Nella Larsen's second novel, Passing appeared in 1929 at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance. Many of its characters and occasions resemble other novels written during that era. Indeed, its working title, “Nig,” alludes to Nigger Heaven, the novel by Larsen's friend and mentor Carl Van Vechten. Passing is more complex and ambitious than many of its predecessors, however, and this may account for the title change and for earning its author the distinction of being one of the first African American women to win a Guggenheim Fellowship for literature.
The central characters of Passing are Irene Red-field and Clare Kendry, two African Americans who look like Euro-Americans. These two women had been girlhood friends but separated for years before they accidentally meet when Clare is seated next to Irene in an expensive Chicago restaurant that only serves whites. Although both women are exploiting their appearance and passing for white, for Irene this is an occasional indulgence. She has established an identity as the doting mother of two sons, the wife of a prominent African American physician, and a supporter of appropriately conservative and uplifting community affairs. Clare on the other hand has married a successful white businessman, who not only believes she is white but deeply dislikes black people. From this accidental reunion, the two women's lives become entangled as Clare increasingly seeks opportunities to socialize with, and Irene reluctantly sponsors Clare's entré into, the African American middle class. Clare's recklessness worries Irene because it threatens her carefully constructed white identity. But Irene also finds Clare's choices and the danger they entail both frightening and fascinating until she discovers that Clare is having an affair with her husband. Thus, when Clare's enraged husband rushes into one of these gatherings and in the confusion Irene reached toward Clare and Clare suffers a fatal fall from the window, Irene's culpability is unclear.
Passing explores the relationships between appearance and reality, deception and unmasking, manipulation and imaginative management, aggression and self-defense. The novel's epigraph from Countee Cullen's poem “Heritage” encourages one to read Passing as another in the genre that explores the ambiguity and contestations inherent in prevailing constructions of race. When it was first published, many reviewers referred to the novel as a “tragedy,” alluding to both its shocking ending and to its obvious similarities to the tragic mulatto genre exemplified by works such as William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853). Larsen's examination of passing, however, is more in the tradition of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Minnie's Sacrifice (1868) or James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) because it focuses more upon the psychological dimensions than upon the physical acts that the tragic mulatto novels portrayed. Most critics agree that Larsen's novel is also concerned with class and gender identities and the emotional and ethical consequences of their manipulation. Some such as Mary Helen Washington emphasize gender as well as race and argue that Larsen uses passing as a metaphor for “risktaking experiences,” or lives lived without the communal support of other black women. Deborah E. McDowell and others have suggested that the text questions the safe and legitimate parameters of sex and flirts with the idea of lesbianism.
Subjects: Literature — United States History.