Passing by Nella Larsen

Colour me white…

😀 😀 😀 😀

passingWhen Irene accidentally meets her childhood friend Clare in a tea-house in Chicago, she’s not altogether surprised to discover that Clare is ‘passing’ as white. Clare had always wanted the good things in life and, when she disappeared from home as a teenager, her friends suspected she’d found a way to make use of her beauty. Now Clare is married to a rich white man, John Bellew, with whom she has a child. But John hates ‘niggers’ and Clare knows her marriage would be over if he ever found out about her mixed heritage. Irene rather despises Clare for, as she sees it, a kind of betrayal of her race, but nevertheless can’t resist the appeal of her charm. And so, their friendship is resumed – dangerous to Clare’s marriage, but as it turns out, dangerous to Irene too…

Despite the title and basic premise of the book, this is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. Irene is respected in her society in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor and they have a relatively wealthy life. But we soon learn that Brian is discontented – he hates living in a country where he is treated as inferior because of his race. Irene on the other hand loves her life and wants nothing more than she has. Clare is the catalyst who brings this division into sharp focus, forcing Irene to question what’s important to her and to wonder if her marriage is as solid as she had always thought.

I appreciated that the book doesn’t focus exclusively on the race issues. Sometimes books become so polemical it feels as if the people are tokens rather than rounded characters in their own right – I’m thinking of Americanah, for example. In this one, none of the characters is defined entirely by race – the questions that absorb them most have little overtly to do with colour. In a way, that makes the incidents of racism feel all the more brutal and shocking when they do happen. Written in 1921 long before the civil rights movement really got underway, we see how white people felt it was totally acceptable to publicly and casually express views that many of us would now find repugnant (pre-Trump – sadly, it now appears to be the new normal again), and how black people, even wealthy ones, had no real recourse other than to accept it and try not to let it define their entire lives. Brian and Irene’s ongoing difference about how to bring up their sons encapsulates a debate that I’m sure must have been going on endlessly in the black community of the time – Irene wanting to shield them for as long as possible from the knowledge of how racist their society is, while Brian feels they should be taught early what to expect and taught to resent it.

Nella Larsen
Nella Larsen

The deeper question than simply colour is perhaps about the sense of belonging. Despite having wealth and a husband who loves her, Clare the risk-taker longs for the people and places of her childhood and is willing to gamble recklessly with everything she has for the fleeting pleasure of spending time back in that society. Irene on the other hand sees that same society as a place of security and contentment, and her sole desire is not to have her life disrupted. Both the women can tolerate the racism of their world so long as it doesn’t directly impinge on them. Brian, however, resents racism as a political thing, not just personal – a thing that makes him hate his nation and rather despise his peers for their acceptance of it. In him, we see the anger and discontent that would eventually lead to the rise of the civil rights movement.

The characterisation of Irene is the book’s major strength. It is from her perspective that the book is told, although in the third person. She operates within the conventions of her time, deferring outwardly to her husband, playing the little wife who’s always endearingly late for things and just a bit scatterbrained. But inwardly she has a core of steel – she has achieved exactly the life she wants and will defend it in any way she can. If that means she has to manipulate her husband to give up his dreams in favour of hers, so be it – she has the intelligence and fierce drive to do it, and the self-awareness to know that that’s exactly what she’s doing. But her slightly repelled fascination for her old friend allows Clare to sneak through her defences, and suddenly Irene finds she’s losing control of the situation – something she’s not used to and that frightens her.

I regret to admit that I think the ending is almost laughably silly, which is a major pity since I was loving it up to that point. I wonder if Larsen maybe just couldn’t think how to get her characters out of the situation she had so carefully and brilliantly crafted for them. Personally (and you don’t often hear me say this) I wished the book was a few chapters longer with a more complex and psychologically satisfying dénouement. But despite that disappointment, I still think this is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time, and would highly recommend it.

