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Nella Larsen began writing during a time when women, especially black women, did not have a place in society. Her novels consisted of stories re-iterating the lives of the oppressed during the Harlem Renaissance. In her story Passing, Larsen depicts the lives of two women who share much common ground but could not be any more different. These women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, can only succeed through recognition. Whether it be by themselves, each other, or society, Clare and Irene need this recognition to understand their own identities.
When Nella Larsen began this story, she strived to “situate the female at the center of discourses on race and individuality, but in its demystification of the woman of color, [it] insist[ed] that not everything about her can or should be known” (Davis 309). Irene and Clare, after twelve years of separation, have found themselves at the same upper-class, white restaurant. Ironically, both of these women are black, and succeed in ‘passing’ as white so they can gain entry into this restaurant; they will not let the dictates of society keep them from living as they please. These women, who “shared the experience of what it mean[t] to grow up urban, female, and black” (Davis 312), now seem to have no common ground. Their ideals have completely changed, leaving them both with uncertainty about who they really are.
From the initial meeting, the reader is coaxed into not liking Clare. The narrative consciousness of Irene depicts Clare as “selfish, cold, and hard” (Larsen 144), leaving the reader to only see one side of Clare. In actuality, Irene possesses some of the same qualities. I disagree with Davis, who says that “Irene is selfish” (Davis 312), because I believe that Irene is only trying to do adapt to a world that oppresses her culture. Though stubborn, Irene only wants what is best for her family. Irene can be prudish at times, but she “will not take risks, whether with her own future or that of her sons…[she] feel[s] safe in her life of class privilege, servants, bridge parties, charity balls and smart fashions” (Davis 312). I do not think that anyone can be considered selfish when they only have the best intentions at heart for their family.
Clare, on the other hand, has changed her life drastically by denying her ‘true colors’. She is the polar opposite of Irene, as she thinks that “being a mother is the cruelest thing in the world” (Larsen 197). Clare needs the presence of her daughter to feel a sense of accomplishment in her life. Since her daughter has been sent away to school, she belongs to white society, and now that she has Irene’s influence from the ‘Harlem’ world, Clare can have all of the freedom she desires, with no regrets. I think that Davis should retract his statement and examine the life of Clare and show how her lifestyle proves to be selfish. Through her desire to change herself, Clare rubs off on Irene and causes Irene to re-evaluate herself. Because she is so devoted to her family, “she neither lives fully nor feels deeply” (315). She notices her fragmentation with the world, but still continues to ‘pass’ as white because she, like Clare, is not ready to reveal herself to the public. By physically denying their true heritage, Irene and Clare prove that they need this acknowledgment of being ‘acceptable’ by society.
Irene and Clare have a shared history of “escap[ing] the spatial boundaries imposed by the racial segregation” (Davis 312), but that is the only common ground that they have. Irene is “a socialite, married to a successful black physician, Brian Redfield, and they live in the fashionable part of Harlem. Clare is married to a wealthy white man, John Bellew, who is unaware of her racial identity” (Tate 142). After their initial meeting, Clare cannot get enough of Irene’s presence. She always seems to find some way to get in touch with Irene, because she wants to experience Irene’s life. She notices how Irene is the epitome of structure, as her duties as a wife and mother happily encompass her life. Clare wants to escape the monotony of her life by socializing with Irene (Tate 142). Irene hates the fact that Clare is invading her life, because she feels that Clare is trying to re-establish her roots. In actuality, all Clare wants is to be accepted into this life of excitement. These two women possess the characteristics that each other needs to be a complete person. While “Clare’s presence disturbs Irene’s values and exposes the limitations of her conceptions, at the same time, Clare’s verve in living, especially as white, is a projection of Irene’s own wish-fulfillment, her suppressed desire to experience life fully” (Davis 315). The irritation that Irene feels when surrounded by Clare pushes her to jealousy. Clare makes Irene feel insignificant, which in turn, fuels Irene’s envy.
Ironically, Irene spends so much time resenting Clare that she does not realize that Clare harbors her own jealousy towards her. She is “jealous of Irene’s security within a stable family, both in Chicago with her loving, responsible, and respectable parents and in New York with her husband and sons” (Davis 325).
