Passing by Nella Larsen

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Quicksand, the 1928 novella by the American writer Nella Larsen, born in Chicago in the 1890s to a white Danish mother and a black West Indian father. The novella – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. It’s a superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance.

Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, who had known one another at school but then lost touch as their lives diverged. Both women are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances – and it is here that the differences between the two women begin to emerge. While Irene lives almost exclusively as a black woman, ‘passing’ only when necessary to gain access to theatres or hotels, Clare seems to have wholly entered white society while concealing her true racial background. Moreover, Clare is playing a particularly high-stakes game, having married an outspoken white supremacist, the banking agent John Bellew, without revealing her ancestry.  

Irene and her black husband – a doctor named Brian Redfield – live in Harlem, New York, with their two sons, Brian Junior and Ted. At first, their marriage appears stable and conventional, but longstanding tensions begin to emerge as the novella unfolds. Earlier in their relationship, Brian wanted to move the family to Brazil, where racial differences were less problematic than in the US. Irene, however, was opposed to this idea, favouring the quality of life available to them in New York instead. Consequently, the couple remained in the US, a decision that Brian clearly regrets, often giving rise to a discernible sense of restlessness on his part.

Clare, on the other hand, spends much of her time travelling between New York and Europe, accompanying her husband, John, while he carries out his work. It’s a glamorous, comfortable life, albeit one tinged with the fear of exposure should her ancestry be discovered.

One day, when Clare unexpectedly spots Irene in a hotel tea room, she cannot resist coming over for a chat, giving us a masterful scene to observe. With her glamorous clothes and chic blond hair, Clare is virtually unrecognisable to Irene, who at first is concerned that she is about to be ejected from the tea room by an indignant white lady, somehow alert to her biracial status. During this chance encounter, Clare shares with Irene the details of her new life, how she is effectively passing as a white woman with all the attendant risks this entails.

By the end of the meeting, Irene vows that she will not see Clare again, despite the latter’s insistence that they must reconnect. In truth, Irene has been reminded of the air of selfishness surrounding Clare, a harshness that remains unsuppressed; and yet, there is warmth and passion in Clare’s character too, an allure that seems hard to resist. Moreover, Irene is curious to learn more about this perilous business of passing, which involves taking one’s chances in another sector of society with all its inherent privileges and risks. Consequently – and somewhat against her better judgement – Irene resumes her friendship with Clare, continuing to meet her when the two women are back in New York.

In some respects, Clare feels constrained by the abhorrent views of her husband and the implicit restrictions he places on her life, despite its financial comforts. As such, Irene represents an opportunity for Clare to gain access to the vibrant black community of Harlem she longs to re-enter. It’s a situation Irene observes for herself when she meets John Bellew in person, hearing his hated for ‘Negroes’ expressed in all its venom. (Bellew, at this point, is entirely unaware of the black heritage of the three women in his company – Clare, Irene, and another of their high-school friends, Gertrude).

It was, Irene, thought, unbelievable and astonishing that four people could sit so unruffled, so ostensibly friendly, while they were in reality seething with anger, mortification, shame. But no, on second thought she was forced to amend her opinion. John Bellew, most certainly, was as undisturbed within as without. So, perhaps, was Gertrude Martin. At least she hadn’t the mortification and shame that Clare Kendry must be feeling, or, in such full measure, the rage and rebellion that she, Irene, was repressing. (p. 174)

As a result of these interactions with Clare, Irene begins to question her loyalty to her own race, finding herself somewhat uncertain and insecure – not just with her racial identity but in other aspects of life too, particularly her marriage to Brian, which Clare also seems intent on infiltrating. 

She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. (p. 225)

[…] when she examined her feeling of annoyance, Irene admitted, a shade reluctantly, that it arose from the feeling of being outnumbered, a sense of aloneness, in her adherence to her own class and kind; not merely in this great thing of marriage, but in the whole pattern of her life as well. (p. 166)

What makes this story particularly compelling is the depth and complexity of the characters Larsen has created here, leading to a relationship that is both intricate and layered. While Clare can appear sophisticated and alluring on the surface, she harbours a manipulative streak at heart, a wilful seam of selfishness that drives her desires.

