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Introduction and Character Analysis of PASSING
Transcript of Introduction and Character Analysis of PASSING
Introduction and Character Analysis of
PASSING by Nella Larson
PASSING by Nella Larsen was written in 1929,
during the height of the Harlem Renaissance
movement. The novel focuses on shifting
racial boundaries and the conflict between
racial and cultural loyalty and the pressure to
"pass" in the white-dominated culture of the time. This dilemma is illustrated through the conflict
between two women with a common past: Irene Redfield, an upper-middle class black woman, and Clare Pendry, a wealthy and beautiful biracial woman who has spent many years "passing" and longs to return to her cultural roots.
PASSING is divided into three sections, much like acts of a play: "Encounter," "Re-Encounter," and "Finale." The novel begins with Irene holding a letter from Clare. Irene describes the letter as "mysterious," "slightly furtive," "flaunting," even dangerous, much like Clare herself. In the letter Clare writes "I am lonely, so lonely ... in this pale life of mine" and reaches out to Irene, her link to the black world (Larsen 11). The letter prompts Irene to recall two incidents involving Clare. The first is a flashback to her childhood in Chicago's South Side, when young Irene Westover witnessed Clare Kendry being abused by her working-class, alcoholic father. Bob Kendry is angry because Clare has used some of the money she earned as a dressmaker's assistant to buy fabric to make herself a red Christmas dress. Clare wants more than her working-class status provides, later telling Irene, "You had all the things I wanted and never had had. It made me all the more determined to get them, and others" (25). After Clare's father dies in a saloon fight when she is fifteen, she is sent away to live with her white aunts. Although they are devout Christians, they can't "forgive the tar-brush" and treat Clare like a degraded servant (26). When she decides to pass as white and marry a white man at age eighteen, Clare is not so much denying the black community as escaping from her oppressive white relatives and her lower-class status.
Irene's second, longer memory is of her chance meeting with Clare in Chicago two years earlier, which rekindled their relationship. Irene, who now lives in New York City, is visiting the city of her birth when she encounters Clare on the Drayton Hotel's exclusive rooftop restaurant, both women passing for white. She initially does not recognize the "white" woman at the next table, with blond hair, "dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower" (14). Irene finds herself both attracted to and repulsed by this woman, who she fears could expose her passing and embarrass her publicly. The mystery woman eventually introduces herself as Clare Kendry, now Clare Bellew. In the twelve years since they last saw each other, Clare has married a successful white businessman, Jack Bellew. Clare notes that passing is a "a frightfully easy thing to do. If one's the type, all that's needed is a little nerve" (25) and that white people aren't nearly as obsessed with knowing one's family and pedigree as black people are. Although Irene tries to resist Clare's advances to renew their friendship, she agrees to come to visit the next day. There she meets another old schoolmate, Gertrude, another light-skinned woman who has also married a white man, a Chicago butcher, who is aware of Gertrude's racial identity. Class-conscious Irene clearly judges Gertrude, as much for marrying outside her race as for marrying a working-class man. While the three women take tea, Jack Bellew enters in what is one of the novel's most arresting scenes. Unaware of the racial background of the three women, the racist Bellew cracks jokes about his wife's complexion, which he says is "gettin' darker and darker," and he uses the pet name "Nig" for her (39). When Clare asks whether it would really matter if she turned out to be "one or two per cent coloured," he replies, "No n-----s in my family. Never have been and never will be" (40). Clearly taken aback, Irene represses her rage and indignation and keeps Clare's dangerous secret from Bellew. The next day she destroys a note from Clare and resolves to put Clare out of her mind forever.
Characterization of Irene Redfield: Irene Redfield, a light-skinned black woman is the protagonist of the novel. The novel is told using third-person narrative but with a limited focus on Irene's thoughts and actions. The following passage is one of the best examples of Larsen's characterization of Irene:
"And gradually there rose in Irene a small inner disturbance, odious and hatefully familiar. She laughed softly, but her eyes flashed.
Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?
Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things that for all that they usually asserted they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Indian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro. No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn't possibly know.
Nevertheless, Irene felt, in turn, anger, scorn, and fear slide over her. It wasn't that she was ashamed of being a Negro, or even of having it declared. It was the idea of being ejected from any place, even in the polite and tactful way in which the Drayton would probably do it. that disturbed her." (16).
Characterization of Irene Redfield (continued):
Appearance: Passing for white, well-dressed enough to look like she fits in at a very expensive and exclusive hotel.
Environment: a rooftop restaurant at the Drayton. She is much more economically secure than most people were at this time; upper-middle class.
Actions: Laughing nervously. Irene is afraid of being found out. She is vulnerable to humiliation and embarrassment.
Opinions/Reactions of Others: Irene states that white people believe she is "an Indian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy." She has passed many times, is practically racially "invisible" and is not hindered by the limits that existed for blacks at the time.
Innermost Thoughts and Feelings: The stupidity of white people; she believes that she is just about infallible, that no one is smart enough or observant enough to really "see" her. Fear of ejection; instead of seeing a possible exposure in a public place as an opportunity to make a stand on behalf of her race, she is concerned about personal embarrassment, humiliation, or harm. Telling herself that she is not "ashamed of being a Negro, or even of having it declared;" these seem to be paradoxical thoughts. Irene is definitely not ashamed of being herself, but anyone who has to TELL or REASSURE herself that she is not ashamed of her race probably has some deep-seated issues with self-loathing or internalized racism.