A Few Words on Passing by Nella Larsen
“She wished to find out about this hazardous business of ‘passing,’ this breaking away from all that was familar and friendly to take one’s chances in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but not entirely friendly.”
I first learned about Passing by Nella Larsen after reading a review done by Eva at A Striped Armchair. Eva wrote a glowing review of this novella which can be found here. This book was published in 1929 by one of the few women writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
In Passing, Larsen develops two distinct female characters. Both women are biracial and can “pass” as Caucasian. Each woman handles her racial identity in an opposing fashion. Irene chooses to marry an African American doctor whereas Clare chooses to marry a Caucasian banker. Obviously they both marry into wealth and are part of the upper class (both have servants) however the societies they are active in are very different from one another, especially in the racially charged 1920s. Clare is so convincing in her “passing” ability that she has married an extremely racist man. The story takes off as Clare tries to rekindle a friendship with Irene.
Through the use of narrative style from the perspective of Irene we see Clare from an outsider view. Clare is described many times over as a stunning beauty, a blonde with striking black eyes. However she is a character that is, I believe, purposefully hard to become sympathetic towards. Irene is able to convey many emotions to the reader whereas the primary sense you get of Clare is that she is cunning and determined. Despite this Larsen is able to develop Clare as nearly a mirror reflection of Irene (opposite but also very similar). The women were raised together, they both share a higher status is society, and they are both in difficult marriages.
Larsen’s use of imagery in this novella is superb. Expressions in the eyes (especially the eyes) and even nuances, such as a turn of the head, are described in elaborate detail. This allows the reader to actively engage in determining the emotions and behaviors of the characters encountered by the protagonist. She also spends much time relating the appearances of specific characters. The reader is continually reminded of Clare’s appearance. Clothing is another element that is described in detail.
“Clare, exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting, in a stately gown of shining black taffeta, whose long, full skirt lay in graceful folds about her slim golden feet; her glistening hair drawn smoothly back into a small twist at the nape of her neck; her eyes sparkling like dark jewels”
This novella is spent on character development, though of course there is a fascinating plot with some twists and turns added in. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out and very interesting to read about. If you like books with important history behind them and strong characters, this is one I would highly recommend.