Smith 1 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 Smith 2 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 Smith 3 pushes Clare out of the window at the end of the novel, epitomizing her instability and emotional state. 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. Smith 4 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.