Identity In Irene Larsen's Passing

Superior Essays
Nella Larsen’s Passing, a novel set in Harlem, New York in the 1920s, centers around the life of an upper middle-class black woman, Irene Redfield, who runs into a childhood friend, Clare Kendry, whom she discovers has been “passing” as white. Though both women are light skinned enough to “pass”, Irene completely authenticates her own black identity by being actively involved in the Negro Welfare League and marrying a black doctor. Clare, however, is married to a racist white man named John Bellews who knows not of her true racial identity. Despite being put off by Clare’s “passing”, Irene reluctantly lets the woman into her life, holding for her a curious fascination. Clare’s “passing” allows her to live in a world seemingly without racial …show more content…
Clare’s ability to “pass” and her disregard for moral codes allow her to transgress sexual and racial boundaries. Though Irene scorns Clare’s “passing”, she is secretly drawn to her lifestyle, professing that the woman “was…capable of heights and depths of feeling that she…had never known” (51). Clare’s ability to defy boundaries of sex and race both fascinates and repulses Irene. When discussing the matter with her husband Brian, Irene notes of “passing”, “We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it” (42). Irene is both offended by and attracted to Clare’s taboo behavior. In fact she is envious of Clare’s intimate life because of its striking contrast to her own. Yet Irene represses these desires and openly condemns Clare’s behavior. It is only after she had learned that the woman sitting across from her at the Drayton Hotel was in fact her childhood friend Clare Kendry that Irene deems the woman’s flirtatious smile “too provocative for a waiter” (10). By Irene’s strict standards, Clare’s promiscuity is not representative of proper conduct for middle-class black women. Jenkins notes that while Clare exhibits such behavior when “passing” as white, “it is precisely her affiliation with ‘blackness’ which makes her behavior threatening” (149). Clare’s sexual availability to both black and white men only plays upon the stereotype that black women are promiscuous and ultimately discredits her race. By living as freely as she does, Clare Kendry dares to violate the black moral codes upheld by Irene, insulting herself and the race. Clare’s “passing” allows her to experience, with ease, the middle-class success that Irene has worked so hard to attain. Acknowledging her resentment of the other’s life would only undermine Irene’s efforts

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