Norton Critical Edition cover, 2007
|Genre||Tragedy, Tragic mulatto|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
Passing is a novel[a] by American author Nella Larsen, first published in 1929. Set primarily in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in the 1920s, the story centers on the reunion of two childhood friends of mixed-race African-American ancestry—Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield—and their increasing fascination with each other's lives. The title and central theme of the novel refer to the practice of racial "passing"; Clare Kendry's passing as white with her white husband, Jack Bellew, is featured as a central part of the novel, and a catalyst for events.
Larsen's exploration of race was informed by the racial discussion taking place in the United States during the 1920s. The "Rhinelander Case" is a notable precedent for the fictional Kendry-Bellew relationship. Praised upon publication, the novel has since been celebrated in modern scholarship for its complex depiction of race, gender and sexuality, with suggestions that some characters were "passing" as heterosexuals. As one of only two novels by Larsen, Passing has been significant to her being ranked at the forefront of several literary canons, and has been the subject of considerable scholarly criticism.
As early as 1925, Nella Larsen had decided that she wanted to be among the "New Negro" writers who were receiving considerable attention at the time. Initially writing short stories that were sold early in 1926 to a ladies magazine, she was rumored that year to be writing a novel. In a letter to her friend Carl Van Vechten, she acknowledges that "it is the awful Truth. But, who knows if I'll get through with the damned thing. Certainly not I." In April 1927, Larsen and her husband Elmer Imes moved from Jersey City, New Jersey to Harlem in order to be closer to this cultural phenomenon. The following year, Larsen published her first novel Quicksand with New York-based publisher Knopf, and its favorable critical reception encouraged her ambitions to become known as a novelist. She published only these two novels (including Passing) and some short stories.
The 1920s in the United States was a period marked by considerable anxiety and discussion over the crossing of racial boundaries—the so-called "color line" between blacks and whites—exacerbated by the Great Migration, in which hundreds of thousands of blacks left the rural south for northern and midwestern cities where, together with new waves of immigrants, they changed the social makeup. The practice of persons crossing the color line and attempting to claim recognition in another racial group different from the one they were believed to belong to was known as "passing," even when it was based on a person's ancestry. As many African Americans had European ancestry in varying proportions, some appeared visibly European. The US history of slavery as a racial caste, together with the imposition of the "one-drop rule" in the early 20th century, were used by whites to try to harden racial lines that were more fluid in history; at any time, the concept of race was "historically contingent." Although the exact numbers of people who passed is—for obvious reasons—unknown, many estimates were made at the time; the sociologist Charles S. Johnson (1893–1956) calculated that 355,000 blacks had passed between 1900 and 1920.
A significant precedent for Larsen's depiction of Clare Kendry's and Jack Bellew's relationship was the 1925 legal trial known as the "Rhinelander Case" (or Rhinelander v. Rhinelander). Wealthy, white Leonard Kip Rhinelander sued his wife, Alice Beatrice Jones, for annulment and fraud; urged by his family, he alleged that she had failed to inform him of her "colored" blood. The case was also about status and class, as he had met her when she was working as a domestic. She contended that her mixed race was obvious and she had never denied it. Although the jury eventually returned a verdict for Alice, it came at a devastating social cost for both parties; intimate exchanges between the couple were read out in court, and Alice Rhinelander was forced to partially disrobe in front of the jury in the judge's chambers in order for them to assess the darkness of her skin. Larsen refers to this case near the end of the novel, when Irene wonders about the consequences of Jack discovering Clare's racial status: “What if Bellew should divorce Clare? Could he? There was the Rhinelander case”. The case received substantial coverage in the press of the time, and Larsen could assume that it was common knowledge to her readers.
