Nella Larsen, “Passing”

1929

This short novel tells the story of Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, two mixed-race women in Harlem in the 20s. They were childhood friends and had a chance meeting in Chicago years earlier, where Irene was estranged by Clare’s insistence on passing and marrying a white man. Clare “passes” as white even to her husband, Jack Bellew, since she has been sent to live with her two white aunts. When Clare (“passing”), Irene (mixed), and Gertrude (black) meet Jack for lunch, the novel assembles a sampling of racial diversity illegible to Jack as all participatory in the spectrum of blackness. Clare is already married to Jack, who thinks she is white. Irene lives in Harlem with her black husband, a doctor, and their 2 children. She is involved in the community, and invites Clare to a dance, warning her that it could blow her cover, but Clare decides to go. Irene becomes suspicious of her husband sleeping with the beautiful Clare, and this may be part of why she doesn’t warn Clare when Jack finds out that both women are black. She even considers betraying her herself “Why spare Clare?”

Most of the story is focalized through Irene’s free indirect discourse, which verges on stream of consciousness without explanation (for example, at the end of the novel, Irene wonders if Jack will divorce Clare on grounds of race, recalling “The Rhinelander case,” in which a woman was forced to strip in court so the jury could assess her skin). Jack discovers his wife’s race by proxy – he sees Felise and Irene, who lets on that Irene has been “passing,” and worries that Jack will figure out Clare’s race by extension. Jack calls her “a damned dirty nigger,” and as Irene rushes to her (“She couldn’t have Clare cast aside by Bellew. She couldn’t have her free”) she falls/jumps/is pushed from the window and dies. Irene “never allowed herself to remember” this, and “Irene wasn’t sorry… What would the others think? That Clare had fallen? That she had deliberately leaned backward? Certainly one or the other. Not – ” which implies that she pushed her. Yet Clare was “That beauty that had torn at Irene’s placid life. Gone!” No one suspects her, and Irene confirms that she “just fell.” Time slows and halts.

 

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