Nella Larsen, Passing (#BookReview)

For last year’s Novellas in November, Arti (of Ripple Effects) posted on a book and author I’d never heard of, Nella Larsen’s Passing. She also discussed its 2021 film adaptation. Quite coincidentally, that same month, my Californian friend Carolyn wrote positively about the film in a letter to me. It sounded right up my alley, so how grateful was I when, this month, Carolyn sent me the book. I decided to squeeze it in …

According to Wikipedia, Nella Larsen (nee Walker) was born in a poor part of Chicago to a Danish immigrant mother, and a father “believed to be a mixed-race Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the Danish West Indies”. He disappeared early in Nella’s life, and her mother married another Danish immigrant. Because of Nella they were seen as a “mixed” family and were not welcome in the mostly white neighbourhood where they’d moved. Nella grew up in that difficult limbo of being neither white nor black.

Eventually, she married a Black-American* physicist and they moved to Harlem where they became involved with “important figures in the Negro Awakening”, later known as the Harlem Renaissance. I share all this because it is relevant to Passing, which was her second novel.

Passing, set mostly in 1927, tells the story of two Black women, Irene and Clare. Both can pass as white, but Irene lives in Harlem with her darker doctor husband, while Clare lives in white society, as a White, with her Black-hating banker husband. At the start of the novel, Irene receives a letter from Clare, referring to an accidental meeting they’d had in a swish hotel in Chicago where both had been “passing” as white. This meeting had been 12 years after they’d last seen each other as teens in Chicago, at which time Clare had been whisked away by her White aunts after the death of her drunken janitor father.

Two years had passed since that uncomfortable Chicago meeting, two years during which Irene had done her best to forget an occasion “in which even now, after two years, humiliation, resentment, and rage were mingled”. But now, Clare was wanting to see Irene again …

“they always come back” (Brian)

Much has been written about this book, which speaks directly to the challenges and conflicts faced by African Americans at the time. There was a new Black bourgeoisie – a professional middle class – to which Irene belongs, and in which she feels comfortable. She’s committed to the whole “uplifting the brother” project and does good works to that end. Clare, on the other hand, has turned her back on her race. The scene is set, we think, for conflict.

And there is, but if you think it’s going to encompass a simple dichotomy, you would be wrong. From the start, Larson keeps us on our toes, forcing us to see two very different ways of living as a black woman in that place and time. The story is told third person, but through the perspective of Irene. She is the conservative rule-follower who is sure of her path, while Clare, who is probably closer to Larsen herself, is more adventurous, a risk-taker. She’s lively, sensual, a breath of fresh air, but how are we to read her – and, for that matter, Irene?

As the novel progresses, we (and our allegiances) are tossed between the two, just as tensions between the two ebb and flow. Are we to approve Irene’s conscientious approach to life, or should we empathise with the “lonely” Clare who wants to reconnect with the black community? Both are flawed characters. Irene’s choice involves buying into the whole aspirational, consumerist, success-focused values of the bourgeoisie, so much so that she rides rough-shod over the wishes and needs of her husband and sons. Clare, on the other hand, might be lively but she can also be “selfish” and “wilful”, with her risk-taking being potentially dangerous or damaging to others, including her neglected young daughter. It’s clear that if her husband discovered she’d been touched by “the tar brush”, she’d be in deep trouble. It’s to Larsen’s credit that we do not see these characters as black and white (hmm!).

Irene and Clare are not the only characters in this tight novella, but the most interesting of the others is Irene’s husband, Brian, who finds himself caught between the two women after Clare inveigles herself into their lives. At the end of Part 1, just after the meeting in Chicago, Irene is preparing to return home to New York and Brian whose “old, queer, unhappy restlessness had begun again within him, that craving for some place strange and different, which at the beginning of her marriage she had had to make such strenuous efforts to repress.”

“caught between two allegiances” (Irene)

Passing is told in three parts – Encounter, Re-encounter, and Finale. In Re-encounter we learn more about these characters through their interactions, and we discover the source of Brian’s restlessness. He is, potentially, another adventurer, though different to Clare.

