Nella Larsen wrote her novel Passing during the era of jazz age where for the first time African-Americans could really make their spot in the 1920s. There was only one place where all the African-Americans really wanted to be in, Harlem New York. Harlem was seen as the ultimate magnet, the heart of where dreams could become true, it was the city of dreams, I guess for many today this stands..I have got Alicia Keys and Jay Z song ‘New York’ stuck in my head now. Harlem Renaissance was taking place at that time, African-Americans could finally be amongst their race yet still be able to take part in opportunities they have never had before.
The novel is based on two women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry of African-American heritage who are both “Passing” as white women. Clare does pass more than Irene as she is married to a white racist man, John who is unaware his own wife is not a white woman. The two women are old friends from the past and happen to see each other in a restaurant after years. The two women are very different yet they do seem to mirror each other.
Irene Redfield an African-American women , her character come across as someone who has a successful husband who is a doctor, two beautiful sons and lives in a goods area in Harlem. There is the persona of a perfect little family, however, it soon becomes clear that Irene has her own marriage issues with her husband Brain and the relationship is not that great. Early on from the novel when Irene is shopping for her son Ted “like his father. For ever wanting something that he couldn’t have” (p.12). This suggests perhaps her husband is a difficult man and likes perfection?
Clare on the other hand, lives in upper class area, the irony is that she is married to a very wealthy white racist man John and has a daughter who is in a boarding school abroad, therefore passing in her marriage. Irene lives a casual life yet comfortable, she keeps her African heritage as well as being an American. Irene occasionally holds events for the African-Americans to gather and have fun keeping in touch with her roots. However, even Irene herself does pass as a white woman occasionally when she goes on her outings, such as shopping and dining places. The first chapter, Irene goes for her afternoon tea to an open terrace hotel with the perfect view, a place where white people go. When she noticed Clare staring at her at Drayton’s, she is very paranoid that this white woman might have noticed that she is in fact a black woman as Irene does occasionally pass over “somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton’s at a Negro?” (p.16).
However, Irene still says that she is proud to be a black woman, even though she occasionally passes for security and white privileges such as in the Drayton in Chicago. Irene passes when it’s convenient for her, she does not go to the extent to which Clare does because passing is not something that is admired by the African-American community “the subject who passes can elide categories determined by race and clothes can ‘camouflage’ the body, those special times ‘we don’t want to be seen—or we don’t want our true selves” (Thaggert, 2005). Irene seeks pleasure in the privileges that she experiences in the white world “it was, she thought, like being wafted upward on a magic carpet to another world, pleasant, quiet” ( page 12). It is almost like an escape from her everyday life for Irene, leaving her world behind her “Irene views this wealthy white-only restaurant as part of a distinct world, one in which she tries to fit by distancing herself from those outside” (Davis,A 2006).
Yet Irene is not ashamed of being African-American, but she is worried about being humiliated and causing a scene in an all-white place “it was the idea of being ejected from anyplace, even in the polite and tactful way in which the Drayton would probably do it, that disturbed her” (p. 16-17). Irene is a character who “constantly fears being cast out of her society; this fear of expulsion reflects the instability and terror of racism in all its forms” (Davis, A. 2006).It is also interesting that Irene only passes once she’s alone because when she is with her husband, she is black woman with two children who holds tea parties and social gatherings. Appearance and how both Clare and Irene carry themselves is the key factor to how they perform race. When passing, Irene is dressed in nice clothes, fully equipped with make up.At this stage the readers are already aware that appearances mean a lot to Irene and how she is perceived by the public. It does appear that Irene carries herself in a very feminine way, letting the hotel staff open the door for her, been served on in the public and at home by her servants. Irene’s image matters to herself so much that husband Brian desire to move to Brazil means nothing to her.
For Irene it is a worry about her husband’s desire for Brazil as it would mean her lifestyle may change and the respectable position her husband has in the community maybe taken away. It could be that Irene has misread that there is an affair going on with Brian and Clare. Perhaps Brian and Clare crave for freedom, Brian geographically and Clare racially which is misinterpreted by Irene as she represses Brian’s desire for Brazil. There is a sense of hypocrisy from Irene here as she is actually self-centred like Clare, thinking of her own welfare yet been in denial that her decisions are only for her children and husband.
Clare is described very feminine by Irene, the ideal picture of a European beauty with her red lips, golden hair and smelling so sweet.When Clare writes a letter to Irene informing her how lonely she is and has this desire to connect with her race again, spilling all her emotions. Even though Irene is angry with Claire still, it does almost come across as Irene is the male melted away by Clare. At this point it does seem that Clare was showing some cyphers of the tragic mulatta whereas in the beginning she was described by Irene “no, Clare Kendry cared nothing for the race. She only belonged to it”. However, the texts in the letter seem to be performing Clare, as an actress as she described through the flashbacks at the start of the novel.
Gender is performed by Clare and Irene through their fashion clothes, accessories, lifestyle and in particular their behaviour. Usually a tragic mulatta is someone that a reader will sympathise with however in Clares case it is the opposite as Clare knew what she wanted from the start, and she was well aware of the consequences and believed the price is worth it. Clare Kendry is not the stereotypical tragic mulatta as she chose to attend the African-American events not for her own heritage or race but rather her own excitement.Clare performs her race and identity to the extent which is eliminated for Irene to understand. There is no place for Clare around the African-American as Irene would not allow it because of her own insecurities, neither in the white society as her husband will not allow it. Larsen challenges race through performance rather than scientifically or morally.
Clare performs her race of whiteness successfully yet ending tragically, unknown whether she was pushed, if it was suicide or she slipped, punished for her performance. Surely it is ironically significant that Clare’s death, which occurs on Christmas, is meant to suggest something of a sacrifice to the dominant notions of a centralised racial identity. Passing is life or death as observed in this novel. Clare is alienating from her racial community and her family. When she dies it could have just been because she slipped, she fell herself or Irene pushed her but it wouldn’t have happened if she was not passing. Passing as a woman means she will end up paying for the price higher than a male would.
There are not really any answers provided about Clare as everything is perception through eyes of Irene, yet that is still not enough as she is unreliable narrator. So it is hard to know what exactly is Race or identity which is fluid in this novel. Clare wanted what Irene had, a world where she can be part of her origin race in the African-American world, a world which she left behind a long time ago. And Irene wanted what Clare had, living the white world through Clare. Clare and Irene set out to find their own identity in the society and both ended up estranged, Clare through her death intrusion by our husband Bellew and Irene psychologically suicidal yet she must continue to live.
The idea of the tragic Mulatto myths play out in this novel as well the idea of race and loss of identity which is what makes this novel so great. This is one of my most desired novels overall because even if the characters are ruthless and tragic or not, it leaves so much to imagination of how life must be for women in that era.