The story is written as a third person narrative from the perspective of Irene Redfield, a mixed-race woman who lives in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City. The narrative opens with Irene receiving a letter from Clare Kendry, causing her to recall a past chance encounter she had with her at the roof restaurant of the Drayton Hotel in Chicago, during a brief stay in the city. The women—both of mixed ancestry—were once "friends" (others considered them as such, the pair did not), but lost touch when Clare's white father died and she went to live with her two paternal white aunts. Irene is perturbed by her suggestion that she could "pass" for white—as Clare does—but is also fascinated by her. Although Irene tries to back out of a planned meeting, she joins later with Clare and her friend, Gertrude Martin. Toward the end of their talk, Clare's white husband John (Jack) Bellew arrives. Unaware that all three women are of mixed race, Jack expresses some very racist views about blacks and makes the women uneasy.
The book resumes in the present day, when Irene lives in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. She identifies as part of and is actively involved in the black community, serving on the committee for the "Negro Welfare League" (NWL). Her black husband Brian Redfield is a doctor, and they have two children. After Irene ignores Clare's letter, her former "friend" visits in person, concerned at the lack of reply. Clare decides to get involved in the black community—in spite of Irene warning her of the risks should her husband find out—and attends the NWL dance. The two resume their childhood companionship, and afterward Clare frequently visits Irene at home. Constantly aware of her friend's appeal, Irene becomes increasingly suspicious that her husband is having an affair with Clare. During a shopping trip with her visibly black friend Felise Freeland, Irene encounters Bellew, who becomes aware of her—and by extension, Clare's—racial status. Irene considers warning Clare, but decides against it.
Later, Clare accompanies Irene and Brian to a party hosted by Felise. The gathering is interrupted by Bellew, who accuses Clare of being a "damned dirty nigger!". Irene rushes to Clare, who is seated by an open window. Clare falls out of the window from the top floor of the building to the ground below, where she is pronounced dead by the guests who eventually gather at the site. Whether she has fallen accidentally, was pushed by Irene or Bellew, or committed suicide, is unclear. The book ends with Irene's fragmented anguish at Clare's death.
Race and the "Tragic Mulatto"
Passing has been described as "the tragic story of a beautiful light-skinned mulatto passing for white in high society." The tragic mulatto (also, "mulatta" when referring to a woman) is a stock character in early African-American literature. Such accounts often featured the light-skinned offspring of a white slaveholder and his black slave, whose mixed heritage in a race-based society means she is unable to identify or find a place with either blacks or whites. The resulting feeling of exclusion was portrayed as variably manifested in self-loathing, depression, alcoholism, sexual perversion, and attempts at suicide.
On the surface, Passing conforms to this stereotype in its portrayal of Clare Kendry, whose passing for white has tragic consequences; however, the book resists the conventions of the genre, as Clare refuses to feel the expected anguish at the betrayal of her black identity and socializes with blacks for the purposes of excitement rather than racial solidarity. Scholars have more generally considered Passing as a novel in which the major concern is not race. For instance, Claudia Tate describes the issue as "merely a mechanism for setting the story in motion, sustaining the suspense, and bringing about the external circumstances for the story's conclusion."
Scholars have identified a homoerotic subplot between Irene and Clare, centered on the erotic undertones in Irene's descriptions of Clare and appreciation of her beauty. In this interpretation, the novel's central metaphor of "passing" under a different identity "occurs at a surprisingly wide variety of levels," including sexual. The apparently sexless marriage between Brian and Irene—e.g., their separate bedrooms and identification as co-parents rather than sexual partners—allows Larsen to "flirt, if only by suggestion, with the idea of a lesbian relationship between [Clare and Irene]". With Irene considered "an unreliable narrator", she is portrayed as mistaken about events and her interpretations of them. The character of her husband Brian has been subject to a similar interpretation: Irene's labeling of him as queer and his oft-expressed desire to go to Brazil—a country then widely thought to be more tolerant of homosexuality than the United States—are given as evidence. It is also shown that Brazil is considered to be a place with more relaxed ideas about race.
