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Nella Larsen was an American writer of the Harlem Renaissance. One of her novels, Passing, took place New York society during the 1920s. The story surrounds the reunion of two women, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield and their struggles they face because of ‘passing’. Through Passing, Nella Larsen demonstrates the challenges that the gender constructs during the time as women are powerless against race and men.
Irene and Brian’s marriage symbolized the different roles of women and men in their home. Although she told Clare that she had all the things she wanted and that did not need to ‘pass’ as white, Irene still struggled with her marriage and the control of her sons. In the beginning of Passing, Irene recalled the memory of meeting Clare Kendry in Chicago after receiving letter from her. Unplanned, Irene saw Clare in Chicago and was disturbed by her. After dropping Clare out of her mind, she turned her mind to her lovely family, “To home, to the boys, to Brian. Brian, who in the morning would be waiting for her in the great clamorous station. She hoped that he had been comfortable and not too lonely without her and the boys” (Larsen P1 4). It seems that she has found a destination where she can find her own peace and comfort solution for all her troubles she has. This quote reveals the message that the women should be expected to find their love and their solutions to their problems. This also shows the expectations society has for women. Home is where the women should be at. Throughout Passing, Larsen starts to unveil pieces of her complicated mind and thoughts of Irene. For example, when Larsen brought up how women think about their husbands – “That craving for some place strange and different, which at the beginning of her marriage she had had to make such strenuous efforts to repress, and which yet faintly alarmed her, though it now sprang up at gradually lessening intervals” (Larsen P1 4). Even though she made Brian stay in New York for his job, which showed some power over Brian, but overall she is powerless against Brian in many aspects as explained, “She was, to him, only the mother of his sons” (Larsen P3 1). This unveiled the point of view men have about marriage in this society. Women think that children, kids, babies can fill up the cracks of their own marriage. The power of the women in their own family, where they have to depend on their husband in everything, seems to fade every moment: “She closed her unseeing eyes and clenched her fists. She tried not to cry. But her lips tightened and no effort could check the hot tears of rage and shame that sprang into her eyes and flowed down her cheeks; so she laid her face in her arms and wept silently.” (Larsen P3 1). Irene couldn’t do anything but think and endure the pain that she went through, thinking about Brian’s affair, that she still has to stay with him whether he had an affair or not. Until this point, Larsen has shown the perspective, the struggles of the women when they depend on men to survive.
Clare Kendry reveals the expectations of women in society and symbolizes the power struggle of the women in society. She has taken a risk by passing and living in a white society. She has put herself in a dangerous situation to bring her access to power and to the higher class in the society. She represents the need for power of women in society, striving for equality. Like Irene, Clare is helpless and powerless against her husband, John Bellew in her own home. She is “catlike” (Larsen P1 1), trying to hide her own identity because of her own sake. Her true root goes with her gender and drags her down to the bottom against John. She had to accept everything John said. During the reunion with her old friends, Gertrude and Irene, John came into the room, with a surprise greeting that startle everyone, “Hello, Nig,” (Larsen P1 3) despite not being aware of Clare’s background. The racist term has offended anyone that has a black background. Gertrude and Irene “who had caught her lip between her teeth and sat gazing at husband and wife,” (Larsen P1 3) and even Clare, but she did not do a thing. She knew that if she stood up against him for calling her that, her perfect ‘white’ life would be over. She knows she has no power over her husband. Later in Passing, John Bellew found out the original root of Clare. Clare herself was speechless, “stood at the window, as composed as if everyone were not staring at her in curiosity and wonder, as if the whole structure of her life were not lying in fragments before her. She seemed unaware of any danger or uncaring. There was even a faint smile on her full, red lips, and in her shining eyes” (Larsen P3, 4). She finally realized that she was free of him and free of being powerless against her husband. Everyone in the room stood up for her. Even though she felt liberated for an instant, she knew the intolerance of Bellew would cause a tragic end to her. She stood there, next to the window, frozen. The next thing, she was gone. She fell through the window, which had freed her from the pressure of her husband, as the pressure the expectations on the women of the society had put on them. The end of the story portrays the pressure of the women in their own home, society, which in some ways death is the only solution; they had to follow every single word of men, who is portrayed in the story as more a power creature.
Clare Kendry’s husband, John Bellew represents the power of the man against the women in the family’s structure. Passing is the story about the life surrounds two main character, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield but it portrays them as powerless creatures that struggle in identify themselves in their own society. It also portrays the picture of men as power creatures against women, as if they are the “gender slave” owners where the women are the “gender slaves.” John Bellew is the perfect figure that is portrayed in this story, symbolizing the power of the men in society. Clare Kendry, fearing that John might figure out her original root, shrinks herself into a small creature, powerless, helpless against him. This situation symbolizes the ideology in the family’s structure of power in the society, where men are always in charge of the house, and women have to follow what they said. When he came into the room during the party, his greeting to Clare was, “Hello, Nig” (Larsen P1 3). Despite the fact that he didn’t know about Clare and her friends’ background, the greeting still heated up their anger. Even though it was very offensive, Clare and her friends still could not do anything about it. This shows the power of John over all the women, as the only man in the room. His power controls Clare in everything, where she had to be careful what she did that include her racial root. Nella Larsen has portrayed the power that men have and abuse it in their own household or even in the society in general.
Even though Passing is a novel that surrounds the racial issues during the 1920s, the story still has a different approach to its theme. Rather than focusing on race, it focuses on the gender challenges in relationship, marriage, or even in society overall between men and women. Through the novel, Nella Larsen has showed the purposes of men and women in society where they support each other not abusing the power they had. She also proves the false beliefs that society has in their family, where men have to be in charge of their household.
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