Racial Repression and Doubling in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2022-09-04 03:06Z by Steven

Racial Repression and Doubling in Nella Larsen’s Passing

South Atlantic Review
Volume 87, Number 1, Spring 2022

Doreen Fowler, Professor of English
University of Kansas

Critics of Passing have often observed that the novel seems to avoid engagement with the problem of racial inequality in the United States, and Claudia Tate goes so far as to write that “race … is merely a mechanism for setting the story in motion” (598). In the apparent absence of race as the novel’s subject, scholars have identified class or lesbian attraction as the novel’s central preoccupation. (1) While same sex attraction and class are certainly concerns of the novel, I would argue that critics have overlooked the centrality of race in the novel because the subject of Passing is racial repression; that is, a complete solidarity with an oppressed, racialized people is the repressed referent, and, for that reason, race scarcely appears. As a novel about passing, Larsen’s subject is a refusal to fully identify with African Americans, but Larsen’s critique is not only directed at members of the black community who pass for white; rather, Passing explores how race is repressed in the United States among both whites and some members of what Irene refers to as “Negro society” (157). Throughout the text, darkness is blanketed by whiteness. Even the word black or Negro seems to be nearly banished from the text. As I will show, the novel explores how an association with a black identity is repressed by many characters, including Brian, Jack Bellew, Gertrude, and other members of Harlem society, but Irene Redfield, the central consciousness of the novel, through whose mind events are perceived and filtered, is the primary exponent of racial repression. Jacquelyn McLendon astutely observes that Irene Redfield “lives in constant imitation of whites” (97). (2) Building on this observation, I argue that Irene, who desires safety above all, identifies safety with whiteness and represses a full identification with the black community out of a refusal of the abjection that whites project on black people. For this reason, Irene not only imitates whites in her upper-class bourgeois life, she, like a person passing for white, works to erase signs of her black identity–but those signs of blackness return to haunt her in the form of her double, Clare. While many scholars have recognized that Irene is ambivalent about her African American identity and that Clare and Irene are doubled, my original contribution is to link the two. In my reading, Clare is Irene’s uncanny double because she figures the return of Irene’s rejected desire to fully integrate with the black race.

In this essay, I propose that Larsen turns to Freudian theory to analyze the psychological dimension of racial repression. As Thadious Davis observes, Larsen was “very much aware of Freud, Jung, and their works” (329), and the cornerstone of Freud’s theory is repression. According to Freud, “the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance from the conscious” (“Repression,” SE 14:147). Repression, then, is a form of self-censorship, which occurs, Freud explains, when an instinct is driven underground because the satisfaction of that desire…

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