Nella Larsen’s novel Passing was written in 1929 and reflected the reality she experienced herself as for the questions of racial identity and hard integration of African Americans into the civilized society.
On the whole, Passing is, in contrast to the title, the story of complete failure of two girls who tried to divide themselves from their race and be normal citizens adopted by the society. One of them, Irene Westover Redfield, was a common representative of the middle class who suffered from fears and discomfort being among people and who “wanted only to be tranquil” because “security was the most important and desired thing in life” (Larsen 235). Everywhere in the street she felt disturbance and threat of impermanence, instability and lack of confidence. All those symptoms, as Neil Sullivan (26) investigates, testify to Irene’s “inevitability of disintegrating subjectivity” meaning that not only circumstances themselves were obstacles on her way to integration and passing, but from the very beginning, by her nature and through entire life she was never ready to become an adequate part of the community. For Irene, the reality was disgusting and she was disgusting to herself, she was awkward in that reality.
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Her friend, Clare Kendry Bellew, doesn’t look like a “Nig” (as her own husband calls her playfully), but she has African routes and thus all her story is a story of inner conflict, of bifurcation and lack of perfectness, of wholeness. She struggled since her early childhood, as was born in misery and privation, and furthermore lost her father (alcoholic janitor) and had to live with her two white aunts, Grace and Edna, not a jot better than Cinderella’s stepmother and sisters. From her early years she had to work hard, and the aunts even tried to persuade her that physical labor was nothing but useful for her. And at the same time she had to tolerate not only physical exploitation, but also moral tension because “loving” relatives never missed a trick to remind her where she was from and what she was like. But nevertheless she didn’t make complaints against her life: “I was, it was true, expected to earn my keep by doing all the housework, and most of the washing. But do you realize, ‘Rene, that if it hadn’t been for them, I shouldn’t have had a home in the world? ” (Larsen 158). Clare is described as truly light (as her name is translated) person trying to enjoy life and to take everything from it, but again, from the very beginning, she is doomed as she has no integrity in herself and can’t find stability neither at home nor outside. Her husband, a white financier John Bellew, leads on the processing started by her aunts: he repeats again and again that he hated Negroes and that no Negroes can live in his house: “When we were first married, she was as white as – as – well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s gettin’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger,” he jokes (171). If Clare could simply forget her origin and live a normal life of a white person, she may have found serenity and her place under the sun. But the hostile attitude and moods of the nearest, let alone rest of the society leaves no chance for her. She is punched by words, and she is constantly being lynched morally. Hence her end is determined from the very beginning. Her passing is determined – as, to certain extent, the author uses the word not only in the meaning of merging of African Americans with the white community in the United States, but obviously in its colloquial meaning standing for ‘death’.
The two girls’ fates are tightly bound and one is used to tint another one. They are different, but they have much in common, and their lives turn to interweave in strange, dramatic matter. The two persons conflicting each within herself can’t help conflicting with other, and passions burning between them have ambiguous nature. The uneasy circumstances have made them suspicious and emotionally very sensitive, therefore by interaction they not only help each other to survive, but do help each other to fade.
The matter is, assimilation is always a problem, even when all the circumstances are favorable and the accepting party is really adopting. A lot of things must be changed in your conscience, in your style of life, in your attitude to things of everyday life and, broader, you view of the world. The question, what is more, is why you should forget your true identity, why you have to play your origin false and adjust to others. It is always difficult to put up with such injustice, and no matter how hard you try, you will always stay the second sort. Sometimes such subordination is hidden well, and with time you may forget about all those difficulties. But when day after day you are reminded that you are mud blood (“nigger,” “nig,” “creature,” “boy,”), how much strength do you need to cope with it? Especially it turns out to be unbearable for Clare who is already not belonging to the Black community and neither is she one of the Whites. Then, negative reputation is regularly supported by media, they are accused of all the most awful crimes, and this prejudice based only on the color of their skin is being spread from family to family, from generation to generation. The cycle with no way out. Or, to be more precise, with the only way out chosen by Clare – the entrance to freedom through the window.
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In the meantime her need for recognition was much higher than Irene’s. Clare experiences “deliberate courting of attention” (203); her husband has taken her out of poverty and provided her with almost everything for happy bourgeois living. So she spends days dressing this and that and trying to adopt white values, but can’t find peace and through the whole novel seeks for the answer from everyone: what am I to you? What am I of you? It is interesting to underline that the two girls benefit from each other: “While Clare claims Irene as her link to blackness, Irene mediates her desire for whiteness through Clare” (Sullivan 31). When associated with Clare, Irene finally was aware what was wrong in her life and she feels sorry that Clare was not born a Negro (Larsen 225). The conflict is sharpened in the scene with letters from Clare torn by Irene: “The destruction completed, she gathered them up, rose, and moved to the train’s end. Standing there, she dropped them over railing and watched them scatter, on tracks, on cinders, on forlorn grass, in rills of dirty water” (178).
While we are all dependent on what others think of us, it is not easy to stay cheerful when you are oppressed on the ground of your minority identity. In this way total rejection brings Clare to the tragic final: Clare vanishes, and Irene faints in pursuit of her.
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