Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ and the Fading Subject

Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ and the Fading Subject

African American Review
Volume 32, Issue 3 (Fall 1998)
pages 373-386

Neil Sullivan

. . . Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a Negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well. It was a brutality, and undeserved. Surely, no other people were so cursed as Ham’s dark children. (Passing 225)

Although many critics have accused Nella Larsen of using race as a pretext for examining other issues, Passing (1929), her second novel, is profoundly concerned with racial identity. In “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” Barbara Smith cautions critics about the danger of ignoring “that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are crucially interlocking factors in the works of Black women writers” (170). For Larsen, too, “race” is inextricable from the collateral issues – including class, gender, sexuality, and rivalry-that bear upon the formation of identity. “Passing,” of course, alludes to the crossing of the color line that was once so familiar in American narratives of “race,” but in Larsen’s novel the word also carries its colloquial meaning – death. Thus Passing’s title, like the title of Larsen’s earlier Quicksand, hints at the subject’s disappearance in the narrative, or the possibility of aphanisis, which Jacques Lacan defines in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis as the disappearance of the subject behind the signifier. For Irene Westover Red field and Clare Kendry Bellew, the “twin” protagonists of Passing, the obliterating signifier is nigger, a word that comes to encapsulate their struggle with the conflicts of American racism and assimilation. The narrative representation of these conflicts also suggests at a symbolic level Larsen’s repetition and working through of her own anxieties about the rejection she experienced as a result of her racial identity.

Her hazy origins and almost traceless “disappearance” differentiate Larsen from the other authors of the Harlem Renaissance, but not from the characters of her own novels. Until the publication of the 1994 biography by Thadious Davis, Nella Larsen’s life was shrouded in silence; not even the year of her birth was certain. Davis’s project was “to remove the aura of mystery” from Larsen’s life (xix), an aura that often resulted in critics’ presentation of Larsen as inscrutable Other. But with the details unearthed in her extensive research, Davis reveals that Nella Larsen was deeply scarred by the reality of racism; her seeking of celebrity as a writer was in fact a symptom of the need for recognition and validation, something which she never received as a child and only tenuously as a young adult (Davis 10). As the daughter of the Danish immigrant Marie Hansen and the African American Peter Walker, Larsen was already doubly marginalized in American society, but when her mother remarried a white man (also a Danish immigrant), Larsen found herself so excluded from the family that her mother did not even report her existence to census takers in 1910 (Davis 27). The Larsens orchestrated their dark daughter’s absence from their Chicago home by sending her to the Fisk Normal School in Nashville when she was only fifteen, and when the money ran out a year later, Marie Larsen apparently asked the sixteen-year-old Nella (then Nellie) to make her own way in the world. Larsen vanished temporarily, resurfacing three years later at the Lincoln Training Hospital in New York City as a student nurse, where, according to Davis, she began her ascent into the black middle class all alone (66, 70-72).

Larsen’s childhood rejection was seemingly reiterated in her 1919 marriage to Elmer S. Imes, which ended in a much-publicized divorce in 1933. As Ann Allen Shockley explains, the deterioration of the marriage was accelerated by the overt antipathy felt by Larsen’s light-skinned mother-in-law and, significantly, by Imes’s indiscreet affair with Ethel Gilbert, a white staff member at Fisk University, where Imes taught physics (438). “He liked white women,” several of Imes’s friends remarked to Thadious Davis in explanation of his betrayal of Nella Larsen (362). It is hardly incidental in Larsen’s construction and subsequent dissolution of identity that the rivals for her husband’s affection were both “white” women, and that she could therefore attribute the second major rejection in her emotional life to her inability to be sufficiently white. Although there were many problems in the Larsen-Imes union, the divorce contains the hint of another command to “turn white or disappear,” the imperative that Frantz Fanon suggests is implicit in all interracial dialogue (100). In effect, the rejections by her family and by her husband, exacerbated by the “problem of authorship” stemming from charges of plagiarism in the “Sanctuary” affair (Dearborn 56), destroyed the identity Larsen consciously cultivated during the 1920s, and provoked her disappearance from public life.

Perhaps because Larsen discovered Imes’s affair with Ethel Gilbert during the composition of Passing (Davis 324), her desire for recognition and fear of rejection surface in the characters Clare Kendry and Irene Red field. In Passing, Irene and Clare are tyrannized by the Other’s desire, and though their relationship is complicated by issues of gender and sexuality, the dynamics of white racism and the demands of assimilation dictate the lives of the two women. White racism ultimately defines their lives in the word nigger, and that definition determines the limits of their lives; in other words, it over-determines their ends—narratively and otherwise…

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