Passing Case

Published: 2021-06-29 06:40:40
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Nella Larsen's Passing presents an interesting portrayal of the circumstances surrounding black women who can pass for white. Her novel presents the story of two women central to her novel, Irene and Clare, who can both pass for white because of their light skin color. Clare chooses to pass all the time and embraces a white lifestyle, while Irene passes only at instances when it would be beneficial. They are old school buddies who end up meeting and having tea and talking. Clare wishes to meet again, but Irene is very reluctant, and eventually is forced to give in. During their second meeting, Clare's husband, a white man, comes storming into the room and makes several racist remarks, unaware that Irene and, in fact, Clare are actually black. Clare feels bad and writes Irene to tell her how sorry she is, but it is too late, because Irene and her husband have decided that it would be best to avoid her. One day, however, she shows up at their door and ends up going out with them and having a great time, getting along especially well with Brian. It becomes clear that Irene and Brian have a troubled relationship, and this is only highlighted by Clare's presence. Over the course of time, it seems that Brian takes to Clare more and Irene less, with the latter becoming jealous of the former. But then one day at a party, Clare's racist white husband shows up, now aware that his wife is actually black, and she falls out of the window and dies. Larsen seems to make the ending purposely ambiguous, with the reader not fully sure whether her death was by accident, suicide, or Irene's or John's hand.
Deborah E. McDowell, a critic, proposes one explanation of the novel and of the text as a whole in her essay "Black Female Sexuality in Passing." She proposes that Irene is actually in love with Clare, and her repressed sexual passion is what leads her to kill Clare at the novel's end. McDowell also claims that Larsen had the story end thus because she wished to "punish" those values Clare represented by having them destroyed at the end with her death.
McDowell begins to demonstrate this by showing the lack of sex in the relationships both Irene and Clare have with their husbands. She claims that this leads them to a sexually characterized relationship with each other, a view that has been ignored because the reader is misled into thinking about race as at the center of the novel. However, McDowell claims that sex rises to the forefront under a deeper examination of the text. She says that the descriptions Irene provides of Clare demonstrate her view of Clare as beautiful and desirable. This passion between the two intensifies over the course of their relationship until, at last, it becomes too much to handle, and, according to McDowell, Irene pushes Clare out of the window, killing her. This act, for Irene, is a way of killing that desire that Clare caused and represented. In terms of the novel as a whole and Larsen's purpose, we then arrive at McDowell's idea that Clare's death represents a denunciation of the ideas she represents, both to the reader and to Irene.
Although McDowell's essay carries some merit, it offers a rather incomplete view of the novel and its implications about race. Its primary problem is that it places far too much emphasis on the relationship between Irene and Clare, and gives relatively little importance to the other relationships present in the novel that contribute greatly to its overall significance. A deeper examination of the text reveals that Larsen seeks, through the novel, not to speak out so much against those who are black but can pass for white, but the existence of black-white relationships; the end of the novel features the triumph of a black-black relationship over all the black-white ones. McDowell only examines Irene and Clare's relationship in a sexual sense, but it is also vital to think of such a relationship in a racial sense, for their racial differences (Irene chooses to pass only when it is beneficial while Clare passes all the time, thereby making this a relatively black-white relationship) lead to tremendous turmoil in the story. There is also the relationship between Clare and Brian, who cheats on his wife, Irene, which is also relatively black-white given Clare's decision to pass all the time. Additionally, Clare's relationship with her husband clearly fits this model, for he is a white racist who is unaware that she is actually a black passing as a white. The result of Clare bringing these inter-racial relationships is that Irene ends up with feelings of anxiety and jealousy, for she is jealous of Clare's beauty, both her black and white features, and at the same time she sees in Brian the security provided by a successful black husband. Further, near the end of the novel, Irene's confrontation with Bellew leads to a deepening of her anxiety, for he is a white racist who is unaware that she and Clare are black, but is beginning to realize the possibility. This internal tension felt by Irene leads her to kill Clare at the end of the story, demonstrating the failure of the black-white relationships, for the only one that remains at the end is that between Irene and Brian, which is shown throughout the story to be incredibly weak. The fact of the matter is that all three are driven to the point of being potential killers but none is so troubled as Irene.
Irene's relationship with Clare is one involving a tremendous amount of jealousy. This jealousy is caused by the fact that she sees tremendous beauty in Clare, even those qualities that may be characterized as "black," amidst all the others that permit her to pass for white. It is relevant here to examine the concept of jealousy in the novel through a Freudian lens: Freud believed that jealousy is something normal that, if not visible in a person, still has elements in his/her unconscious, but realizes that there are different types of jealousy. The first type, called competitive or normal jealousy, is caused by the pain of the possibility of losing someone you love, but has its roots in the unconscious of the Oedipal complex. The second type, projected jealousy, involves the projection of one's own feelings of faithlessness onto one's partner, thereby "justifying" one's own unfaithful desires, whether conscious or unconscious. Finally, the delusional type of jealousy involves a repressed homosexuality that is caused by intense homosexual impulse for a relation that is over, which causes a reaction formation or love for that person into hatred towards him/her. Freud concludes by saying that a truly delusional person would experience all of these three types of jealousy, far beyond what would be considered normal.
Returning to Irene's relationship with Clare, it can be seen that Irene suffers from

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