Passing was published in April 1929 by Knopf in New York City. Sales of the book were modest—Knopf produced three small print runs each under 2,000 copies. While early reviews were primarily positive, it received little attention beyond New York City. Comparing it to Larsen's previous novel Quicksand, Alice Dunbar-Nelson's review in The Washington Eagle began by declaring that "Nella Larsen delights again with her new novel". Writer and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois hailed it as the "one of the finest novels of the year", and believed that its limited success was due to its treating a "forbidden subject": the marriage of a white man to a mixed-race girl who did not reveal her ancestry.
A common criticism of the novel is that it ends too suddenly, without a full exploration of the issues. Mary Rennels, writing in the New York Telegram, said that "Larsen didn't solve the problem [of passing]. Knocking a character out of a scene doesn't settle a matter." An anonymous reviewer for the New York Times Book Review similarly concluded that "the most serious fault with the book is its sudden and utterly unconvincing close", but otherwise considered it an effective treatment of the topic. On the other hand, Dunbar-Nelson found that the ending confirmed to the reader that "you have been reading a masterpiece all along."
In modern scholarship, Larsen is recognized as one of the central figures in the African-American, feminist and modernist canons, a reputation that is based on her two novels—Passing and Quicksand—and some short stories. As of 2007, Passing is the subject of more than two hundred scholarly articles and more than fifty dissertations, which offer a range of critical interpretations. It has been hailed as a text helping to "create a modernist psychological interiority ... challenging marriage and middle-class domesticity, complexly interrogating gender, race, and sexual identity, and for redeploying traditional tropes—such as that of the tragic mulatta—with a contemporary and critical twist". However, literary critic Cheryl A. Wall summarizes the critical response to Passing as less favorable than to Larsen's first novel Quicksand. On the one hand the significance of sexual jealousy in the story has been seen to detract from the topic of racial passing; conversely, even if racial passing is accurately treated in the novel, it is considered a historically specific practice, and therefore Passing appears dated and trivial.
- Rottenberg, Catherine (2003). "Passing : Race, Identification, and Desire". Criticism 45 (4): 435–52. doi:10.1353/crt.2004.0025.
- McIntire, Gabrielle (2012). "Toward a Narratology of Passing: Epistemology, Race, and Misrecognition in Nella Larsen's Passing". Callaloo 35 (3): 778–94. doi:10.1353/cal.2012.0078.
- Letter to Carl Van Vechten, 1 July 1926, James Wheldon Johnson Collection. (Reprinted from Larson, Nella (2007). Carla Kaplan, ed. Passing. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 85. ISBN 978-0-393-97916-9.)
- Davis (1989), p. 380.
- Davis (1989), p. 379.
- Kaplan (2007), pp. xvi–xvii.
- Johnson, Caleb (August 1931). "Crossing the Color Line". Outlook and Independent 158. (Reprinted from Larson, Nella (2007). Carla Kaplan, ed. Passing. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 121–3. ISBN 978-0-393-97916-9.
- Smith-Pryor (2009), p. 90.
- Johnson, Charles S. (1925). "Editorial". Opportunity 3 (34): 291. (Quoted by Sollors, Werner (1997). Neither Black Nor White, Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature. New York: Oxford UP. p. 281.)
- Onwuachi-Willig (2007), p. 2394.
- Onwuachi-Willig (2007), pp. 2394–5.
- Thaggert (2005), p. 2.
- Thaggert (2005), p. 18.
- Thaggert (2005), pp. 18–22.
- Madigan (1990), pp. 388–9.
- Kaplan (2007), p. 8.
- Tate (1980), p. 142.
- Larsen, Nella (1971). "Cover remarks". In Fuller, Hoyt. Passing. Collier.
- Kaplan (2007), p. 171.
- Pilgrim, David (2000). "The Tragic Mulatto Myth". Jim Crow: Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State University. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
- Pilgrim (2000).
