Kelly Smith - Cinnaminson Public Schools

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Kelly Smith
Ms. Lewis
CP World Literature and Composition
September 16, 2013
Racial Oppression and Discrimination in Nella Larsen’s Passing
For every force exerted there exists an equal opposite reaction force – Newton's Third
Law of Motion. While solely meant to be used in classical mechanics, if one merely thinks in
broader terms, it is easy to apply this concept universally. For example, when an author writes a
book, he/she expects it to spark a certain reaction in the reader's mind. History and social
attitudes are often shaped through novels written by authors hoping to generate an outcry or
initiate a realization among their audience. Nella Larsen uses her novel Passing as medium to
convey the reality of the racial oppression and discrimination present during the 1920s, while
also interweaving the idea of “passing” throughout the storyline in hopes of provoking awareness
in the reader.
Primarily, the way in which Larsen writes Passing must be noted as it plays an
imperative role in properly conveying the key ideas that the author is trying to portray.
Immediately, it is observed that the novel is written from a third-person omniscient view point;
this grants Larsen flexibility in how she depicts characters, viewpoints, and details, although the
novel is mostly viewed through Irene's perspective. “It had been, Irene noted, postmarked in
New York the day before,” Larsen often uses her omniscience as a means to give insight into
various pieces of the storyline (Leder 3). “There had been, even in those days, nothing sacrificial
in Clare Kendry's idea of life, no allegiance beyond her own immediate desire. She was selfish,
and cold, and hard” (Kibred 4). As Larsen describes Clare Kendry's personality it can be easily
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observed that rather than depicting these characteristics throughout the novel and having the
reader pick up on them, she reveals them in a very unambiguous way. This style empowers
Larsen with the freedom to be blunt when she wants to make a clear point, while also allowing
her to let the reader identify supporting details.
Moreover, Larsen brings the topic of racial oppression and color to the forefront of her
novel. Although in the 1920s, people of color were free to do what they pleased, life was far
from ideal. African Americans faced harassment, segregation, and downright abuse while life
seemed like a never ending search for respect. Throughout Passing the reader sees this same idea
of racial injustice, which greatly affects the lives of both Irene and Clare. “You got me wrong
there, Mrs. Redfield. Nothing like that at all. I don't dislike them, I hate them” (Synge 172).
Larsen uses Clare's husband as a representation of the overall attitude in many white Americans
during his time period. Clare's husband, unknowing of his wife's true heritage, acts as a racial
extremist throughout the novel. It is not until the end of the book when he finds Clare at an all
African American party that he finds out who she really is. In contrast, Irene lives life as an open
black even if she has skin fair enough to “pass.” Although at first it may seem that Irene lives a
more dignified lifestyle when compared to Clare's, in reality Irene is just as cunning and
deceiving if not more so. Irene constantly believes that she is superior to Clare, being a “positive
member” of the black society. Her involvement in the Negro Welfare League is merely a
pretense that enables her to maintain her image of charity and kindness; it is nothing more than
upper class blacks coming together to boost their public image. “One moment Clare had been
there, a vital glowing thing, like a flame of red and gold. The next she was gone” (237).
Additionally, Irene seems to be wary of Clare's presence, being aware of the fact that she is
threatening her marriage. Although not specifically stated, the reader can assume that Irene
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pushes Clare out of the window at the end of the novel, epitomizing her instability and emotional
Furthermore, Larsen takes the term passing and extends the idea to almost all aspects and
characters in the novel. Surely Clare is passing, as she lies about her own skin color, trading her
true identity for her marriage and lifestyle; but what about the other characters? “The Negro
Welfare League, you know. I'm on the ticket committee” (Hogan 122). Irene may at first glance
seem to have a perfect, almost ideal lifestyle with her husband being a doctor and her
involvement in the Negro Welfare League, but in reality she too is in a sense “passing.” If one
simply looks past her guise of cultural correctness it is easy to see who she truly strives to be;
Irene parallels the lifestyle of a white and puts on a mask of emotional stability, but by the end of
the novel the reader learns that Irene is essentially an emotional time bomb. Irene's husband also
follows a similar pattern. At first glance Brian Redfield seems to live a perfect lifestyle, being a
doctor and even helping Irene in the Negro Welfare League. Although everything may seem
well, past this façade lies the truth of Brian's marriage and his discontent with Irene. “It's South
America that attracts him” (Watson 72). Both his desire to move to South America and his affair
with Clare are kept undisclosed. Overall Larsen tries to depict society, in which everyone is in
some way “passing” - with each person keeping a secret hidden from public view.
In conclusion, Larsen illustrates the difficulties faced by African Americans during the
1920s through both her narrative style of writing and the lives of Clare and Irene. She also uses
the idea of “passing” as a major theme throughout the novel, showing that everyone has
something to hide. Ultimately, Larsen uses her novel as an effective tool to influence the reader's
perspective on both the time period and the use of deception.
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Works Cited
Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Colonialism and the Problem of Identity in African-American
Literature.” College Literature. Oct. 1996: 163-170.
Kibred, Declan. “Clare’s Bad Memory: The Role of History in ‘Passing.’ ” The Review of
English Studies. Feb. 1979: 59-63.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1923.
Leder, Judith Remy. “Larsen’s ‘Passing’: Racism as Cultural Background.” Twentieth
Century Literature. Sum. 1990: 207-224.
Price, Alan. African-American Drama. London: Methuen, 1961.
Watson, G.J. “African-American Identity and the Literary Revival: Passing.” Critical Studies in
African-American Literature. 1994: 1-326.