This jealousy does not surpass the fact that subconsciously, both women need not only the presence, but also the approval of the other. Ever since their first meeting, Irene has felt that Clare was “just a shade too good looking” (Larsen 182). Irene’s usual social parameters have been subconsciously diminished because she is constantly worrying about the presence of Clare and her interaction with others. Every time the women are around each other, “Clare becomes an occasion for Irene’s self-examination” (Davis 317). Though Irene conveys all of this jealousy and animosity towards Clare, Tate believes that Irene is the true heroine of the story (Tate 145). I have to disagree with this statement, because I do not think that there are any heroes in this story. To be a hero, one must come out on top of a situation, and I think that Irene is far from that. Throughout the text, Irene always finds some way to critique Clare and push her farther away; definitely not characteristics of a hero. In fact, since there is speculation that Irene pushed Clare out of the window, there is no way that Irene could ever be perceived as a hero.
I do agree with Tate when she addresses the ambiguity in the final chapter. Larsen seems to purposely avoid this confirmation of what really happened because it seems to be a metaphor for the lives of these women. Larsen presents this book as a stream of consciousness through the mind of Irene, and leaves the reader unsure about the circumstances surrounding Clare’s death. The confusion of the final scene mimics Irene and Clare. As soon as they escape oppression by passing for white, they seem to never really have a sense of self – they are always confused about their places in life.
Times prove to be difficult for Irene and Clare, as they grow up as black females in an oppressive society. This causes the women to lack an understanding of themselves. Irene, for one, does not recognize that she is a strong willed woman who is capable of anything. She feels that she is nothing without Brian (Wall 109). Her lack of confidence causes her to feel inferior to Clare. Larsen reveals this weakness through the images of the women’s eyes. Most readers will know the saying “The eyes are the windows to the soul”; in this case, Clare’s eyes are also windows to Irene’s soul. “Clare’s ‘Negro eyes’ symbolize the unconscious, the unknowable, the erotic, and the passive. In other words, they symbolize those aspects of the psyche Irene denies within herself” (Wall 108). The one thing that cannot be denied is Irene’s and Clare’s heritage. Though their lifestyles may appear different on the surface, both women will always be black. I believe that Clare is a woman who is ready at any moment to disregard herself so that she can be recognized by others in a positive light. This, however, is not the case for Brody, who believes that Clare retains a strong sense of her past wrapped up inside her (Brody 1055), and that Irene tried to disregard it. I find it very hard to agree with Brody because of Clare’s marriage to a white man: not only did she have this marriage, but John did not know of Clare’s race. She even allows John to jibe the black race in front of Irene. Though Irene does use her light skin to aid her in some situations, she stays true to herself by marrying a black man and remaining in the social gatherings of the black crowd. Brody feels that since Clare attended so many functions with Irene, she was trying to reconnect with her past. However, I believe that Clare was using this time as a ploy for excitement, not for her own racial benefits. She also holds Clare on a pedestal, saying that Clare only uses her white power when appropriate (Brody 1056). I do not think that there is any ‘appropriate’ time for her to lie to her husband and family about her true origin. Both of these women use their abilities because they need to feel accepted in a world where they do not feel recognized.
Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry find that the only way they can truly live is if they feel that they are recognized and accepted. The story of Passing does not only describe how people during that time passed under the veil of race, but also examines how Irene and Clare ‘passed’ through their lives by being accepted. These recognitions were not only by society, but by each other, and by themselves as well. These women faced many problems in their oppressed society, but they got through them because they came to understand that accepting one’s self and others are the integral parts of finding one’s identity.
Brody, Jennifer. “Race and Class Conflict in Nella Larsen’s Passing.” Callaloo, Vol. 15, No. 4. 1992. 20 April 2005. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=01612492%28199223%2915%3A4%3C1053%3ACK%22CRA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-B.
Davis, Thadious M.. Nella Larsen: Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Larsen, Nella. The Complete Fiction of Passing, Quicksand and The Stories. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.
Tate, Claudia. “Nella Larsen’s Passing: A Problem with Interpretation.” Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 14, No. 4. 1980. 20 April 2005. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0148-6179%28198024%2914%3A4%3C142%3ANLPAPO%3E2.0.CO%3B2-5
Wall, Cheryl. “Passing for What? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen’s Novels.” American Literature Forum Vol. 20, No. 1/2. 1986. 20 April 2005. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=01486179%28198621%2F22%2920%3A1%2F2%3C97%3APFWAOI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-Y.
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