Passing Through, Passing Out and Passing On: the psychological strain of “Passing”

Spoiler Alert.

It is obvious that Nella Larsen’s book Passing deals primarily with the concepts of identity and belonging. The central story is centered on the ability of many of the characters to cross racial boundaries in 1920’s Harlem. Clare Kendry moves between two conflicting worlds, tempting fate by “passing” as white while infiltrating the Harlem existence she longs for. Irene Redfield passes only when it is convenient for her to obtain what she wants, such as theatre tickets. While it is clear that the title of the book refers to this racial line blurring, what may not be apparent is that it also deals with the psychological strain that “passing” puts on both women. A strain which ultimately ends in tragedy.

No matter the reasoning behind whether or not a character chooses “passing”, it becomes apparent that the decision to participate in the farce places a psychological strain on the women. For example, when Irene, Clare and Gertrude meet for tea at the Morgan, each woman discusses her pregnancy and their fears concerning how dark each child would be at birth. Clare states, “I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that she might be dark. Thank goodness, she turned out all right” (36).  Gertrude nods in agreement and exclaims, “They don’t know, like we do, how it might go way back, and turn out dark no matter what colour the father and mother are” (36). Both women, who are “passing” as white, and are married to white men, seem terrified at the thought of exposure. Irene, however, who rarely passes and whose husband “couldn’t exactly pass” admits that one of her children is dark (37). To Clare and Gertrude, the psychological strain of exposure created a sense of terror at the thought of having a child who could not pass as white, or “freaks of the nature” as Clare would call them (37). To Irene, however, the psychological strain comes not from her dark child, but from the “flood of resentment, anger and contempt” she felt concerning the tastelessness of the subject (36). It is apparent that Clare and Gertrude invest a great deal of significance in “passing” through life as white, while Irene does not. Irene continues to harbor these emotions when confronted with Clare’s racist husband, Jack. In fact, as the book progresses, Irene’s anger and resentment of the subject make Clare a target. They overwhelm her to the point of a complete psychological break with reality.

At the end of the book, Clare is found out by her husband, and Irene has a moment of panic. Subsequently “what happened next Irene Redfield never afterwards allowed herself to remember. Never clearly” (111). Clare dies (is pushed, is murdered, jumps) and Irene is left “amazed, incredulous almost” but also completely unaware that she has lost her tenuous grip on reality (111). Readers are left to wonder was Clare’s “passing” as white, while being married to a racist (and possibly having an affair with Irene’s husband), the real contributing factor, or was it Irene’s jealousy of those facts that lead to Clare’s untimely demise? The only surety is that the psychological strain of “passing” was too much for both women.

One Response to Passing Through, Passing Out and Passing On: the psychological strain of “Passing”

  1. Prof VZ March 4, 2015 at 10:37 pm #

    No single scene registers the full range of tensions and anxieties surrounding passing than that scene in which what one would think is a positive act–bringing a child into the world–is fraught all manner of worries. You do a great job of walking us through that scene and registering the psychological damage that Irene carries with her throughout until that ambiguous conclusion.

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