“Passing” by Nella Larsen

The book “Passing” by Nella Larsen, analyses the issue of passing which was prevalent in the earlier half of the 20th century in America. During this period, several light skinned African American women would try and pass off as white women for the privileges that were associated with being Caucasian during this period of segregation and discrimination against colored people in America (Godfrey 21). The book provides us the opportunity to understand and analyze how passing had consequences not only for the individual but the members of the black and white communities they abandoned and deceived respectively. The consequences of passing are analyzed by trying to figure out the cause of death for Clare Kendry, a light skinned African American woman in the book, who passed off as a white woman.

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The author does not highlight extensively what happened when Clare falls to her death and the reader is left to wonder who the culprit might be. Just before her death, Clare is confronted by her racist husband, who is angered by the discovery that she is of African descent and has been passing off for years as white, which means she could have fallen by accident from the commotion. On the other hand, Irene, a fellow light skin African American woman, who unlike Clare, acknowledges her ancestry, has a number of reasons to want her friend death. On the other hand, Clare has a troubled marriage and from her initial letter, over two years ago, she has been living a life of loneliness and despair which she thinks is because she has abandoned her race and culture thus alienating her from her African American roots while not fitting in her Caucasian family.

Comprehensive analysis of the evidence from the text suggests that she was murdered by Irene Redfield who is a prominent woman in the African American social circles in Harlem. First of all, Irene admires Clare very much and especially with regards to her physical appearance. During her first encounter in the Drayton hotel she marvels at her beauty by thinking to herself, ‘…with those dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin.” (Larsen 6). Her admiration of Clare was so severe that it bordered on envy and jealousy and that is a very big motivator.

Clare was not only jealous of her beauty but also her charm and personality. Even when she was introduced to Irene’s social circle, everyone quickly warmed up to her even including Irene’s husband. Clare is able to get the attention of men very easily, even including Hugh, who Irene considers intelligent. Jealousy beings to surface when Irene realizes that Clare is replacing her and the attention she once received from her inner social circle in Harlem is shifting in favor of Clare. In fact Irene, out of envy and jealousy, criticizes her friend Hugh, to her husband because she believes he is been fooled by the beauty of Clare, even though she has been clearly passing off as a white woman, which is against the racial uplift meetings and parties that Irene introduces Clare to. Irene is irate at the fact that even though Clare goes against the principles of the African American community in Harlem, by denying her heritage and race, the men seemed unbothered.

Besides her jealousy, Irene is convinced that her husband is having an affair with Clare. Just before they go to the party where Clare dies, Irene gets so upset and begins to cry uncontrollably at the thought of her husband with Clare, a woman she clearly despised. In fact she despised her so much that she remarked, “Clare what a nuisance, I didn’t ask her. Purposefully. “(Larsen 50). The thought of her husband with Clare angers her to the point that she feels intense anger and hurt building in her and awaits her husband to leave the bedroom so that he doesn’t see in this state.

Despite her anger, she manages to hide her feelings from Hugh’s guests, whom she notices are in merry spirits as everyone is conversing in a joyful manner. However, this even increases her anger because while she is clearly suffering according to her, the guests are unaware and seem to be captivated by Clare. This in turn increases her anger and her immense strain in trying to suppress her emotions in front of the visitors, which is summarized in the text: “It Hurt. Dear God! How the thing hurt!” (Larsen 55). A person with such intense feelings of anger and betrayal with no apparent outlet would definitely have boiled over and acted on her impulses to murder her friend/foe, Clare.

Furthermore, Irene realizes that if she were to leave her husband she would suffer the most because she would lose her standing in the society, she would break her family and might not be able to cater for her kids. In addition, the idea of leaving her husband meant that she would let her clearly smitten husband run into the arms of Clare, whom she clearly knew was in a depressed and lonely marriage to a racist. By leaving her husband she would have conceded defeat to Clare. This realization meant that the only solution to her problems would have been to ensure that Clare was permanently no longer in her and her family’s life.

When Clare, Brian and Clare go to Felise’s party in her 6th floor apartment, it is Irene who opens the window that Clare falls out of. This is a clue that the author leaves for the audience in an attempt to subtly implicate the person responsible for the death of Clare. Even though it is unclear who is responsible, because of the ensuing commotion after Clare’s husband barges into the party, Irene stands to gain the most from Clare’s death. She stands to regain her social standing in the Harlem community, her marriage, her family, peace and her security. With Clare dead, her husband, a white racist man, has no reason to pursue and endanger Irene and her family.

Furthermore, when Clare falls, everybody rushes downstairs to check whether she is alive or dead except for her. In fact she remains on the 6th floor for a few minutes as if trying to come to terms with her role in the violent act. People with empathy often react with guilt, sympathy and confusion when they engage in behavior that is deemed extremely socially unacceptable such as killing a person (Browne 24). When Irene finally goes downstairs to check on Clare, she discovers that she is dead and she begins to cry before finally fainting. This is a common symptom of guilt (Browne 18). All these reasons point to the fact that Irene pushed and murdered Clare.


Works Cited

Browne, Kendall C., et al. “Trauma-Related Guilt: Conceptual Development and Relationship With Posttraumatic Stress and Depressive Symptoms.” Journal of Traumatic Stress, vol. 28, no. 2, 2015, pp. 134–141., doi:10.1002/jts.21999.

Godfrey, Mollie. “Passing as Post-Racial: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain , Political Correctness, and the Post-Racial Passing Narrative.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 58, no. 2, 2017, pp. 233–261., doi:10.3368/cl.58.2.233.

Larsen, Nella. Passing /by Nella Larsen. Ayer Company, 1993.