Passing, segregation, and assimilation: How Nella Larsen changed the “Passing” novel

Vivian Maguire, University of Texas at El Paso


In 1929, Nella Larsen wrote Passing, a novel that delves into the lives of two African-American women living in segregated society. Passing portrays the reunion of two childhood friends, Clare Kendry and Irene Westover. The relationship between Irene and Clare is at first one of fascination, as the two have lifestyles that intrigue one another. Things quickly start to change however, when Irene concludes that Clare and her husband Brian are having an affair. Irene's suspicious attitudes toward Clare become hostile and she is more determined than ever to prevent Clare from joining her social circle and perhaps, from taking her place in black society. The novel takes an unexpected turn with a confrontation between John Bellew and Clare. She mysteriously falls to her death through an open window with Irene standing nearby. Clare's demise is further muddled with a plethora of thoughts that run through Irene's mind at the time, making her the lead suspect in Clare's sudden death. Clare's death is never resolved, leaving that event, like many others in the novel, open for interpretation. Irene, who prides herself on her honesty, has the most befuddled interpretation of how Clare died at the end of the story. What makes Passing such an extraordinary novel is not only that it avoids the traditional conventions of the passing novel, which are typically concerned with the dire effects of leaving one's race behind, but it calls those conventions into question. Clare does not redeem herself by returning to the black community; she dies, and possibly at the hands of a woman who was supposed to support her according to racial laws. The reader is compelled to sympathize with Clare while wondering what is wrong with Irene. The answer to that question is of course that Irene subscribes to the very ideas about race and ethics that the majority of Americans were invested in at that time. These racial edicts became far more pressing than the lives of individuals themselves, which Larsen recognized and set out to challenge. Larsen's Passing is important because it captures the subtlety and nuance of race relations and identity at this point in American history in a way that other novels of the time failed to do. Larsen did this by using the established genre of the passing novel to create a depiction that draws the reader's focus to a point deeper than the act of passing itself, and directs it toward the more difficult underlying questions about race relations and racial identity. In the next chapter I will look at the social environment that surrounded the passing phenomenon. I will discuss what social analysts and early authors of passing texts identified as motivations behind passing and examine what Nella Larsen felt actually led individuals to do so. Ultimately I will address what Nella Larsen argues all along: individuals cannot fit into social roles designated by racial categories, and the resulting tension leads to unwarranted racial violence. In my second chapter, I will address two authors who influenced Nella Larsen to change the traditional passing novel. I will describe how one author, Charles Chesnutt, inspired Larsen to change the traditional passing figure in order to demonstrate that the race problem was not in passing, but adhering to racial constructs. The second author, James Weldon Johnson, inspired Larsen with his satirical take on passing, and motivated her to further challenge the racial restrictions on American society. In chapter three, I will explore how Larsen uses mirrors, an unreliable narrator, and ambiguous situations to comment on the futile and dangerous affect segregation and assimilation had on American culture. Her use of an untrustworthy, but racially loyal heroine helped to reveal the pitfalls in allowing an entire civilization to be divided by racial and social roles. Finally, I will look at two authors who succeeded Larsen, adopting her position on Americans' dependency on racial and social roles, and what is lost in succumbing to assimilation. The first author I will discuss, Ralph Ellison, writes a novel that seemingly is not about passing at all, yet his exploration of assimilation illustrates that there is little difference between passing and assimilation to meet social expectations when both require performance and the severing of one's identity. The second author, Danzy Senna, directly addresses both assimilation and passing as the same with a heroine that passes and assimilates at different intervals in order to avoid discrimination. Neither author offers a solution to the passing problem. Their message resembles Larsen's in that though race is imagined, society's dependence on racial divisions is not. To live separately from race is difficult, but possible, and worthwhile in the search for identity. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Subject Area

Modern literature|American literature

Recommended Citation

Maguire, Vivian, "Passing, segregation, and assimilation: How Nella Larsen changed the “Passing” novel" (2010). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI1483825.