Racial passing occurs when an individual born with one racial identity is also able to fit in as a member of another racial group. Nella Larsen’s novel Passing presents the theme of control manifest as a facet to explain the internal struggles of both race and attitude in the lives of two individuals, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, who are accidentally reunited on a rooftop deck both “passing” as white women after growing up together in a black society in Chicago in the early 1900’s.
Clare Kendry contradicts all stereotypes of an average light-skinned black woman in the 1900’s. She passes as a white woman, is married to a racist white husband, and is perceived to have masculine characteristics of outward sexuality, seductiveness, and manipulation of those around her. Throughout the novel, Larsen defines Clare through her freedom to flow in and out of racial categories as both black and white, refusing to be tied down by either color or gender stereotypes. After years of passing as a white woman, Clare encounters Irene Redfield, a black woman from her childhood who doesn’t even recognize Clare at first when they run into each other, both “passing” at a whites-only rooftop lounge. This encounter leads to Clare’s realization that passing after all these years has detached her from her black heritage, and she yearns to “see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh,” (page 71, Passing). This desire to reconnect with her heritage stems from a rebellion against her husband’s racism and also from an underlying jealous desire to feel safe and accepted in her own skin. Nella Larsen incorporates Clare’s character in the novel to challenge all boundaries and demo...
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...during this historical time period and explains the societal issues associated with it by emphasizing the great contrast between the concluding fates of the two women. Her personal views on passing are established in the book and readers analyze her disagreement with the idea of passing itself when Clare, the character who attempted to pass permanently, is the one who dies in the end.
Overall, control is a theme manifested both physically and emotionally throughout Nella Larsen’s book, Passing, to discuss the phenomenon of what passing actually was in the real world during the early 1920’s in America and how dangerous it was to practice. With underlying themes of seduction, racial, and gender stereotypes, Larsen compares the lifestyles of the two main characters in this novel and discusses the problems of control associated with both ends of the passing spectrum.
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