Passing (1929) is a book about being labelled, being defined by other people based on what they see (and on the prejudices they carry). It is a book about the desire to transcend this externally imposed definition and to exercise some freedom of choice. And it is a book about identity as performance, or as a matter of perception.
Here we follow the story of two mixed-race women in the 1920’s United States, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield – two childhood friends who have not seen each other in twelve years. They meet again, by chance, in a ‘whites-only restaurant’ where both are ‘passing for white’. In this scene, Irene starts to fear that the woman on the next table, who is staring at her, might have ‘recognized her as black’ – in which case, Irene would be thrown away from the restaurant. “Nevertheless, Irene felt, in turn, anger, scorn, and fear slide over her. It wasn’t that she was ashamed of being a Negro, or even of having it declared. It was the idea of being ejected from any place, even in the polite and tactful way in which the Drayton would probably do it, that disturbed her.”
To her relief, the woman in case is her old friend Clare, who happens to be also ‘passing’: Irene had failed to recognize her after so many years. They start talking and soon become fascinated with each other – and with each other’s lives and performances. Irene married a prominent African-American doctor, has two boys, and lives in Harlem. Clare, on the other hand, lives in a white neighbourhood, has a daughter, and married a racist white man who does not know that she is a mixed-race woman. Clare chose a life in which she is constantly ‘passing for white’, while Irene only chooses to ‘pass for white’ when she needs to have access to certain segregated spaces (to take a taxi, or go to a restaurant, for example).
In their fascination for each other, we can also identify a hint of jealousy, a mixture of attraction and repulsion, and even a homoerotic element: it is suggested that they may be ‘passing for straight’, pretending to be what they are not so as to fit a more convenient pattern – they may be ‘passing’ not just in their racial but also in their sexual identities. And they may be ‘passing for friends’, while there is something more layered behind this façade: some form of desire, or rivalry, or both. “You know, the sort of thing you feel in the presence of something strange, and even, perhaps, a bit repugnant to you; something so different that it’s really at the opposite end of the pole from all your accustomed notions of beauty.”
Larsen introduces, in the main plot, elements related to sexual identity – and she does so through the adoption of Irene’s unreliable perspective as the main narrative point of view. Gradually, it becomes clear that, in a way, Irene may be filtering her feelings, she may be presenting the facts to us in a way that may be more convenient for her but that is not truly objective.
Perhaps, she is also ‘passing’ to the reader (and to herself) as something that she is not. Maybe she doesn’t want to take on the true nature of her feelings for Clare: desire, jealousy, envy, anger, or a mixture of all of the above. The book, to a large extent, balances itself in the mounting tension between these two friends – a tension that is expressed sometimes as mutual attraction, sometimes as competition, sometimes as frustrated desire. Is Irene jealous of her husband, or of Clare? Is she concocting a story of betrayal as a way to supress her own desires? And whose betrayal hurts her the most? Is she repulsed by Clare, or by herself? You leave these questions open for us.
The homoerotic element is not, however, the focus of the narrative, and it seems diluted in the second half of the book, in which each women’s desire for the other seems to have transmuted into a desire for becoming the other, or for stealing the other’s life. We can interpret this element, on the other hand, as an expression of Irene’s feeling of inferiority in relation to Clare: perhaps the fascination she feels for her friend (a fascination that seems to be coupled with a feeling of disgust) is an internalization of white oppression, or a fascination with the elements in Clare that were accepted and praised by white people. Is Irene unconsciously ‘passing for white’ in the feelings she nurtures for Clare? Does Clare bring to light something hidden in Irene, something repulsive she is not willing to admit not even to herself? Does Clare hold a mirror to the extent to which Irene has internalized ‘passing’?
Irene is at two minds about her friend: at the same time that she wishes to cut off relations with Clare, she is also deeply attracted to her, she can never really say no to her. Gradually, Clare infiltrates her life and begins to join Irene and her family, and to attend parties in Harlem, together with Irene’s black friends. In this group of people, Clare finally finds a place where she does not need to “pass”, she can simply be herself, without fear of being caught or of being seen by others as if she were doing something wrong. Irene, however, fears that Clare has put herself in a dangerous situation by lying about her ancestry to her own husband – who, to make matters worse, is a violent, openly racist man.
This is a book that tries to make strict definitions fluid. It attempts to explore the way oppression is imposed by an intersection of systems (race, gender, class) and is unconsciously internalized (here we also have one of the instances of ‘passing’: the internalization of oppression). In portraying ‘passing’ as a kind of oscillation, you explore the idea of racial identity as a process, and, at the same time, suggest the fragility and irrationality of American racial ideology and racism in your time.
The focus on the act of “passing” can also be read as a choice to destabilize simplistic and static notions of race and gender, through the exploration of the idea of race and gender as a performance. In one scene, Irene asks her husband why people who ‘cross the colour line’ and live as whites always want to return. And he replies: “If I knew that, I would know what race is“. Yours is a book about characters who feel so desperate and helpless that they are willing to give up part of what they are and part of what they love the most.
Another interesting aspect of this novel is the way you explore the duality between Irene and Clare, almost as if they were Dopplegängers. And the very act of ‘passing’ suggests that, in attempting to fit in certain situations by pretending to be white, each character becomes a double of herself: the real woman, and the hidden one; the self as presented to the world, and the self as lived from the inside.
As for the idea of the double, the novel reminds me of the book Sula (1973), by Toni Morrison, which is also centred on the lives of two friends, Nel and Sula, who take different paths in life – Nel chooses a conservative lifestyle, while Sula chooses a more independent and transgressive one.
Passing (1929) has also been compared to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Both novels inscribe a charged criticism against the patriarchal institution of marriage and against its resulting repression of lesbian desire. Not only that, but several elements of your novel find their match in Woolf’s book: Clare can be associated to Septimus; Irene can be associated to Clarissa; and there are two Hughs: Clarissa’s old friend, Hugh Whitbread, and Irene’s dear friend, Hugh Wentworth. Both Irene and Clarissa choose a loveless marriage so as to achieve some stability and social standing. Most importantly, both books use a fragmentary writing style and make large use of the stream-of-consciousness technique. Both insert a queer subtext underneath their main layer of social criticism.
You treat the act of “passing”, which is the main focus of the novel, in an ambiguous way: it can be read as a legitimate form of resistance to an oppressive system (as a way of circumventing and subverting the system) and of choosing one’s own identity; but it can also be read as a way of reproducing that same oppressive system and giving up one’s own identity in the end.
Yours is a book in which characters are closeted in categories whose limits are defined by other people – and it is about the desire of these characters to transcend such limits. It is a book about the difficulty of finding a room for self-definition amid socially pre-determined gender and racial roles. It is a novel about women who, by being what they are, threaten the categories of a racially polarized society, and, at the same time, remain trapped inside those same categories.
“If? It was that “if” which bothered her. It might be, it might just be, in spite of all gossip and even appearances to the contrary, that there was nothing, had been nothing, that couldn’t be simply and innocently explained. Appearances, she knew now, had a way sometimes of not fitting facts” – Nella Larsen, Passing (1929)