Clare, it seemed, still retained her ability to secure the thing that she wanted in the face of any opposition, and in utter disregard of the convenience and desire of others. About her there was some quality, hard and persistent, with the strength and endurance of rock, that would not be beaten or ignored. She couldn’t, Irene thought, have had an entirely serene life. Not with that dark secret for ever crouching in the background of her consciousness. And yet she hadn’t the air of a woman whose life had been touched by uncertainty or suffering. (p. 201)

Irene, however, appears outwardly caring and respectable, seemingly prioritising the security of her family over other personal aspirations. But Clare’s shameless audacity in passing as white, while also wishing to re-enter black society, reveals Irene’s jealousy and disapproval of Clare. As Irene so neatly puts it here, the ‘trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.’

Consequently, Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. As the novella builds to a dramatic conclusion, the subtlety and precision of Larsen’s writing come to the fore. While at first, there seems to be a degree of ambiguity about the ending, close reading points to a clear interpretation of the crucial final scene, which I won’t go into here for fear of spoilers – save to say, it’s an outcome the reader is unlikely to forget.

As many of you will know, there is a film adaptation of this outstanding novella on the way, due to open in UK cinemas on 27th October with a Netflix streaming release to follow on 10th November. Rather appropriately, the film has been shot in crystalline black and white, with Ruth Negga as Clare and Tessa Thompson as Irene. I, for one, can’t wait to see it…

My edition of Passing is published (together with Quicksand) by Serpent’s Tail; my thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for a reading copy.

53 thoughts on “Passing by Nella Larsen

  1. gertloveday

    I hope the film is streaming here. I don’t think we have quite realised the extent of discrimination against black people in the U S (Although our own indigenous people haven’t fared too well.)

    Reply
      1. gertloveday

        Just reading Darryl Pinckney’s review In The Nation of the latest biography of Nella Larsen. It seems her tragedy was she couldn’t quite ‘pass’ but was excluded from the wholly black society that shared gospel
        music and church celebration. Will definitely read her books.

        Reply
    1. MarinaSofia

      Oops pressed wrong button
      Wanted to say how much I enjoyed your review for mentioning the complex friendship/envy element of the story, which to me feels like the most important part (and especially as it relates to race or other minority status and notions of the scarcity of places at the top table, as it were).

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Ah, thanks Marina. Yes, I think it’s such a powerful commentary on the dangers of envy and resentment. That line about Clare not being content with having her cake and eating it, but wanting to nibble other people’s cakes too, is so telling. Oddly enough, it’s really a test of the reader’s sympathies with Irene (rather than Clare), especially given the depth of her jealousy…

        The film sounds excellent (based on the majority of early reviews I’ve seen to date). It’s Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, so it’ll be interesting to see how someone with significant amount of experience from the other side of the camera approaches it!

        Reply
  2. Daphna Kedmi

    Thank you Jacqui. I read this novel some time ago, and even though the primary issue is that of racial identity, the novel goes much deeper than that, leveraging the issue of “passing” to also explore the strengths and weaknesses of Clare and Irene navigating through what was at the time (and probably still is) a male-dominated society. Truly a literary gem!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I agree. These characters are so richly imagined, and Larsen doesn’t shy are from showing use all their flaws and contradictions. It really is a superb book. Glad you enjoyed it too!

      Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    Excellent review, Jacqui. I found Passing even more striking than Quicksand and, despite reading both back in 2014, they’ve stayed with me in the way other books haven’t. I’m more circumspect about the film than you. Perhaps I’ll see what you think before I watch it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. There’s been the odd negative review (e.g. the Guardian’s from Sundance – not Peter Bradshaw, someone else whose name escapes me), but the majority of respected critics have been raving about it. Plus, I really like Rebecca Hall as an actor, so I’m curious to see how she gets on in her directorial debut!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. While I haven’t read the Bennett myself, I’ve heard others comparing it to Passing, so there’s clearly a parallel in terms of theme. I’m sure it would make an interesting comparison!

