I have been wanting to read Passing, by Nella Larsen, ever since I discovered it existed, at least 20 years. I think I kind of put it off because I thought it was going to be really sad and heavy: that the protagonist, the person who is “passing” plays out some “tragic mulatto” role because she gets exposed and then is left in some horrifying circumstance.
That doesn’t happen in this book. But what does happen is actually more terrifying.
Passing is really the story of two women: Clare and Irene. Irene is the narrator. In the opening scene, the two old friends meet up unexpectedly while both are “passing” in the restaurant of a nice hotel that is closed to Black people.
As the story gradually unfolds, the reader discovers that Clare is officially the one passing in that she is married to a White man who doesn’t know about her Black parent. Irene is officially not passing, not full time anyway, because she is married to a darker Black man (as she is careful to say), and one of her sons is darker as well.
So you get the irony here, right? Clare may think she’s happy to be Black and absolutely fine, but she also clearly benefits from the system, which she’s happy with as well. I’m not saying I blame her, but I’m also just pointing out that she seems to protest a bit much.
In the middle, there is a third friend, Gertrude, who is married to a White man but officially NOT passing because her husband and her in-laws know she is “Black”. But of course not every person on the street knows that technically she is “Black” either, so she does benefit from the system.
Wow, even describing the scenario here is making me feel a bit queasy. I mean, the whole thing is so messed up.
What makes this book such a good read is the story is narrated and that fact that as the readers, we don’t actually know if what Irene says is happening is actually happening or not. The main action of the story comes from Irene’s belief about what is happening. Whether it’s true or not, we never find out for sure.
Which leads me to think about who, or what, is the problem.
The story is set mostly in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, so it gives readers a glimpse of that lifestyle along, without a doubt, of its underside.
By the end of the book, you might find yourself thoroughly convinced that you know what happened, but as soon as you hit the jolt of the ending, you realize that you know nothing.
This book is definitely a short read. While there are 285 pages in the book all together, the actual novel is 187 pages and can easily be read in a couple of hours.
The critical notes in the Penguin edition, above, by Mae Henderson, are extensive. Although I understood most of the references in the book that she footnotes, the extra information and context she provides are so interesting that I read most of it. But if that bugs you, you can certainly read the book straight through.
The first section is a little slow, but hang on, it’s going to get faster quickly!
Note: This book is appropriate for adolescents as long as the are able to handle the complicated implications of the story.
Passing is a compelling book even if you completely believe Irene’s version of events, but, really, can you believe her?
The technique Larsen uses here, to undermine the trope of the “tragic mulatto” by showing the reader three different ways of dealing with the contradictions of a ridiculous situation.
Irene is the narrator, and since you hear everything from her point of view, there is no way of knowing if her thoughts reflect “reality”, or if they don’t.
Here is an excellent article from a writing blog explaining the technique with examples (which means more reading ideas!).
The “tragic mulatto” is a term for the archetype found in literature and film of a mixed race person who has difficulty fitting in either culture. There are several earlier famous works with this feature, including Iola Leroy, by Frances Harper, one of the first novels published by an African American woman, and Kate Chopin, particularly the story “Desiree’s Baby”.
(Or nearly, if you look for cheaper digital editions. Quality publishers, such as Penguin, include complete notes to enhance the modern reader’s understanding)
Understanding the Concept of “Passing” in the United States
Usually, the free stuff goes at the bottom of the post (so all dear readers stay with us), but this article is so excellent, it’s going right to the top so you don’t miss it. And the end of the article, there are links to a mini-mini series called “Passing”.
Quicksand is Nella Larsen’s only other novel and is loosely based on her own experiences.
Both books and her short stories are available in one volume here. The Penguin edition to the left of Passing has excellent notes and is recommended, especially for people not familiar with the Harlem Renaissance or American culture in the early 20th century.
Cane is an important work but a complicated read because of the unusual approach and combination of genres.
Imitation of Life was a bestseller when it was published in 1933 and made into two films (see below). The author, Fannie Hurst, was a close associate/friend of Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston.
The issue of passing is a major subplot in the story.
This article from The Lois Level, while on a completely different topic, has a detailed description of the different versions of Imitation of Life: Three Different Books about Women who Fed People for a Living, and Made it??
Pinky is a 1949 film based on the Cid Ricketts Sumner novel Quality, which is out of print as of this writing. It is about an African American nurse who returns home to the South after “passing” in the North.
Cover Photo Credit