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Passing (novel)

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Passing Nella Larsen cover.jpg
Norton Critical Edition cover, 2007
Author Nella Larsen
Country United States
Language English
Genre Tragedy, Tragic mulatto
Publisher Knopf
Publication date
April 1929
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback, E-Book)
ISBN 978-1604599947

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, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, and their increasing fascination with each other's lives. The title refers to the practice of racial "passing", and is a key element of the novel; Clare Kendry's attempt to pass as white for her husband, John (Jack) Bellew, is its most significant depiction in the novel, and a catalyst for the tragic events.

Larsen's exploration of race was informed by her own mixed racial heritage and the increasingly common practice of racial passing in the 1920s. Praised upon publication, the novel has since been celebrated in modern scholarship for its complex depiction of race, gender and sexuality, and is the subject of considerable scholarly criticism. As one of only two novels that Larsen wrote, Passing has been significant in placing its author at the forefront of several literary canons.


Biographical context[edit]

As early as 1925, Nella Larsen had decided that she wanted to be among the "New Negro" writers 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, "it is the awful Truth. But, who knows if I'll get through with the damned thing. Certainly not I."[4] In April 1927, Larsen and her husband, Elmer Imes, moved from Jersey City, New Jersey to Harlem to be closer to the cultural phenomenon.[5] 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.[6] She published only these two novels (including Passing) and some short stories.

Historical context[edit]

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,[7] exacerbated by the Great 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.[8] The US history of slavery as a racial caste and 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."[9] Although the exact numbers of people who passed is, for obvious reasons, not known, 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.[10]

A significant precedent for Larsen's depiction of Clare and Jack's relationship was the 1925 legal trial known as the "Rhinelander Case" (or Rhinelander v. Rhinelander).[11] 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.[12][13]

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,[14] and she was forced to disrobe partially in front of the jury in the judge's chambers in order for them to assess the darkness of her skin.[15]

Larsen refers to the 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."[13] The case received substantial coverage in the press of the time, and Larsen could assume that it was common knowledge to her readers.[16]


The Drake Hotel in Chicago, on which the "Drayton Hotel" in Passing is principally modeled.[17]

The story is written as a third person narrative from the perspective of Irene Redfield, a mixed-race woman who lives in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.

Part One of the book, titled "Encounter," opens with Irene receiving a letter from Clare Kendry, causing her to recall a chance encounter she had had with her, at the roof restaurant of the Drayton Hotel in Chicago, during a brief stay in the city. The women grew up together but lost touch when Clare's white father died and she was taken to live with her two paternal white aunts. Irene learns that Clare "passes" for white, living primarily in Europe with her unsuspecting, rich, white husband and their daughter. Although Irene tries to avoid further engagement with Clare, she later visits Clare for tea along with another childhood friend, Gertrude Martin. Toward the end of the visit, Clare's husband John (Jack) Bellew arrives. Unaware that all three women are black, Jack expresses some very racist views and makes the women uneasy. However, the women play along in an effort to maintain Clare's secret identity. Afterward, Irene and Gertrude decide that Clare's situation is too dangerous for them to continue associating with her. Irene receives a letter of apology from Clare but destroys it and goes on with her life with her husband, Brian, and her two sons.

Part Two of the book, "Re-encounter," returns to the present, with Irene having received the new letter from Clare. After Irene ignores Clare's letter, Clare visits in person so Irene reluctantly agrees to see her. When it is brought up that Irene serves on the committee for the "Negro Welfare League" (NWL)[b] Clare invites herself to their upcoming dance despite Irene's advice against it for fear that Jack will find out. Clare attends the dance and enjoys herself without her husband finding out, which encourages her to continue spending time in Harlem. Irene and Clare resume their childhood companionship, and Clare frequently visits Irene's home.

The third and final part of the novel begins before Christmas, as Irene's relationship with her husband has become increasingly fraught. Aware of her friend's appeal, Irene becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair with Clare. During a shopping trip with her visibly black friend Felise Freeland, Irene encounters Jack, who becomes aware of her and, by extension, Clare's, racial status. Irene considers warning Clare about Jack's new-found knowledge but decides against it, worried that the pair's divorce might encourage her husband to leave her for Clare. Later, Clare accompanies Irene and Brian to a party hosted by Felise. The gathering is interrupted by Jack, who accuses Clare of being a "damned dirty nigger!" Irene rushes to Clare, who is standing by an open window. Suddenly, 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 either Irene or Bellew, or committed suicide, is unclear. The book ends with Irene's fragmented anguish at Clare's death.


Race and "tragic mulatto"[edit]

Though Passing does indeed relate the tragic fate of a mulatto who passes for white, it also centers on jealousy, psychological ambiguity and intrigue. By focusing on the latter elements, Passing is transformed from an anachronistic, melodramatic novel into a skillfully executed and enduring work of art.