      Reply
  4. madamebibilophile

    This sounds excellent, so impressive to cover huge themes and create complex relationships and characterisation in the space of a novella. Have you read Never Far from Nowhere by Andrea Levy? It’s about the experiences of two sisters, and addresses similar themes. It’s been quite a while since I read it but your review put me in mind of it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I haven’t, although I loved Levy’s Small Island when I read it back in the day! Thanks for the tip, Madame Bibi – I’ll definitely look that up. It’s such a shame that Levy died so young when it she had so much more left to give…at least, that’s the impression I was left with at the time.

      Reply
  5. Jane

    gosh this sounds good, and I have it upstairs waiting for me! I need to do some exploring about the Harlem Renaissance as well I think.

    Reply
  6. hopewellslibraryoflife

    Amazing review–you make me want to go re-read it. I read this for Diverse December last year and it was amazing. Somehow I missed the Brazil bit though. Happily, based on your review, that’s all I spaced out on thought. Great work!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. There’s definitely a degree of restlessness in Brian, a grudge he’s been harbouring ever since Irene persuaded him to stay. It’s not a major element of the plot, more an undercurrent I guess…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I’m not sure that Brazil has any particular significance. It could have been one of a number of Latin American countries where racial differences were less of a barrier to progression…

          Reply
  7. heavenali

    This is such a wonderful novella, I have recommended it recently to a few people who have enjoyed The Vanishing Half. That complex relationship between Irene and Clare is so well handled. It’s incredible that such a slight novel manages to delve so deeply into issues of race. I think the film is out soon, I really would like to see it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the degree of compression in her writing is quite remarkable. She manages to pack so much in, both here and in Quicksand, and her central characters always feel so richly imagined. I’m really looking forward to seeing the film.

      Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    Definitely a classic and a brilliantly complex story between characters and issues. What’s particularly interesting (besides the great characters), in ‘Passing’ is the combination of race and class. Irene and Clare would invoke very complicated reactions within the Black community itself. A novel I read and posted about earlier this year, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s excellent novel ‘Libertie’ delves into that in a different way.

    A wonderful review of the book, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jule! Yes, that’s a great point about class. Irene seems particularly preoccupied with signifiers of status and class, to the point where these feed into her resentment of Clare and her lifestyle. I’m interested to see how Rebecca Hall handles these issues in the film. (The class issue is very much present in Quicksand too, especially in the character of Anne Grey.)

      Reply
      1. Julé Cunningham

        Yes, you’re right about Quicksand. It would also be something that would feed into the perception of them by the wider Black community. The two issues are very intermingled here and almost impossible to separate.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, and your comments have just reminded me of the dynamics between Irene and her black maid/housekeeper, Zulena, which I hadn’t touch on in my review. There’s something very troubling about the way Irene treats Zulena, asking her to lie when Clare calls up on the phone. Irene clearly thinks she’s superior in some way to Zulena, which feels rather hypocritical to me given their ancestry. There’s a whole other can of worms right there, just waiting to be opened and explored…

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries, Karen. I understand your love for books and preference for the source materials…but I don’t agree that they’re always better than the adaptations. There are plenty of examples of films that are either better than or deliberately different from their source novels. Jaws and Psycho, for instance – these are two of the most frequently cited examples where the movie trumps the book. Then there’s something like Jonathan Glazer’s film of Under the Skin, which riffs with Michel Faber’s source novel, crafting something distinctive in its own right, while still retaining certain elements of the novel (e.g. mood, atmosphere and central premise). Sorry, but we’re gonna have to agree to disagree on this, in the friendliest possible way! :-)

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        LOL, no worries Jacqui – I know you love your films! My problem is often when I get really strong images from a book in my head that I struggle to accept someone else’s interpretation of it. But yes – there are probably some films which surpass the original novel, although they might not be titles I would have thought of reading!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Haha, It’s great that we know one another well enough to have this kind of chat!
          Yes, that’s a great point about the power of images we form in our minds as we read. I’ve certainly experienced that myself!

