Passing is about pretense, jealousy, psychological ambiguity, concealment, and duplicity. The messiness of being human s portrayed in the relationship between two women, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield. It is through this narrative that Larsen suggests that both racial and gender/sexual identities are as much artifice as they are intrinsic. Larsen is specific in the manner that she portrays her characters. The mechanics of the writing – and its brevity – are significant indicators of the level of craft on display. Larsen is doing big work in this novel, commenting on the social upheaval of the late 1920s. It is a story of social obligation balanced against personal freedom where really no one comes out the winner.
Irene Redfield is married to Brian, a prominent physician, and they live a comfortable life in a Harlem town house with their sons. Her work arranging charity balls that gather Harlem’s elite creates a sense of purpose and respectability for Irene. But Irene is thrown into a panic when she encounters Clare Kendry, a childhood friend with whom she had lost touch. Clare—light-skinned, beautiful, and charming—tells Irene how, after her father’s death, she left behind the black neighborhood of her adolescence and began passing for white, hiding her identity from everyone, including her racist husband. As Clare begins inserting herself into Irene’s life Irene is terrified of the consequences of Clare’s dangerous behavior. And when Clare witnesses the vibrancy and energy of the community she left behind, her burning desire to come back threatens to shatter her careful deception.
The main characters in Passing are two sides of a coin, two biracial women whose identities are performative as they navigate life with the privilege of passing as White. Clare is inscrutable but her passing is not for the greater good, or a statement. It’s based on how she knows to survive, how being raised in the home of her white aunts impacted her perception and her options to avoid poverty. Because at the core, all passing stories are based around class and the social ladder. Irene’s version of the story is about engaging with her life as a Black woman to be a shining example of the possibilities and putting to the side the white parts of her background which provide her outlets.
Larsen uses a socially pretentious setting that functions as an artistic choice, a stage setting to allow its (white) contemporaneous audience to engage with the story on its terms and not to fight against it. Larsen structures the novel in three acts, in a typical stage play format. While I could see the work Larsen did, and why nearly a hundred years later it’s still an important work of literature, it didn’t pull me in which is unfortunate because I really wanted to love it.
Bingo Square: Gaslight (there’s so much gaslighting going on, so much.)