Early in this final part, Irene and Brian discuss Clare, “passing” and race. Brian has a more nuanced understanding of “race”, it seems. Answering Irene’s question about why those who pass “always come back”, he says, “if I knew that, I’d know what race is”. Much later, we learn that race is at the core of Brian’s restlessness. When Irene upbraids him for honestly answering their son’s question about lynching, he lashes out:

…I’d feel I hadn’t done my duty by them if I didn’t give them some inkling of what’s before them. It’s the least I can do. I wanted to get them out of this hellish place years ago. You wouldn’t let me. I gave up the idea because you objected. Don’t expect me to give up everything.

Passing is about many things, only some of which I’ve discussed. It’s about convention and security versus risk and adventure, about gender and marriage, about class and money, and about self-definition. There is much here that is universal about human nature, but, of course, race is a driving factor. As the novel draws to its conclusion, Irene finds herself

caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race? The thing that bound and suffocated her.

But, there is another layer to this novel, a foreshadowing of something darker. Half-way through the novel, Irene says to Clare that “as we’ve said before, everything must be paid for”, while a little further on, Clare says to Irene

“Can’t you realize that I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe.”

It’s chilling, but I’ll leave it there. I was engrossed by this novel from its opening sentence to its clever, unsettling ending.

* I’m uncertain about nomenclature, given the language used in this 1920s novel is not what we use now. I hope I’ve made a fair call.

Nella Larsen
New York: Penguin Books, 2018 (orig. pub. 1929)
ISBN: 9780142437278

48 thoughts on “Nella Larsen, Passing (#BookReview)

  1. A fascinating novella and and gripping from the start. An insightful review, you pick up on those lines that make the reader uneasy about this character.

    I also read Quicksand by Nella Larsen which is semi autobiographical and I think you might enjoy it as well.

  2. When I saw that this book is a reissue of a book from 1929, I couldn’t help but musing to what extend it has been adapted to accommodate the contemporary sensibilities. Even Mark Twain’s books have been axed by the moral crusaders.

    • Thanks Shaharee. Fair question, but I don’t think this has been adapted at all to accommodate contemporary sensibilities. The nomenclature – which I didn’t use – is now out of date, but it adds to contemporary discussions about race very well I’d say (though I’d have to defer to those closer to that world than I for a more accurate assessment of that, I think).

        • Do you mean checking with those “closer” to the world will result in their wanting to “cancel” it? I guess that’s always a risk, but I don’t imagine it would happen in this case.

        • The interpretation of a text can wildly vary depending upon the sociological context and the thus created perceptional filters of their readers. I kind of remember that someone once created quite a stir by rewriting the Bible by suggesting that God was female and Jesus a homosexual.

        • Yes, true, but I don’t think is invariably leads to cancel culture. Sometimes it can lead to useful discussion. It just depends on who is doing the discussion and what they are discussing, I think?

  3. To be able to write a short novel about behaviour and make it truly readable must take a sound understanding of it as well as a lot of talent. And that it be behaviour within the area of race ! – why, that must take a shitload of both !
    But now you’ve interefered with your own schedule, ST – woooouuaah ! [grin]

  4. This book came up in my comments when I review The Vanishing Half, which is about the same issue of ‘passing’.
    I wish someone would write about how ‘passing’ was imposed on some Indigenous people during the assimilation era. Because it does—must—impact on family relationships and leave scars.

    • Thanks Lisa, I have still to read Brit Bennett. And I guess I really should read this one of hers now.

      I’m certain it impacts on family relationships and leaves scars. You are right that it would be good to see more written on the whole issue here. In a sense, “passing” was initially imposed on Clare by her white aunts when they took her in. Larsen writes that they could tolerate her father’s “ruin” but not the “tar brush”. It’s not surprising then that she stuck to that path, but she made dangerous choices along that path.

      • The situation here, as I understand it without much to go on, is that it was institutionalised. Aborigines who were judged assimilated enough could evade the prohibitions and restrictions that applied to other Aborigines, but they had to renounce all contact with their family and friends. Skin colour was a criteria, but so was educational attainment and work history, maybe other criteria such as religious observance as well, I don’t know. There was paperwork involved, and a certificate to prove their status.
        And then there were the people who ‘passed’ unofficially, including those who enlisted in WW1 (when they were not allowed to) and in WW2 (when they could if they were ‘white enough’). I read about that in Our Mob Served.
        As I could tell from an author event with Brit Bennett, in which the Australian interviewer never mentioned ‘passing’ here in Australia, this is obviously not something that is widely known. And IMO it should be as part of the Truth Telling process.
        But as we know from claims of young people who say they were never taught Black History (despite its presence in the compulsory national curriculum 2014 and well before that in State Curricula) some well-written historical fiction is a potential solution to the problem of students switching off and not paying attention when important elements of our national history are taught!

