on 30 July 1997
Passing, written by African American author Nella Larsen during the 1920's is an often overlooked novel that explores not only racial tensions between Blacks and Whites in that period, and the problems solely within the African American community, but also more deeply examines the relationship of two women best friends reunited after many years. Larsen, in this novel laid the groundwork for many later African American women writers with her exploration of the relationship between two intelligent black women, virtually unprecedented in the white male dominated literature world of the early 20th century.
First published in 1929, this was critically acclaimed on its publication. Nella Larson was a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, but after only a few stories she stopped writing for public consumption. This particular novel is starting to become popular again as it is used on courses throughout the US university system.
Passing refers to what both the main female characters can do in this book. Although technically of black origins they can actually pass as white, due to their skin tones. For Irene she stays to her heritage and has become a middle-classed black woman in New York, whereas Clare passes for white and has covered up her roots. After the two meeting for the first time since their teens in Chicago, they also meet again in New York a couple of years later.
Why this is such a delight to read is that the characters come alive and the whole book raises details and questions that are still relevant in today's world, where discrimination still takes place. Passing as a white woman may be alright, but you always have the worry that if you become pregnant, your child will be black. In someone like Clare's position with her husband not knowing her ancestry this is fraught with danger, in a country that like the US only stopped making it illegal in all states as late as 1967, for inter-racial marriages.
Taking in the segregation of the time, and racism in general this makes for an interesting and absorbing read, especially as Nella Larsen has placed some ambiguities in the story, especially for instance the ending. This is still as powerful a read as when it was first published.
Nella Larsen's Passing was originally published in 1929, and is a chilling, chilly account of the politics of race, class and gender. Larsen was an African American, seeing with a rather steely eye into some of the uncomfortable accommodations which might be made in order to best gain the riches and rewards which America offered the educated and wealthy - at least, those who were white - or could `pass' as such
Irene Redfield, involved in charitable foundation work to advance her race, married to a doctor, could indeed `pass' for white, but would regard this as a betrayal of her race. She only uses `passing' in order to gain anonymous access to comfortable places such as tea-rooms in elegant hotels, where, if she didn't `pass' she would be unable to enter.
A chance encounter brings her in contact with another `passing' woman whom she has not seen since their girlhood. Clare Kendry however, made different choices through her ability to `pass' Clare has been living as white for some years, married to a white man who is casually racist, she is a part of that wealthy white urban middle class.
Irene and Clare have taken very different approaches. Irene has lived more comfortably, protected from harsh economic realities through her husband's position. She is upright, disciplined, correct, gracious and inflexible. She is also, it seems, a person of principle but her principles are arrived at through rationality. She is actually, a little chilly, and very controlling.
Clare, by contrast, whose early life was less privileged, lives as an accomplished survivor, exploiting her extraordinary beauty and grace, and the fact that no one in her present milieu dreams she is anything other than one of them. The challenge for Clare though, is that this has led to her losing all contact with `her' people.
"It's funny about `passing' We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it."
This is a short, most interesting book, rescued from being purely sociological observation by a believable, developing story. The challenge I found was that the writer's style is a little too structured and measured - whether this is because this fits the rather chilly controlled manner of her central character, Irene, I'm not sure, but this is told in the third person, so I suspect it is the author's voice. I do have a preference for more lyrical writing - Larsen is an Enlightenment voice, rather than a Romantic one
And.......for those hoping to get a version with textual notes and analysis - the Kindle edition does not come with these
on 14 July 2010
A novel about a black woman "passing" for white in 1920s Chicago and New York summons up all kinds of expectations. These were both disappointed and surpassed. This is a novel of great psychological depth about an encounter between two women - one satisfied with her life, the other a "having" type who lives on the edge and will make whatever personal sacrifices (and sacrifices of others) to get what she wants. We gradually watch their encounter develop over many months and episodes. The final turn of the plot and the last page or two of this novel lack conviction. That apart, this is utterly compelling as the great 19th century novels of character and plot.
on 4 April 2014
A lot of really interesting topics broached about race and belonging and familial ties. There is also the constant idea of conflict between a life of freedom versus a life of security, and the sacrifices made to obtain either one at any cost. The characters all seem very real and flawed - marred, perhaps, by the race-obsessed world they inhabit. And I can't say any of them have many saving graces - certainly none that can outshine their flaws.
I'm not terribly keen on Larsen's long sentences broken up into four or more clauses by comma after comma, but otherwise I appreciated her plain/direct writing. (And who am I to complain about long sentences as Run-On Sentence Perpetrator #1?)
I have a lot of opinions about different ideas and attitudes in this book - many personal arguments and understandings - that are probably too complicated (or maybe just too long-winded) for a book review.