Transgression in Nella Larsen’s Passing
In Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing, the author examines the realities and social politics of white passing in 1920’s New York. Irene Redfield is a comfortably married half-white woman who has accepted her racial identity. However, she is forced to examine other viewpoints when, almost as if by fate, she is reconnected with a childhood acquaintance, Clare Kendry. Clare is woman of a similar background, who instead of identifying with her heritage, that has chosen to instead shun it and pass as white. Even more shockingly, she is married to a man named John Bellew; a white bigot who isn’t aware of Clare’s ethnic background. Larsen paints Irene and Clare as essentially two sides of the same coin who made very different life decisions.
. Transgression as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is: “an infringement or violation of a law, command, or duty.” In this analysis, I will discuss the transgressions of duty that occur from person to person in this work. Including: Clare’s transgressions against her family, husband, and Irene; but also, Irene’s transgressions against Clare.
In the novella, Clare Kendry is a bit paradoxical. She was not passing as a white woman because she was ashamed of her race; instead, she was passing as a white woman to get the things she seemingly wanted: wealth and social standing. “There had been, even in those days, nothing sacrificial in Clare Kendry’s idea of life, no allegiance beyond her own immediate desire” ( Larsen 10). She identified as either race as long as it fit her wants. For example, when she reappears in Irene’s life uninvited, she weasels her way into the Redfield’s social circle; however, she “does not seem to be seeking out Blacks in order to regain a sense of racial pride… She is merely looking for excitement” (Tate 142). But excitement at what cost?
“Even when Clare begins to doubt the wisdom of her choice, she claims no noble purpose, merely vague loneliness and a yearning for her own people. In fact, her trips to Harlem involve more pleasure seeking than homecoming.” (Wall 106). Even though people are drawn to her, Clare is overwhelmingly a selfish character. She intentionally puts her own wants and needs before others. Even stating, “’Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really ‘Rene, I’m not safe’” (Larsen 58). She knows that if she is caught not only would lose her daughter, her husband, her stability; but, she would also be endangering her friends. Yet, she cannot give up her jaunts to Harlem and the thrill of fraternizing with the world she removed herself from years ago. In this way she is ignoring her duty and commitments as a wife, mother, and companion to Irene. In that way, I argue that Clare was only...