by Nella Larsen
Nella Larsen was one of the most acclaimed and influential writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1891 as Nellie Walker. In 1926, having made friends with important figures in the Negro Awakening that became the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen gave up her work as a librarian and began to work as a writer active in the literary community. Soon after she published Quicksand, a largely autobiographical novel, which received significant critical acclaim, if not great financial success.
In 1929, she published Passing, her second novel, which was also critically successful. It is the story of two childhood friends, Clare and Irene. They lost touch when Clare's father died and she moved in with two white aunts. By hiding that Clare was part-black, she was able to 'pass' as a white woman and married a white bigot. Irene by contrast lives in Harlem, commits herself to racial uplift, and marries a black doctor. The novel centers on the meeting of the two childhood friends later in life, and the unfolding of events as each woman is fascinated and seduced by the other's daring lifestyle. The novel traces a tragic path as Irene believes, without concrete evidence, that her husband is having an affair with Clare. Her fears are never clearly justified as incidents seemingly innocent are not probative. Clare's race is revealed to her husband and the novel ends with a 'shocking' finale.
The novel is complicated but elegantly plotted. The dual figures of Irene and Clare in many ways mirror each other and allow the author to explore the the complexities of their relationship. While there may be erotic undertones in the two women's relationship, it is their repressed lives that clearly predominates. With Clare in a terrible marriage to a bigot and Irene subject to increasing doubts about her own marriage and family, the novel quickly progresses towards its denouement. I found this a lucidly written depiction of a world that is not limited to blacks, but occurs wherever secrets are allowed to take control of people's lives.
Recently, Passing has received renewed attention because of its close examination of racial and sexual ambiguities and liminal spaces. It has achieved canonical status in many American universities.
Passing by Nella Larsen. Penguin Books, New York. 2003 (1929)