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The New Historicism of the ‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen narrations can be used to give insights and explain a period when the American society was segregated on racial lines. Being raised in white Chicago suburb, Larsen was captivated by mixed race dynamics which became the main theme for this novel. Her novel Passing focuses on the two main light-skinned women characters, one of whom, a woman named Clare who is supposedly married to a white man but maintains her African-American cultural ties while the other woman, Irene, who lives in Harlem and is married to an African-American man. The events in the novel took place in New York society in the 1920s, demonstrating the challenges that the gender was constructing during that period as women were powerless against men and race. In Passing Nella Larsen uses themes, symbolism, allegory, and simile to illustrate the struggles Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry were facing because of ‘passing.’
Since Larsen was the only noticeable black individual amongst her nuclear family, the author uses the theme of race and ethnicity to describe the emerging delineations of concepts such as gender, race as well as the inextricable connection between being black or white. Clare is portrayed as being motivated to rejoin the African-American community that is separated from the white community. She suffers from racial disorientation as an African-American woman passing as white and secondly as a participant in the white community who tries to connect with her roots. Moreover, the writer reveals the infeasibility of self-invention which was common in the American society, in which ambiguity and nuance were seen as a significant threat to the social order. Thus, Larsen’s Passing demonstrates an indictment of consumer culture and its consequences on the personal integrity. Irene and Clare’s life reveals their desire to transform and the lengths these characters are willing to go to get what they desire.
Nella Larsen’s Passing was influenced by the theme of privilege and prosperity as well as the forms of social segregation those women encountered in the 1920s. During this time the American minority groups were often subjected to discrimination and racial segregation. Clare’s ‘passing’ helps her escape dreary family and enter the world of affluence and privilege that she used to admire from a distance. The writer reflects on a full social decision that Clare who is African-American who stopped leaving as a black person and “pass” as a white. Equally important, Larsen’s literature depicts a real picture of the world where she used to live and cultural transformations that occurred in the American Society immediately after the World War I.
Irene’s and other lead characters focus on the theme of marriage to indicate the different role men and women play in their homes. The novel pays considerable attention to different marriage dynamics that occur within Bellew and Redfield’s Households. All leading and even minor characters like Irene, Clare, Hugh, Gertrude and Felise marriage seem to provide a source of partnership and security. However, there are strains and conflicts between Irene and Clare about the looming affairs that Brain has with Clare. This consequently brings the theme of deception. This theme expresses some of the challenges that women face while raising their children and when men are the head of the households.
Through symbolism, the writer uses Clare as a character to portray the racial disorientation she experienced as a child. This indicates that Larsen could never be white like her sister and mother neither could she be black like Irene nor other characters who are African-Americans. Larsen’s ideas about the racial segregation that existed in the American society in the 20s are established in the Passing through the historicism approaches and therefore, she uses “passing” as symbolism to show the people who are unrecognizable or who were perceived to have no roots like Larsen. “Passing” or of African-American individuals to pose as white people became a choice some of African-American. The writer portrays “passing” as an opportunity for people of color to escape from injustices and oppression that life in the 1920s could present. Furthermore, “passing” for white not only protected the African-American from racial segregation but also presented them with opportunities that normal white society was entitled. This indicates that during slavery this could even mean freedom to some African-Americans. For example, even after the abolition of slavery, racial segregation was evident in the Southern States in public places like railroad stations. Since Larsen’s Nuclear family was all white, they lived mostly in the white neighborhoods where her family encountered racial discrimination because of her.
Earlier in the story, the writer employs allegory when Clare used the biblical tale of Noah’s child Ham to remind her of the suffering she endured at the hands of her relatives. Clare asserts that people were not sure that good God had the intentions that the sons and daughters of Ham were meant to sweat because of Ham’s behavior towards his father, Noah. She remembers her aunts narrating the story to her that Noah later cursed Ham and his sons forever (Larsen 17). Since Larsen grew up as an African-American child in the white household, due to hostilities, her family was facing because of her race prompted her folks to enroll her in African-American University. Not to mention, when Larsen tried to visit and make contact with her family, later on, they all refused to recognize her perhaps because they were ashamed of her. Thus, this biblical story is an analogy of misfortunes and alienation that African-Americans in the 20s used to encounter. Through her book’s character like Clare, the Larsen observe herself in the different anti- African-American version of Ham and as an outcast from the needed African-American community. Through Irene’s challenging life; the writer is also seen as part of the black community or “Ham’s dark children. (78)” indicating identity conflict that individuals who had no specific roots were encountering at the time.
Larsen also employs simile to demonstrate her work life experiences as a nurse. The racial segregation was also rampant because black Americans’ public amenities like hospitals were all in deplorable conditions. Brian’s conversation with Irene paints this condition to light through unpleasant simile. Brian illustrates how he is always busy like a cat with fleas to try to lift a sick brother which is never an easy task. Also, how he hates his patients climbing filthy steps, dirty hospital rooms and dark hallways in black community hospitals. As a nurse, this demonstrates Larsen’s desire to get rid of her “fleas” which is used to compare the challenges she encountered while working as a nurse. This shows some of the racial discriminations that were later adopted in some of the southern states that required segregations in places like hospitals, schools, transportation and any other public places. Larsen’s narration suggests the difficulties of being black posed while living in America.
In conclusion, Nella Larsen’s Passing is based on racial issues that were rampant in the 1920s. The book not only focuses on racial segregation but also uses themes to expose gender challenges in marriages, relationship and the whole society between women and men.
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