Passing by Nella Larsen
It’s hard to find other Clares in real life. Oh, you get your Claires and your Clairs, but never have I found another person also named after fair County Clare, home of the Cliffs of Moher. (An arbitrary choice on my mother’s part—the McBrides are from County Donegal, on the north bit of Ireland. County Clare’s the westmost county.) I have some better luck in fiction, in that they exist. Part of the reason I’m loathe to read Lolita is that the second pedophile is a gent named Clare. Awkward. But the first other Clare I ever met was Clare Kendry, of Nella Larsen’s Passing, and she’s sort of stuck with me for that honor.
Passing follows the interaction of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry in 1920s New York and Chicago. Irene and Clare are both black women who look white enough to pass, but Irene only passes here and there for convenience’s sake, while Clare has married the hideously racist Jack, who has no idea of his wife’s true heritage. Their passes cross again in Chicago, and Clare, missing the company of fellow black people, clings to Irene, who, despite her distaste for Clare, can’t bring herself to shake her. But when Irene begins to suspect Clare of having an affair with her husband and Jack begins to suspect Clare’s true identity, things spiral out of control quickly.
I first read Passing in high school—I’ve returned to it in print for my African-American novel class. And such an edition, too—plenty of my classmates were bewildered by the disparity between the length of this edition and the original text. (There’s a lot of essays in it.) Passing is classified as a novel, despite the fact it clocks in at just under ninety pages. But that’s probably because Passing is so incredibly dense. As tiring as it can be to see one text touted as representing the totality of the Harlem Renaissance, Passing has stood the the test of time and millions of high school students because it’s both a product of a specific time and voice, and enduringly universal in its themes of identity.
Obviously, the liminality of race (or lack thereof) is the most pressing issue—Passing opens with Irene mistaking Clare’s interest in her for someone being able to detect that she is not, in fact, white, as they sit in a segregated hotel restaurant. Even as Clare abandons her family and her race to pursue a marriage with a wealthy man, she misses being around other black people. But in her efforts to pursue them, she alienates them. Irene first meets Jack at a gathering (arranged by Clare) where he reads her as white and proceeds to spew truly awful things about black people. While Clare and Gertrude, the third member of the party (a woman in an interracial marriage without subterfuge), find this amusing, Irene longs to stand up and tell Jack that he’s actually having tea with three “black devils”, thank you very much.
But it’s a bit too easy to see Irene as a long-suffering martyr. On the way to the hotel restaurant at the beginning of the novel, she steps over the near-dead body of a man suffering from heat exhaustion, only to feel ill herself and take the first help that comes her way. Her husband, Brian, longs to practice medicine in South America, but Irene talks him out of it—for the sake of their children, supposedly, but also because Irene enjoys a structured, monotonous life, and anything that threatens it must be eradicated. Clare, with her dangerous lifestyle and her beauty (there’s plenty of room here for a reading that Irene is sexually attracted to Clare and cannot deal with it), is certainly a threat, and the affair may or may not be imagined. At the end of the day (and indeed, the end of the novel), Irene is an unreliable narrator because she, too, passes and she, too, must deal with the fallout of denying your identity and selling yourself out to get what you want, be it as dramatic as Clare marrying a hideously racist man or as small as not standing up for yourself when you can. Of course, all of this is tempered by the fact that sometimes you must pass—as white, as straight, as normal—in order to be safe. But Passing asks if that safety—represented by Irene’s monotonous existence—is always worth it.
Bottom line: Nella Larsen’s Passing has endured for a reason—for just ninety pages, it’s astonishingly dense and pointed. Well worth a read.
I bought this used book from Amazon.