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Irene’s Actions in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Updated on April 5, 2008

Nella Larsen’s Passing shows a side of racism not commonly discussed: the racism that occurs between members of the same race - those that most resemble the dominating race and those that exemplify the discriminated one. In Passing, Irene and Clare contrast racism in the African American community because Clare’s skin is light enough that she can “pass” for white. An important juncture in the novel occurs when Clare’s husband, a racist white man, insults Irene and she makes no rebuttal. Irene’s lack of response can be explained by her loyalty to her African American heritage.

Many readers will instinctively wonder why Irene cares if Clare’s husband discovers her secret, since she labels Clare with many negative phrases, including catlike and seductive. However, Irene seems unable to ignore Clare’s race. Even though Clare has pretended to be white for almost her entire life and has ignored all of her heritage, to a point where she believes darker skinned people to be “freaks of nature”(51), Irene still wants to help her. Irene must believe that there are some redeemable qualities in Clare. One of these is exemplified when Clare finally realizes that she needs the accompaniment of her “own people” and writes to Irene.

Irene’s loyalties are to her culture and her race; she only “passes” out of necessity and never openly lies about being black. Her lifestyle is that of someone who truly believes in her African American heritage - although she is wealthy, she raises money and hosts events for local Harlem organizations. In the second half of the novel, Clare’s behavior has an even stronger effect on Irene because she is worried that Clare is trying to steal her husband Brian away from her. Irene wants to “feel nothing, to think nothing; simply to believe that it was all silly invention on her part”(150). Although Irene’s fears are never confirmed in the text, they seem to be formed by her husband’s behavior. Clare’s interest in Brian seems irrational since she does not like darker skinned African Americans. Clare could be attracted to Brian because he is so opposite to her own husband, which would confirm her desire to rediscover her suppressed African American side.

The conclusion to Passing is sudden and vague. When Clare first falls out the window, it seems like Irene might have pushed her. “One thought possessed her. She couldn’t have Clare Kendry cast aside by Bellow. She couldn’t have her free”(176). While Irene’s belief that Clare is trying to take her husband forces her to stop Clare from divorcing her husband, it doesn’t seem enough to motivate Irene to push Clare out the window to accomplish it. Also, there would be no need for Irene to protect Bellow from the charge of pushing Clare out the window; it would after all, be the perfect revenge for his actions earlier in the novel, but Irene confirms that Clare in fact fell from the building.

Racism has been defined to many as whites believing that they are superior to blacks, but in Passing a new side of racism is explained, inside the African American race, a prejudice against darker skin tones. Clare abandons her culture, while Irene embraces it, but they both are African American and their actions have similar consequences.


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    • keithbradley profile image

      keithbradley 6 years ago from Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo)

      @MRA Thanks for your feedback. As with all fledgling academic writing I probably missed some of the key undertones of the story.

    • profile image

      MRA 7 years ago

      You wrote: "negative phrases, including catlike and seductive." These do not seem like negative terms to me. Instead, I felt that Irene was mesmerized by Clare in a homosexual attraction. This leads to the imagined affair: was Irene jealous of Brian, or was she jealous of Clare?

      "Passing" is a brilliant title. Clare "passes" as white, she and Irene both "pass" as heterosexual. Clare "passes" through the window, and then "passes" away. Other connections can be made, such as "passing" the heritage, "passing" the story, etc.

      I enjoyed your article, but feel the homosexual undertones of Nella Larsen's "Passing" should not be ignored. (Read author bio for more insight)