I was tempted towards the book by this excellent review from TJ at My Book Strings – only took me two years to get around to reading it!

Book 2 of 90
Book 2 of 90

This is the book chosen for me by the Classics Club’s #14 spin.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

30 thoughts on “Passing by Nella Larsen

  1. I’m very glad you liked this one, FictionFan, ending aside. You make a really well-taken point about the way race is addressed in novels. It’s an important topic, and plays a key role in our social interactions. But it’s hard to handle it effectively, I think. And you’re right; people’s personalities and their personal lives (marriage, children, etc..) also play a key role in what they are. Those are really interesting, too, and shouldn’t be swept aside.

    • Yes, I think any book that only concentrates on one aspect of a personality is bound to end up feeling like it’s making points rather than telling a story – none of us is only one thing. And because these characters felt like real people, it was actually more effective when the racism did happen because you could see them reacting to it just as anyone really would. A good one!

  2. I remember a TV play of the sixties which I now realise must have been (loosely) based on this book – I’ve never forgotten it, so it obviously made a big impression. Funnily enough, I don’t remember the ending – it’s the conversation between the two women about race and identity that stuck in my mind.

    • Some of those TV plays of the ’60s and early ’70s were great – it’s a pity so few of them seem to have survived. I think quite often they were shown live. Must have a look and see if this one still exists anywhere. I must say, for a short book which this is, it had far more impact than many a lengthy tome…

  3. What a complex subject this author has tackled! I suppose setting it before the Civil Rights movement was a compromise of sorts. That way, she could do the research without having to grapple with all the tangled emotions prevalent today. It sounds like an interesting read, though I’m sorry to hear the ending wasn’t as satisfactory as you’d have preferred. Book 2 of 90?? Yikes, you’d better get busy, FF!!

    • It was actually written back in 1921, so was contemporary fiction at the time. Which I think made it feel even more powerful – you knew the attitudes she was describing were authentic, which you can’t always be quite so sure about with historical fiction. Yes, it was a pity about the ending, but it didn’t really spoil the overall book. Haha! Fortunately the Classics Club is a five year project – though I’m already behind!

    • I enjoyed it too though, in my case, despite the ending. I’m keen to read Quicksand too – I’ve actually seen a couple of people saying it’s even better. Pity she wasn’t more prolific – so much talent. 🙂

      • Quicksand is fantastic. The main character tries to make a life for herself, but everywhere she goes, she’s supposed to “be” something else. She’s exotic in Europe, a black woman in the States, too smart, not smart enough, too talented, too high-spirited. It’s a great book, and it’s another novella, so not a terribly long read.

    • Exactly! I always prefer stories where the people have all different aspects to their characters rather than all the focus being on one thing. Definitely one worth reading…

  4. Nella Larsen has been on my list for a while (I think I remember that same review from TJ). Hopefully I’ll get to them someday…
    Too bad about the ending, but now I’m just even more curious. 🙂

    • She’s definitely worth getting to! I’m looking forward to reading Quicksand sometime – hopefully it won’t be another two years… Yes, the ending seems to divide people – some feel like me, but plenty of other people think it works fine. I’ll be intrigued to see which category you fall into… 🙂

  5. Wow, What compelling plot. I’d be curious to take a peek at it. I read a similar book by Philip Roth a few years ago. I never knew that it was done, passing for while. How sad that we live in a world where someone would think it was necessary.

    My Classics Club book was Little women

    • Oh yes, I read that Roth too! Long ago, and I don’t remember much about it except that it was the first time I came across the idea of ‘passing’ too. Yes, indeed – and whenever it seems like we might have got past all that, somehow racism rears its ugly head again…

      Thanks for the link – just popping across… 🙂

    • Yes, it was a pity about the ending but it didn’t spoil the book thankfully. I liked the way she gave a somewhat different picture of black society from the usual – as you say, multi-layered, rather than one-dimensional. I’m looking forward to reading Quicksand…

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