Haneen Reads

Just some book reviews

Passing by Nella Larsen



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Date Read Sep 5, 2020


ISBN 9780241573747

Pages 176

Passing by Nella Larsen is a powerful and thought-provoking novel that explores themes of racial identity, class, and the complexities of human relationships in early 20th-century America. Published in 1929, it remains a significant work in literature. So significant, I’ve now read it twice.

The story revolves around the lives of two biracial women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, who have chosen different paths in dealing with their “light” skin tones. Irene lives in Harlem with her husband and children, embracing her identity as a black woman. Clare, on the other hand, has “passed” as white and is married to a very racist white man who knows nothing of her racial background. The novel examines their chance encounter and the ensuing reconnection of their lives.

One of the central themes of the novel is the exploration of racial identity. Larsen delves into the psychological and emotional toll that passing takes on an individual. Clare’s decision to pass is driven by a desire for social and economic advantages, while Irene grapples with the notion of authenticity and the consequences of choosing to live as a black woman in a racially divided society. Larsen skillfully portrays the internal conflicts experienced by both characters, highlighting the complexities of racial identity and the sacrifices made in the pursuit of social acceptance.

Larsen also delves into the concept of class and its intersection with race. Passing allows Clare to access privileges and opportunities denied to Black Americans at the time, highlighting the vast differences in treatment and opportunities between races. Through the characters of Clare and Irene, Larsen provides a nuanced exploration of how social class can influence one’s sense of self, relationships, and aspirations.

The novel also explores the intricacies of human relationships, particularly friendships between women. The complicated bond between Clare and Irene serves as a lens through which Larsen examines themes of obsession, jealousy, betrayal, and longing. The presence of sexual tension between the two characters adds an additional layer of complexity to their interactions. Larsen captures the nuances of their relationship with sensitivity, portraying the conflicting emotions and the power dynamics at play.

Larsen’s genius writing style is characterized by its elegance, clarity, and concise storytelling. Her prose is evocative, immersing the reader in the world of 1920s Harlem and the struggles faced by Black Americans during that era. The dialogue is particularly strong, capturing the nuances of speech and providing insight into the characters’ inner thoughts and motivations.

“Passing” raises important questions about identity, race, and the individual’s place in society. Larsen skillfully explores these complex issues through her well-developed characters and their experiences. The novel challenges readers to examine their own beliefs and biases, forcing them to confront uncomfortable truths about the social and racial dynamics that continue to shape American society.

Overall, Passing is a profound and captivating novel that delves into the complexities of racial identity, class, and human relationships, making this book a timeless piece of literature that continues to resonate with readers today. It is a powerful examination of the human condition and a significant contribution to American literature.

It simply remains an all-time favorite.