The Beginning and End of Nella Larsen’s Passing

The Beginning and End of Nella Larsen’s Passing

The Common Room: The Knox College Online Journal of Literary Criticism
Volume 8, Number 1 (Spring 2005)

Sarah Magin

Nella Larsen’s novel Passing is centered on the character Clare Kendry, a light-skinned, biracial woman living as a white woman.  She has married a white man who knows nothing of her race and enjoys all the social comforts of being white.  In this way, this novel breaks down the thematic binary of black and white with its depiction of racial passing.  In addition to the reconstructed as fluid binary of black and white, Larsen’s novel simultaneously explores the thematic binary of homosexuality and heterosexuality.  Deborah McDowell observes of the racial issues of Passing that  “underneath the safety of that surface is the more dangerous story–though not named explicitly–of Irene’s awakening sexual desire for Clare” (xxvi). Corinne Blackmer notes that the encounter between Irene and Clare “instigates a potent desire in her, described in an effusive letter intertwining romantic and racial longings for Irene” (52).  Thus, not only does Passing make fluid the binary of black and white, but also that of heterosexual and homosexual.  Further, the novel also renders fluid the apparently solid barrier of class.  Biman Basu observes that “Clare Kendry’s passing. . . is predicated on a crossing over into otherwise barricaded economic zones” (384).  Neil Sullivan summarizes, usefully, that “For Larsen”  “‘race’ is inextricable from the collateral issues including class, gender and sexuality, and rivalry-that bear upon the formation of identity” (373).  This introduces the concept that these fluid binary oppositions of race, sexuality and class are themselves interlinked under the larger rubric of identity formation…

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