- Wall (1986), pp. 97–8.
- Wall (1986), p. 98.
- Tate (1980), p. 143.
- Blackmore (1992), pp. 475–6.
- Blackmore (1992), p. 475.
- Larsen (1986), p. xxiii.
- Blackmore (1992), pp. 476–7.
- Anonymous (April 28, 1929). "Beyond the Color Line". The New York Times Book Review. (Reprinted from Larson, Nella (2007). Carla Kaplan, ed. Passing. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 85–6. ISBN 978-0-393-97916-9.)
- Kaplan (2007), pp. 537, 539.
- Kaplan (2007), p. xiv.
- Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (May 3, 1929). "As in a Looking Glass". The Washington Eagle.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (July 1929). "Passing". The Crisis 36. (Reprinted from Larson, Nella (2007). Carla Kaplan, ed. Passing. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 85. ISBN 978-0-393-97916-9.)
- Hutchinson (2009), p. 308.
- Rennels, Mary (April 27, 1929). ""Passing" Is a Novel of Longings"". The New York Telegram. (Reprinted from Larson, Nella (2007). Carla Kaplan, ed. Passing. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 85. ISBN 978-0-393-97916-9.)
- Kaplan (2007), p. ix.
- Kaplan (2007), pp. 539–46.
- Wall (1986), p. 105: "These conclusions reflect the views, respectively, of Amaritjit Singh in The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance (99), of Robert Bone in The Negro Novel in America (102), and of Hoyt Fuller in his "Introduction" to Passing (14)."
- Blackmore, David L. (1992). ""That Unreasonable Restless Feeling": The Homosexual Subtexts of Nella Larsen's Passing". African American Review 26 (3): 475–84. JSTOR 3041919. (subscription required (. ))
- Cutter, Martha J. "Sliding Signfications: Passing as a Narrative and Textual Strategy in Nella Larsen's Fiction." Passing and the Fictions of Identity Ed. Elaine K. Ginsberg. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. 75-100,
- Davis, Thadious M. (1989). "Nella Larsen's Harlem Aesthetic". In Amritjit Singh et al. The Harlem Renaissance: Reevaluations. New York: Garland. pp. 245–56. Reproduced in Larsen, Nella (2007) pp. 379–87.
- Hutchinson, George (2009). In Search of Nella Larsen: a Biography of the Color Line. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674038929.
- Larsen, Nella (1986). "Introduction". In McDowell, Deborah. Quicksand and Passing. Rutgers UP.
- Larsen, Nella (2007). Kaplan, Carla, ed. Passing. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-97916-9.
- Kaplan, Carla (2007). "Introduction". In Larsen, Nella. Passing. Norton.
- Madigan, Mark J. (Winter 1990). "Miscegenation and "The Dicta of Race and Class": The Rhinelander Case and Nella Larsen's Passing". Modern Fiction 36 (4): 524–8. doi:10.1353/mfs.0.1034. Reproduced in Larsen, Nella (2007), pp. 387–93.
- Onwuachi-Willig, Angela (2007). "A Beautiful Lie: Exploring Rhinelander v. Rhinelander as a Formative Lesson on Race, Identity, Marriage, and Family". California Law Review 95: 2393–2458.
- Smith-Pryor, Elizabeth M. (2009). Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness. University of North Carolina Press.
- Tate, Claudia (1980). "Nella Larsen's Passing: A Problem of Interpretation". Black American Literature Forum 14 (4): 142–6. JSTOR 2904405. (subscription required (. ))
- Thaggert, Miriam (2005). "Racial Etiquette: Nella Larsen's Passing and the Rhinelander Case". Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 5 (2): 1–29. doi:10.1353/mer.2005.0013. (subscription required (. ))
- Wall, Cheryl A. (1986). "Passing for What? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen's Novels". Black American Literature Forum 20 (1/2): 99–111. JSTOR 2904554. (subscription required (. ))