Nella Larsen: Passing

July 11, 2022

     I find this rather a difficult book to write about, given that it comes from a culture I don’t have many ways to approach. Passing is a novella written in the US about a century ago now, by a black woman, and it’s about the concept of ‘passing’ in the sense of a black person passing themselves off as a white person and living undiscovered in white society. There are evidently attractions and manifold perils in the practice; I imagine it was a phenomenon of its time…

At the start we see the world through the eyes of Irene, the narrator; fairly early on a relatively unsubtle incident reveals or confirms to us that she is a black woman; before, it was not possible to be certain. I think Larsen intends this. Culturally, it was very difficult for me to understand some of the nuances of black and white society in the US of the time, but it is clear that Irene’s ‘friend’ Clare successfully passes as white and has a successful marriage to a white businessman, and a child. One of the perils of ‘passing’ was children: genetics means that a child might be very obviously one race or the other; contraception was pretty basic in those days, too…

I was shocked by the brutality of white racism, in terms of language and attitudes, and uneasy at its being presented by a black writer, too. Larsen creates the dangerous edginess of conversations very powerfully and effectively in a number of potentially risky situations which Clare engineers, as we gradually discover that she has very mixed feelings about the ‘passing’ she has been successful in. She yearns for her past, although her growing torment at her situation is not that convincingly presented, I felt: we are just told by the narrator. And yet, in such a short work, a whole raft of moral dilemmas for various members of the community is revealed. Irene’s reluctant fascination with Clare and her life is convincingly done.

I found myself wondering whether the whole work might not have been more successful if developed as a proper full-length novel, although I also had to admit that then, I’d probably not have read it. Irene’s husband Brian’s wish to leave the US and remove to South America, obviously a source of much tension in their marriage, is never clearly explained, and we never find out who the mystery man is who brought Clare to Irene’s table in the hotel at the start of the story. The denouement – Clare setting her sights on Irene’s husband – was rather too obvious and also not really prepared for, and I found the predictable ending rather too open and unsatisfactory as well.

I’m glad I read it: it made me feel awkward and uncomfortable a number of times, and it has me thinking about the question of how much we ever can get to know or understand a culture that is very different from our own. That does not mean that we shouldn’t try, of course.


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