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 duty bound to herself.
At first, Clare is an unwelcome presence in Irene’s life. A danger. Unlike Clare, Irene couldn’t abandon her identity completely. She is proud of calling herself black, but still she was curious. I got the feeling frequently that Irene was sort of envious of Clare because she had freedom. The ability to go back and forth between the two separate social spheres while it was harder for her. “She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race… Nothing, she imagined, was ever more completely sardonic” (98). She had a duty to her identity that she couldn’t just abandon. Unlike Clare.
Irene’s duty to her marriage is what likely led to her betrayal of duty as a friend to Clare. Despite her suspicions, Irene was determined to make her marriage work. “Even after suspecting the affair, she still intended to hold fast to the outer shell of her marriage, to keep her life fixed, certain. Brought to the edge of distasteful reality, her fastidious nature did not recoil.” (200). Her decision to keep her encounter with Bellew a secret, in hopes that possibly him learning her heritage would “free” Clare, actually led to a quick fall out a window and the supposed end of conflict in her life.
In conclusion, “the presence of characters like Clare tend to disturb and disrupt; it threatens us with uncertainty, the dissolution of traditions, and the destruction of social orders” (Toth 56). Going against or with duty is an underlying theme in Larsen’s novella. When a character seemingly has no duty to anyone but themselves. It causes the other characters in the work to respond and act accordingly. Clare’s ability to live a lie and float between two very different social groups caused Irene to question her own life and her own passing. While Irene trying to keep her duty as a wife; she actually ended up severing the duty she had to Clare.
Larsen, Nella.” Passing.” New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Tate, Claudia. “Nella Larsen's Passing: A Problem of Interpretation.” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 14, no. 4, 1980, pp. 142–146. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2904405.
Toth, Josh. “Deauthenticating Community: The Passing Intrusion of Clare Kendry in Nella Larsen's Passing.” MELUS, vol. 33, no. 1, 2008, pp. 55–73. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30029741.
“Transgression.” Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transgression. Accessed 23 Feb. 2018.
Wall, Cheryl A. “Passing for What? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen's Novels.” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 20, no. 1/2, 1986, pp. 97–111. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2904554.