        • Oh yes, very well said Lisa. As you say, it wasn’t based on colour so much as assessments of “assimilation”. Tony Birch covers this a bit in The white girl doesn’t he and touches on its personal impacts? More books like that would be good as you say for teaching all Australians about what happened.

  5. Hello

    In a February 2015 post on PULSE FIRST 2014 you commented: I loved Marjorie Morrissey’s short but evocative poem, “Canberra”, in which she captures the life and noise of the bird we love to hate, the Sulphur-crested cockatoo. At the end of the piece you pondered: It will be interesting to see where these writers go next.

    You may be interested in this (University of Canberra, Master of Applied Arts and Humanities-Research) follow-up to that little poem:

    Best wishes and keep blogging.


    From: Whispering Gums Date: Friday, 25 March 2022 at 10:02 pm To: Subject: [New post] Nella Larsen, Passing (#BookReview) whisperinggums posted: ” For last year’s Novellas in November, Arti (of Ripple Effects) posted on a book and author I’d never heard of, Nella Larsen’s Passing. She also discussed its 2021 film adaptation. Quite coincidentally, that same month, my Californian friend Carolyn w”

  6. Reading the description of this one my mind went straight to Brit Bennett though I’m yet to read that as well. Given that this was written in 1929, I think this would be one I’d like to pick up first. It sounds fascinating in the breadth of issues it manages to touch on meaningfully within such a short space; also gets one thinking just how many aspects and equations make one up as a person

  7. I seem to have only come across the concept of ‘passing’ in the last few years. Not paying attention I guess. Though I was aware of course that government policy for many years was to breed the Black out of Indigenous people so that they could be accepted as white. And at what stage does ‘passing’ just become being. My children and grandchildren have Chinese and Maori ancestry, are they just passing as white?
    You remind me of Claire G Coleman’s poem ‘Forever, Flag’. Coleman is Indigenous but says her skin is “you could pass” pale.

    • I have been aware of it for a long time, Bill, but have not read much that specifically explores it.

      Anyhow, good question. I think the difference between “passing” and “just being” is the chosen or forced denial of heritage.

      In the novel, Irene “passes” for convenience eg she gets into the swish hotel when she’s hot and exhausted, but if she admitted she had “black” blood she’d have been kicked out (or worse). Clare “passes” for life, risking far more.

      “Passing”, then, carries risk if not danger if you are found out, in the America of the book. In that Australian situation Lisa raised, it involves signing up to certain rules. If you choose to “pass” in that way you must not mix with your black friends or family, you must not engage in any actions relevant to your black heritage.

      Just “being” doesn’t involve specifically involved these issues, though in actuality some of those consequences might come to you if people realise …

  8. I found this a fascinating read, too, and the Brit Bennett is an interesting modern-day riff on it, too, as people have mentioned. I have yet to read Quicksand as I managed to read the edition that doesn’t include both books!

  9. I picked up a copy of Passing after reading Brit Bennett’s book. It sounds rather similiar, although I remember reading that Bennett deliberately chose a different ending to reflect our times.

  10. It seems that WordPress doesn’t want me to write a reply, But maybe the third time is a charm? My apologies if my previous two postings magically appear after this one.

