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

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

University of Texas, El Paso
December 2010
105 pages
Publication Number: AAT 1483825
ISBN: 9781124390468

Vivian Maguire

A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at El Paso in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of MASTER OF ARTS Department of English

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.

Table of Contents

  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Crossing the Line: Nella Larsen’s Take on Transcending Racial Boundaries
  • Shroud of Ethics: Nella Larsen and the Traditional Passing Novel
  • Mirror on the Wall: What Nella Larsen’s Ambiguous Novel Reveals About Passing
  • Passing in Time: Nella Larsen’s Impact on the Passing Novel
  • Epilogue
  • Endnotes
  • Works Cited
  • Curriculum Vita


In 1892, Homer Plessy, a man who was seven-eighths white and one-eighth black, was forcibly removed and then jailed for sitting in the whites-only section of a railroad car in Louisiana. Plessy disputed these events in the Supreme Court in 1896, where he argued that his black ancestry was imperceptible, and that he was by all definitions a white person. The Supreme Court ruled that Plessy’s exclusion from the white railroad car was not a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because while the amendment was created to ensure that all men are treated equally, it was never intended to eliminate social distinctions based on color.

However little a percentage of his ancestry was black, it was that percentage that mattered. Despite Plessy’s white appearance, the state of Louisiana viewed him as black and treated him accordingly, illustrating the illogicality of racial lines and the laws created to guard them. This left individuals who, like Plessy, were visibly white, but by definition still black, to either accept their position in society as inferior or to escape such oppressive markers by passing for white.

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 two had lost touch when Clare’s father died and Clare was forced to move in with her two white and racist aunts. When they meet again, Irene is living in Harlem with her two children and her husband, who practices medicine. Clare has married a successful businessman, John Bellew. Clare’s husband however, is a white racist who is unaware that Clare is in fact black. At first glance, the title Passing appears to refer to the lifestyle that Clare has chosen. However, she decides early in the novel that she would like to rejoin black society and no longer cares for racial pretenses. Irene, who Clare has adopted as her guide into the black community, treats Clare with civility. Yet all the while, she is resentful of Clare’s cavalier attitude and wishes to prevent her reentry into the black community. In the novel, Irene’s identity will come into question, as she wears a particular visage for society while masking her true thoughts and feelings…

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