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Sexual Issues in “Passing” by Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen’s literary work Passing is the narration about two African women Irene and Clare who choose different paths in life. The title of the novel constitutes the main metaphor that defines the main essence of the novel. At first sight, the literary work reveals a racial nonconformity pertaining to Clare’s reluctance to disclose her veritable African roots, instead of leaving in the white world of delusions. However, a closer consideration of the paper discharges the writer’s attempt to reveal radical efforts to recognize a female sexual experience. In addition, the novel undertakes some homoerotic spirits where Clare’s marriage seems to be fictional, as she refuses to have children on fearing that they may betray her origin. In contrast, Irene who accepts her nationality produces children. Both women are in the search of moral and spiritual balance, which is hard to achieve due to many reasons.

The unconventional look at the narration introduces the heroines who supplement each other so that it is no wonder that Larson inserts the sexual notes in their relations. On primary reading of the novel, one could witness Clare’s burning desire to gain recognition among the white people. By contradicting her veritable origin, she sacrifices the privileges of normal life thus rejecting the joy of maternity and ideal marriage. Instead, Clare chooses security and social merits that are granted to white people only. In her turn, Irene explicitly demonstrates her African roots. Still, her world and marriage are not ideal where Irene and Brian do not feel affection for each other thus expressing the feeling of responsibility only (Little 174). In other words, Irene and Brian’s marriage is nothing but a social tradition but not a veritable expression of feelings. In that regard, the novel generates the basis for the creation of alternative identities where Clare and Irene are antagonists.

It is worth mentioning that race in Passing is complicated by the female struggle for the man’s affection thus providing even more confusion for the readers. Irene’s reaction to Clare’s appearance in her house is rather unexpected. She is confused by Clare’s outright behavior and beauty: “Looking at the woman before her, Irene Redfield had a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling” (Larsen 65 part 2). This reaction is also explained by Irene’s reluctance to destroy her ‘ideal’ and safe world. Arising from this, Irene’s murder could be also disguised under this false motive as if depicting Irene as the protector of the family hearth being. But in fact, it was a desperate murder based on jealousy. Irene Redfield deprives Clare of life because she could forgive Clare’s betrayal of the Black inheritance:

“Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things for all they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and stupid by most ridiculous means, fingers-nails of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot” (Larsen 16 Part 1).

On exploring the text of the novel in more detail, one has a possibility to perceive the forbidden dimension of same-sex passion and desire. The emergence of such relations is the natural outcome of the social order that existed in that time. Clare and Irene are united by the same desire: to lead a full-fledged life. Through these woman relations, Larson expresses her vision of race, sex, and class relations thus providing space for the establishment of a new type of socially liminal national groups. Going back to the novel content, it is possible to see how Irene harbors misconceptions concerning her reaction to her friend’s betrayal. In fact, the topic of racial passing implicitly uncovers Iren’s sexual inclination for Clare. It is not in vain that Larson depicts Clare’s restricted life in the white world thus putting an emphasis on her sexual disappointment. Clare’s needs, thus, are not restricted by material needs and therefore she searches desperately for spiritual and moral satisfaction. A closer consideration of the details presented in the book proves that it is impossible to deny homoerotic undertones of the women’s relations (Blackmore n.pag). In the beginning, Irene seems to be obsessed with Clare’s visit: “Irene studied the lovely creature standing beside her for some clue to her identity” (Larsen 17 Part). Haunting Clare’s beauty and attacking it with a wave of passionate epithets, Irene tries to flirt with Clare revealing the ambiguity of gestures that resemble bisexual ones (Blackmore n. pag). In her turn, Clare’s attraction to Irene can be also be perceived in the numerous passages where she seduces and enraptures Irene.

The above shows that luminal groups serve as a solid underpinning for the emergence of subliminal homoerotic tones. The concealed image of the ‘passer’ also reveals through sexual desire that is explained by a social and moral dissatisfaction of both heroines. Therefore, here one can pursue that a passer is the one who experiences a sexual transfer as well. The explicit presentation of racial problems serves to disguise the homosexual inclinations of Irene and Clare. Hence, Clare’s longing to live in a privileged society deprives her passionate inner world so that this is the price paid by her to “pass” (Little 174). However, Irene’s world is not ideal as well. The possibility of homosexual relationships between Clare and Irene renders another dimension of passing and the heroines’ inclinations to pass. In that regard, both protagonists are on the edge of uncertainty so that their sexual desires are approved in light of this problem.

Irene is the embodiment of uncertainty, who is deprived of veritable feminine qualities. This vagueness and duality show Irene’s impossibility to adapt to her appearance that does not coincide with her inner world and create a “subtle dialogue between colors” (Michie 410). Due to Irene’s concealed sexuality, Irene’s glance is constantly searching for any hints of female determination and finds it in Clare. Hence, she begins to evaluate every Clare’s movements and smiles: “It was an odd sort of smile. Irene couldn’t quite define it, but she was sure that she would be coming from another woman, as being just a shade of too provocative for a waiter” (Larsen 15) By this behavior, Irene tries to find her own femininity that was lost when she accepts normal and secure family life. She is therefore searching for any manifestation of a woman’s beauty and sexuality.

