Editor's note: This essay references a book whose title contains a racial slur.
The one thing most people know about Nella Larsen's Passing is that it explores a peculiar kind of deception — being born into one marginalized racial category and slipping into another, for privilege, security, or power. But the significance of Passing isn't found in the surface facts but in the brilliance of its execution: the beauty of the writing, the close character study, and the intense psychological suspense.
Like a decades-early precursor to a Patricia Highsmith novel, a sense of sensual glamour, frustration and foreboding pervades Larsen's famed novella. In 1927 Chicago, two light-skinned Black women, childhood friends whose lives took different paths, meet again in a theoretically white space, and a strange friendship is renewed despite the danger that the connection might bring. For Irene Redfield, a proper Black doctor's wife and a doyenne of Harlem society, passing is a petty indulgence, something she dabbles in on occasion, for "the sake of convenience." Her racial dexterity gains her "restaurants, theater tickets, and things like that." But to beautiful, orphaned Clare Kendry, passing is a means of survival. Clare had a home with her white relatives who disdained her race; she wanted something more, and she grabbed it, making a permanent break.
It's an odd reunion of two very different women. One reckless, flirtatious and bold; the other contained, proper and guarded. Clare lives as white in a gilded cage, a fashionable beauty with a touch of what the book calls "the tar-brush," married to a racist boor who would definitely not approve of her past identity or her connections. And yet despite the precarity of her situation, Clare has agency. Her choices are borne of desperation and ambition, but in thumbing her nose at what's expected, she escapes the arbitrariness and slipperiness of racial categories. She also refuses to live by the rules of passing, refusing to fully leave the world she came from behind. When she runs into an old friend, the well-married Irene, it reignites a longing.
In contrast, Irene lives carefully within walls of her own construction. She is always watching what she does and what she says, even afraid her husband will tell her kids about the "racial problem." She's trying to shield them from ugliness, but thinking she can protect two Black boys in Harlem in 1927 from learning about racism is a signal that she's removed from reality.
The contrast, parallels, and interplay between these two women is part of what makes Passing so beautifully constructed. Every choice is finely calibrated. Their interactions are polite, but Larsen has a way of making the simplest observation feel like a prelude to horror:
The words came to Irene as she sat there on the Drayton roof, facing Clare Kendry. "A having way." Well, Irene acknowledged, judging from her appearance and manner, Clare seemed certainly to have succeeded in having a few of the things that she wanted.
"Seemed" is doing a lot of work in that paragraph. Clare seems to have gotten what she wanted but there's more going on below the surface. Clare's unfettered sexual magnetism and Irene's simmering sexual jealousy adds yet another dimension.
Time and again, alongside the social aspects which remain chillingly relevant, it's Larsen's artistry that leaps out: specifically her masterful handling of plotting, character and mood. She seamlessly blends genre elements into a literary novella about race. The language and iconography of suspense and horror are there from the beginning. Some of the mood-making is subtle; Irene's mindset gets increasingly tense as her liaison with Clare deepens and she begins to feel that the glamorous interloper is threatening the life she's built.
At other times, Larsen is bold, putting the vernacular of the Gothic into Irene's head, invoking "dread," "foreboding," and even "horror." Then there's the foreshadowing in Clare's hysterical speech, how she frames herself as a threat in conversation with Irene: "Can't you realize that I'm not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I'd do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, 'Rene, I'm not safe." Or the cold feeling that runs through Irene on the street, just after she meets Clare's husband:
A slight shiver ran over her. "It's nothing," she told herself. "Just somebody walking over my grave, as the children say."
Published in 1929, during the Harlem Renaissance — a movement its author was deeply entrenched in — Passing caused more of a ripple than a sensation at its release, with critical acclaim far outstripping its sales. (In deliberate provocation, and recalling Carl Van Vechten's controversial novel about Harlem Nigger Heaven of three years earlier, Passing's original intended title was simply Nig.) The influential sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois reviewed it favorably in the NAACP's Crisis magazine. Calling Passing one of the finest novels of the year, Du Bois wrote that Larsen explained "the psychology of the thing; the reaction of it on friend and enemy. It is a difficult task, but she attacks the problem fearlessly and with consummate art."
Nearly one hundred years later, those contributions remain. In 19th and early 20th century literature, the "tragic mulatto" was a stock figure, a person of mixed background whose African heritage and longing for a white existence causes great isolation and suffering. Despite having similar contours, Larsen's novel was a pivotal step beyond those characterizations. Deftly juggling the psychological closeup and the bigger picture, Larsen dips into, contradicts, and complicates that worn image while also bringing to life Du Bois' concept of double consciousness. Larsen shows how intimate choices are bound up in social forces while endowing her characters with indelible specificity. As her last published novel, that is quite a legacy.
A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.