          Reply
  9. Grier

    My book group read Passing at my suggestion not long ago and we had a lively discussion of the ending as not everyone felt it was clear what happened. I loved the novella and your review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grier. I’m so glad you enjoyed Passing and my review. It’s a great choice for book groups as there’s so much to discuss – and, as you suggest, the ending is open to different interpretations because it doesn’t spell everything out. I’d love to do it with my book too, but it’s not my turn to choose till next spring/summer. We have a rotating pick, and there are several others ahead of me in the queue!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d love to see it at the cinema, but given the prevalence of COVID cases in the UK, coupled with the film’s availability on Netflix in less than 2 weeks, I’ll stick with streaming for now!

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        That’s where things are at here, too, but I’m never entirely sure how things are evolving elsewhere. The international news program that I listen to weekly does the whole globe in under two hours, so obvs lots of countries never make an appearance (I can count on one hand the number of times Canada has been included, for instance).

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I feel that way too. It’s relatively easy to see how things are going in your own country and immediate locality, but in terms of global developments, it’s more opaque. I know our idiotic Government is taking a very different approach to that of other Western nations in trying to rely on vaccines alone, and it’s galling to see that deaths and hospitalisations are continuing to rack up…

          Reply
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  11. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I read both Quicksand and Passing together last year and found them both extremely compelling and fascinating. I also found it interesting that at the time of publishing, there were apparently hundreds of novels being written on the subject of ‘passing’, but that this one rose above them all. I found that interesting too because Brit Bennett’s contemporary novel The Vanishing Half brought that subject back to prominence (although perhaps there have been others that I’ve not been aware of), Nella Larsen being one of her inspirations.

    It is an interesting subject, to be in pursuit of something other than what someone is, to suppress what is authentic in favour of what is perceived to be superior, to discover the sacrifice inherent within that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s fascinating! I don’t think I had realised just how many other novels were being written about this subject at the time. Clearly a hot-button issue in its day, which is interesting considering how timeless the novel feels. Reading it blind, one might think it was set in the 1950s or early ’60s, when societal structures were shifting as some of the traditional class barriers and other related divisions were breaking down.

      I think many of us are ‘passing’ in certain areas of our lives, to some degree at least – whether that’s a projection of a particular personality on social media or modifying our appearance, attitudes or behaviours to gain acceptance to a particular group, it’s all a type of ‘passing’ to a lesser or greater degree.

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        Yes, I was thinking too about class distinctions, with more people being university educated, with second generation immigrants, in so many areas there are shifts, which result in people becoming something other than they were or are expected to be.

        I remember I took a year out from a corporate job in my twenties to study Aromatherapy and did some waitressing, I told my colleagues I was an Aromatherapist, thinking that if others saw me as that, it would me convince myself I could be something other than what I’d previously trained to be. Passing can be a helpful way to shift ones own perception of self. :)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, very true! I was one of the first members of my family to go to university, and it was very much frowned upon by my paternal uncle, whose own children weren’t academically minded or inclined to go down that route. I recall feeling like an imposter for at least the first year, constantly afraid of being ‘exposed’ or considered unworthy of my place – partly because of the way my uncle had reacted!

          I can understand why you told your waitressing colleagues that you were an Aromatherapist in the example you’ve described above. Sometimes it’s easier to fit in that way, to gain the trust of others, especially when you’re trying out a new role or ‘identity’!

          Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              It’s ridiculous, isn’t it! Any normal person would be happy to see their niece going off to university, for the opportunities it would open up. But no…it was all ‘Why are you wasting your time with all these studies? Why don’t you get a proper job (like my kids)?’ etc. etc…

              Reply

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