In Passing, Nella Larsen has composed a novel that simultaneously engages several levels of the human experience and, through insightful psychological portraiture, illuminates the often subtle and complex passions roiling about a society whose dilemmas are compounded by racism. She brings about consideration of challenging issues through her penetrating treatment of characters whose emotional dilemmas are highlighted by an intricate series of personal interrelationships.
One valid critical approach is to insist that the major theme in Passing is not race at all, but marriage and security. Although Irene Redfield is not passing as white, she is passing as an upper-middle-class American with full access to the opportunities and privileges of any wealthy citizen. Feeling safe and secure, she is even waited on by black servants. Indeed, though Irene does not deny her negritude—as Clare does—she is still, in a sense, passing, all the while trying to ignore her husband’s dissatisfaction with life in the United States for a black family. Although Irene Redfield is active in the Negro Welfare League (NWL), she remains apart from her struggling brothers and sisters in the ghetto and in no way wishes to endanger her safety. Irene enjoys material comfort; she will not risk starting a new life in Brazil, although her refusal means sacrificing her husband’s happiness.
Thus it is that Irene subconsciously appreciates—though she does not outwardly condone—her friend Clare Kendry’s passing, for Kendry, aggressive and impetuous, has taken a risk that has brought her complete access to the upper-middle-class American Dream. From this vantage point, Irene’s psychological reaction becomes clear: Her ambivalent attraction toward and repulsion from Clare stems from what she perceives as shortcomings within herself; namely, her inability to take risks, rationalized in the need for safety and security, and her own distancing from less-fortunate black people in Harlem’s ghetto. With the dangerous Clare hovering about her secure home, Irene is unable to eliminate her friend’s presence even though she begins to live in fear that this “mysterious stranger” will take away her husband and destroy the safety that is her life. It is no wonder, too, that subconsciously Irene wants Clare to disappear, to vanish, to die. Although there is no evidence of an affair between Clare and Dr. Redfield, Irene has become emotionally distraught at the possibility, a turbulent package of nerves fixated...
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Essay on Human Relationships in Nella Larsen's Passing
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Human Relationships in Nella Larsen's Passing
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The Harlem Renaissance was a turning point for many African Americans. A vast amount of literature was created specifically for this group during this era. For the first time, African Americans were being told that it was okay to be proud of who they were. This new consciousness and self-awareness was prominent in many works of literature, but several writers began exploring the darker side of this movement with literature that concentrated on the negative aspects of race relations in America. Nella Larsen's novel Passing concentrates on this theme with the story of Clare, a tragic mulatto who "passes" as a white person. Not only is Passing representative of…show more content…
Just because Clare feels "no permanent allegiance to either the black or white worlds or any of the classic anguish of the tragic mulatto" does not mean that she is not a tragic mulatto (Washington 48). In her own way, Clare Kendry belongs with "that group of tragic mulattos?emerging as an individual, not as a stereotype" (Davis 98). Her desire to return to her own race on her own terms illustrates her individuality in the face of a stereotypical tragic mulatto. Clare may not be the typical tragic mulatto, but her actions prove that she belongs in this group of literary figures.
Clare Kendry passes in order to secure a more stable life. Her desire to do this begins when she is young, after her African American father dies and she is left with her white aunts. While there, Clare begins to want more than what she has as an African American. She "used to go over to the south side, and used to almost hate all [African Americans]. [They] had all the things she wanted and never had had. It made [her] all the more determined to get them" (Larsen 159). In order to get what she wants Clare marries a white man, John Bellew, under the pretense that she is white. Clare is then required to "deny everything about her past-her girlhood, her family, her language, places with memories, folk customs, folk rhymes, and the entire long line of people that have