Claudia Tate, 1980[18]

Passing has been described as "the tragic story of a beautiful light-skinned mulatto passing for white in high society."[19] The tragic mulatto (also "mulatta" when referring to a woman)[20] 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 that she is unable to identify or find a place with either blacks or whites.[21] The resulting feeling of exclusion was portrayed as variably manifested in self-loathing, depression, alcoholism, sexual perversion, and attempts at suicide.[22]

On the surface, Passing conforms to that stereotype in its portrayal of Clare Kendry, whose passing for white has tragic consequences;[21] 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.[18][23] Scholars have more generally considered Passing as a novel in which the major concern is not race.[24] 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."[25]


Scholars have identified a homoerotic subtext between Irene and Clare, centered on the erotic undertones in Irene's descriptions of Clare and appreciation of her beauty.[26] In that interpretation, the novel's central metaphor of "passing" under a different identity "occurs at a surprisingly wide variety of levels," including sexual.[27] The apparently sexless marriage between Brian and Irene (their separate bedrooms and identification as co-parents rather than sexual partners[27]) allows Larsen to "flirt, if only by suggestion, with the idea of a lesbian relationship between [Clare and Irene]."[28] With Irene considered "an unreliable narrator," she is portrayed as mistaken about events and her interpretations of them.[29]

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 was, are given as evidence. It is also shown that Brazil is considered to be a place with more relaxed ideas about race.[29]

Critical reception[edit]

"Passing" is on the whole an effective and convincing attempt to portray certain aspects of a vexatious problem. The fact that it is by a girl who is partly of negro blood adds to the effectiveness..

—Anonymous, 1929[30]

Passing was published in April 1929 by Knopf in New York City.[31] 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.[32] 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".[33]

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.[34]

A common criticism of the novel is that it ends too suddenly, without a full exploration of the issues.[35] Mary Rennels, writing in the New York Telegram, said, "Larsen didn't solve the problem [of passing]. Knocking a character out of a scene doesn't settle a matter."[36] 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.[30] On the other hand, Dunbar-Nelson found that the ending confirmed to the reader that "you have been reading a masterpiece all along."[33]

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.[37] As of 2007, Passing is the subject of more than 200 scholarly articles and more than 50 dissertations,[37][38] 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."[37] However, literary critic Cheryl Wall summarizes the critical response to Passing as less favorable than to Larsen's first novel Quicksand.[39] On 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 so Passing appears dated and trivial.[39]



  1. ^ Its short length has led Passing to sometimes be categorized as a novella.[1][2][3]
  2. ^ This organisation is "a fictional cross between the two most important black 'uplift' organizations: the National Urban League, founded in 1911, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909."[1]


  1. ^ a b Larsen, Nella (2007). Kaplan, Carla, ed. Passing: Authoritative Text and Critical Context. New York, NY: Norton. 
  2. ^ Rottenberg, Catherine (2003). "Passing : Race, Identification, and Desire". Criticism. 45 (4): 435–52. doi:10.1353/crt.2004.0025. 
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ 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.)
  5. ^ Davis (1989), p. 380.
  6. ^ Davis (1989), p. 379.
  7. ^ Kaplan (2007), pp. xvi–xvii.
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ Smith-Pryor (2009), p. 90.
  10. ^ 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. )
  11. ^ Onwuachi-Willig (2007), p. 2394.
  12. ^ Onwuachi-Willig (2007), pp. 2394–5.
  13. ^ a b Thaggert (2005), p. 2.
  14. ^ Thaggert (2005), p. 18.
  15. ^ Thaggert (2005), pp. 18–22.
  16. ^ Madigan (1990), pp. 388–9.
  17. ^ Kaplan (2007), p. 8.
  18. ^ a b Tate (1980), p. 142.
  19. ^ Larsen, Nella (1971). "Cover remarks". In Fuller, Hoyt. Passing. Collier. 
  20. ^ Kaplan (2007), p. 171.
  21. ^ a b Pilgrim, David (2000). "The Tragic Mulatto Myth". Jim Crow: Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State University. Retrieved 26 June 2012. 
  22. ^ Pilgrim (2000).
  23. ^ Wall (1986), pp. 97–8.
  24. ^ Wall (1986), p. 98.
  25. ^ Tate (1980), p. 143.
  26. ^ Blackmore (1992), pp. 475–6.
  27. ^ a b Blackmore (1992), p. 475.
  28. ^ Larsen (1986), p. xxiii.
  29. ^ a b Blackmore (1992), pp. 476–7.
  30. ^ a b 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. )
  31. ^ Kaplan (2007), pp. 537, 539.
  32. ^ Kaplan (2007), p. xiv.
  33. ^ a b Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (May 3, 1929). "As in a Looking Glass". The Washington Eagle. 
  34. ^ 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. )
  35. ^ Hutchinson (2009), p. 308.
  36. ^ 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. )
  37. ^ a b c Kaplan (2007), p. ix.
  38. ^ Kaplan (2007), pp. 539–46.
  39. ^ a b 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)." Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "FOOTNOTEWall1986105" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).


  • 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 (help)). 
  • 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 (help)). 
  • 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 (help)). 
  • 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 (help)). 

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