort of thing they’re up against as soon as possible. The earlier they learn it, the better prepared they’ll be” (169). Irene wants her children to grow up with no knowledge of the racial world until they are older and when they are able to understand it better. Brian, on the other hand, wants his children to learn sooner than later because they should be aware of what the future holds for them. Irene is always concerned about her sons.

According to Brian, he feels like she is forever “fretting about those kids. They’re all right. Perfectly all right. Good, strong, healthy boys, especially Junior. Most especially Junior” (117). I believe that Brian spends more time with their children than Irene does to know about them, mentally and physically. On the other hand, Clare’s daughter Margery, is not mentioned a lot of times during this novel. She was left in Switzerland for schooling. Irene reminded Clare that, “Remember, there’s Margery. Think how glad you’ll be to see her after all this time” (143).

Her response was “Children aren’t everything. There are other things in the world, though I admit some people don’t seem to suspect it” (143). Irene finally admits to her “being a mother seriously” and she is “wrapped up in her boys and the running of her house” (143). This leads to Clare confessing how good Irene is to her household and to her. This shows that Clare somewhat wants the lifestyle Irene fulfills. According to Larsen, Irene and Clare have two different kinds of lifestyles. Clare’s life is assumed to have a good life because she has everything she wants, but happiness.

Irene’s life seems more truthful and realistic and this is want Clare idealizes. One main similarity they both share within their marriages and parenting is that they both want happiness and better for their families no matter what. Brian seems to want their children to be aware of the society they live in, but they always have differences in between them due to their children. Clare lets Jack have the upper hand because she is very submissive to him and does not show any interest in their child. Passing comes along with its benefits and downfalls.

Cite this Passing by Nella Larsen

Passing by Nella Larsen. (2017, Jan 23). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/passing-by-nella-larsen/

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