    First of all, thank you for the wonderful review! One of the comments asked if the book and/or movie had been adapted to consider modern sensibilities and I am sure it wasn’t. The movie was also unchanged and remarkably faithful to the book. It was a excellent movie and I was upset that it was snubbed in this year’s Academy Awards.
    I agree with one comment that the interpretation of the text is affected by the perceptional filter of the reader. Recent events in the United States, such as the unprovoked killings of Bryonna Taylor and George Floyd have influenced my opinion about the characters, especially my opinion about Irene, who I felt was the most unpredictable character because of her refusal to acknowledge the danger that race hatred posed to black people and particularly to her sons. Brian’s restless desire to get out of the country showed him as the steadier character who knew that playing by the rules was pointless when black and that getting out was the most freeing option. Clare also knew that she would do whatever necessary to survive and get what she wanted—rules be dammed. Irene, however, seemed to me almost mentally unhinged in her opposition to Brian’s not wanting to educate their sons about the realities of lynching and racism. It was as if she felt the threat of racism and of Clare’s sexuality on an unconscious level (persistent headaches, general malaise), and therefore, reacted on impulse. However, what did Irene mean when she stated that a price must be paid? Is she saying that black people will suffer in the white world for trying to find freedom and happiness, or is she saying that she, as a black woman, will obstruct this pursuit of freedom and happiness? As a modern-day reader, are my presumptions wrong? I’m not sure if I really understand this book, which is why it intrigues me so and is why I so loved your nuanced review.

    • Hmm, I hit Reply rather than my Return key.

      Really good questions, Carolyn. I take your point re how those recent unprovoked killings might influence your opinion of Irene, though it seems to me that she was aware of the danger. She protected Clare at times because she knew the danger to her if Jack, her husband found out. I think that suggests she wasn’t blind to danger.

      However, it is interesting how things can influence your reading. As I read Irene, I was thinking about the film Belfast and the whole “should I stay or should I go issue” I read it as Irene being attached to her life, her community, her father (I think?). But also, a bit differently to Belfast, she was comfortably off and was buying into that life and perhaps truly believed it (ie lynching) wouldn’t happen to them. Brian, though, like the father in Belfast, saw the risk, particularly for young men.

      Re a price must be paid, good question too. I think I read it on two fronts. Philosophically, there is often a price to be paid for decisions we make, particularly risky or selfish decisions. She’s telling Clare that she (we) can’t have it all? So yes, in this instance, I feel it’s more that Clare (and by association black people as you suggest) will suffer for taking risks in the white world. I don’t really think she’s consciously threatening to obstruct? And then, over that it works on the plot level as a hint to us (as foreshadowing) that a price will (is likely to) be paid. But it can only work on this plot level, I think, if it first makes sense on a “real” level. Does any of this make sense to you? Or, am I off the planet?

  11. This sounds great and having now read your review I am even more eager to get to this! I like the fact that Larsen doesn’t go with a straightfoward conflict due to the two sisters’ different decisions – it sounds like she handles it in a much more complex and nuanced way, which is always interesting to read.

  12. I love this story. There is so much to think about and admire. Unfortunately a lot of that surfaces around the way that she handles the whole story but, even so, just a glimpse gives a taste of what she was up to. For all the reasons that I have found the writing so effective, I have avoided watching the film. Not because I don’t think it will be good, but because I fear it WILL be good. You know?

  13. I’m interested in Irene’s husband, too. I wonder if she doesn’t want him telling their sons about lynching because dissatisfaction upsets the apple cart of middle-class contentment. If she can be a community woman, an organizer, someone who can be proud of her race but not confront the realities of those who aren’t doctors or don’t live in predominantly Black communities, then she can live her best life in happy ignorance.

    • Fair points Melanie, though I guess mainly saw it as the protective Mum wanting her children to have as happy a life as long as they can. I didn’t get the sense that she lived in ignorance. I think she was quite politically aware?

      • I’ve learned about what are called the Talented Tenth, meaning only 1 out of 10 African Americans are capable of lifting the entire race through leadership. But, other folks refer to them as “E-lites” (meaning elite, but with emphasis on LITE, as in light skin). Irene is someone who is trying to lift her race through community work and charity organization, but is criticized by her husband for ignoring the brutality any Black person in America can experience. The novella almost suggests Irene thinks that by being part of the elite that she can dodge racism. However, you could easily make the argument that she feels her children are too young to hear about lynching.

        • Thanks Melanie. That’s fascinating about the Talented Tenth and E-lites.

          Yes, I agree that Irene thinks (hopes) that by being part of the bourgeoisie – and staying within that community – you can avoid the worst of racism, at least, but I do think she was also being protective of her sons (rightly or wrongly!) Such a good book to discuss.

  14. Pingback: Passing | Nella Parsen #1929Club

  15. Pingback: Passing | Nella Larsen #1929Club

  16. Pingback: Book Review: Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen #NovNov – Literary Potpourri

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