Another heroine of the novel Clare is opposed to Irene’s personality; she is free from social laws and prejudices thus showing her ability to ignore people’s opinions and to attract the most of attention. However, Clare is unable to make up with her Black inheritance being much obsessed with the possibility of her secret discovery. Clare’s dangerous ‘passing’ provokes Irene’s indignation whose ‘passing’ is under the threat: “Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her eyes on the roof of the Drayton set a Negro?” (Larsen 16 part 1). On the whole, the above condemnation in terms of racial affiliation, this racial ‘passing’ implicitly uncovers the concealed lesbian affection arising between Irene and Clare (Michie 411). Therefore, Irene-Clare’s opposition could also be identified with the ‘danger-safety’ opposition. However, the novel shows that sometimes safety is even more risky price for a normal life. Larsen, thus, resorts to the technique of using these notions are used as a protective means that hides very subplots.

The importance of revealing this topic lies in Larsen’s intention to reveal her feminist spirits where racial biases blur gender distinctions. The problem of sexual relations is therefore predetermined by the negligence of the Black inheritance, as the privilege of the middle-class position. For Irene, this social status is predetermined by the lack of Puritanical morality, which is not a relevant human quality for her sexuality but a representation of her social class (Youman 339). Hence, in the novel, Irene strives to eliminate the theme of sexuality even if talking about this with her husband; she also forbids her son to attend school because of his classmates talking about sex. Irene impresses the readers by her evident conclusions: I’m terribly afraid he’s picked up some queer ideas about things – some things- from the older boys, you know” (Larsen 59 part 2). Thus, Irene’s sexuality reflects her middle-class status that contradicts her veritable passionate desires revealing incessant curiosity. Irene realizes that the loss of this feeling is presupposed by her choice in life so that rejecting her feelings; she also rejects her individuality and spiritual freedoms. She admits that Clare is “capable of heights and depths of feeling that she, Irene Redfield, had never known” (Larsen 66 part 2). Irene cannot afford to accept risks being a woman as she was.

By restraining her feelings for the sake of security and social acceptance, Irene condemns Clare’s passionate desire to lead a full-fledged life. Irene is shocked by her behavior and whose choice of dissipated life does not coincide with Irene’s fictional social prejudices. Her choice to push Clare out of the window was a kind of passing from humanity, which means security, to inhumanity – murder. “Irene’s adherence to a sterile middle-class lifestyle leads inevitably to the need to destroy the passionate, life living Clare” (Youman 340). According to Larsen, Irene’s values are subjected to the traditional canons established in the white world. Her forced reluctance to restore to her Black origin propels her to compensate this spiritual wasteland by Clare’s murder. In the beginning of the novel, Irene confesses “I am so lonely… cannot help longing to be with you again as I never have longed for anything before; and I once wanted many things in my life” (Larsen 11 Part 1).

Larsen presents the murder as the result of an inevitable interaction of racial and sexual passing. In this context, homoerotic notes and racial biases are closely interwoven thus giving rise to Irene’s jealousy. She is not able to stand Clare’s betrayal so that her murderous impulse is predetermined by this fatal combination of race and bisexual passion. Irene’s puritan upbringing makes her think that she accomplishes the mission of exorcism thus purifying Clare’s soul from hatred to her African roots. The interdependency of the categories of race and sex is evident and hard to decide, which one prevails. The great contradiction of balance and possession constitutes the main idea of the plot where race is only a protective cover that “makes Irene to scheming” and standardizing her life according to the traditionally established norms (Michie 412).

For Larsen the murder is a logical end that establishes the expected balance in Irene’s life. The heroine’s action also determines her reluctance to stick to the conventional order or life established in a prejudiced society. For Irene, murder was also a spiritual and cultural relief in the fight for the preservation of cultural identity. She considers it absurd to separate herself by revealing a false national origin. Nonetheless, both women in the novel ignore their veritable roots but in different ways. Hence, the end shows that conformity and safety chosen by Irene is even more dangerous than Clare’s dissipated way of life since it is impossible to restrain sexual needs serving as a means of moral satisfaction.

In the novel, the bisexual relation is also the demonstration of heroines’ desire to avoid social condemnation thus focusing their attention to other than those issues. By the introduction of this theme, Larsen also wants to show the difficulties of life that should be endured by ethnic and homosexual minorities. Irene and Clare are the victims of social prejudices for they are already defective. Therefore, the implicit presentation of a female sexual passion serves to compensate the offence of the white world. Even Irene’s conformity in sexual and social terms fails in the face of spiritual and cultural needs. As for Clare, her social conformity frustrates her moral norms thus distorting her outlook on human relations. Therefore, the novel narrates not about racial passing but also about bisexual passing of the main characters.

Works Cited

Blackmore, David. ‘Unreasonable Restless feeling: The Homosexual Subtexts of Nella Larsen’s Passing’ (1996), Web.

Larsen, Nella, and Davis, Thadious. Passing US: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Little, Jonathan. ‘Nella Larsen’s Passing: Irony and the critics’. African American Review. 26.1 (1992):173-183.

Michie, Helena. And Now She Was Different: Sexuality and Differentiation Among Black Women In Quicksand, Passing and Sula. pp. 409-416.

Youman, Mary Mabel. Nella Larsen’s Passing: A Study in Irony. pp. 337-342.

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StudyKraken. (2021, December 9). Sexual Issues in “Passing” by Nella Larsen. Retrieved from https://studykraken.com/sexual-issues-in-passing-by-nella-larsen/

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"Sexual Issues in “Passing” by Nella Larsen." StudyKraken, 9 Dec. 2021, studykraken.com/sexual-issues-in-passing-by-nella-larsen/.

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