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  • Racial EtiquetteNella Larsen’s Passing and the Rhinelander Case
  • Miriam Thaggert (bio)


In Passing Nella Larsen seems to suggest that identity is a hazy fiction one tells that outward appearances and surface events only partly confirm. Rather than directly stating their thoughts, characters communicate through an exchange of looks—particularly her two light-skinned female characters, Irene and Clare. These subtle forms of expression heighten the sense of uncertainty throughout the novel. The reader never learns explicitly the reason for Clare's fall out of a window, the reality of a homosexual longing between Clare and Irene, or the true nature of the relationship between Clare and Irene's husband. This indeterminacy extends to the racial identity of Larsen's characters, an identity not always easily discernible because of the characters' mixed racial background and their inclination to "pass."1 Without adequate markings or clues, any reading, whether of identities or situations, is flawed or incorrect.

A brief, almost offhand, remark Irene makes refers to a legal trial in which these issues of knowledge, passing, and the gaze combined in a process to interrogate the race and veracity of a woman. The Rhinelander case was an annulment proceeding in which wealthy, white Leonard Kip Rhinelander sued his wife, Alice Beatrice Jones, for fraud. Leonard claimed he did not know that his light-skinned wife was "colored," the daughter of [End Page 1] a white woman and a dark-skinned cab driver.2 Larsen's reference to the Rhinelanders occurs only once, near the end of the novel, after Irene suspects that her husband, Brian, is having an affair with Clare. Irene wonders what would happen if Clare's white husband discovered not the affair but that Clare has "colored" blood: "What if Bellew should divorce Clare? Could he? There was the Rhinelander case" (228).3 Married on 14 October 1924 in New Rochelle, New York, the Rhinelanders were featured in newspaper articles that described them as happy newlyweds and quoted Leonard's lack of concern about his wife's racial background: "[W]e are indeed very happy. What difference does it make about her race? She's my wife, Mrs. Rhinelander" ("Honorable Marriage" 11).It was not long, of course, before Leonard realized the "difference" race—and class—made to his prominent family. In late November 1924, at the demand of his father, Leonard filed an annulment suit, claiming Alice had lied about her race and deceived him into marrying her. Although this contradicted his earlier statement to reporters, Leonard filed the suit with the help of his father's lawyers, and the trial began on 9 November 1925. What escalated the trial to the height of drama was the role played by the nonwhite body. Alice's body literally became evidence in the case when she was forced to disrobe in front of the judge, lawyers, and the all-white, all-male jury to prove that she had never lied to her husband about her race, that in fact any man who had been intimate with her could "see" her color.

Although Irene's casual remark has been received as simply a historical reference, her citation is ironic, for not only are there uncanny similarities between the major figures of the novel and the trial but the novel also critiques the methods and conventions that assume a central import in the Rhinelander case.4 Etiquette and performance, the forms of behavior on which the prosecution and the defense relied in the trial to authenticate race, are subversively used by Irene and Clare in Passing. Examining the trial in relation to Passing helps us to interrogate the cultural practices that enable and complicate the identity politics of race; both narratives illuminate the use of social and racial codes to evaluate, through the look, the female body. Abstract and elusive in the salons of Passing, the social and racial conventions are reified in practice in the courtroom, demonstrating the violence of such codes and reading processes in the creation of symbolic meaning.

The concepts of readability and representation are central to both Larsen's novel and the Rhinelander case. If, as Michel Foucault states, the [End Page 2] body...


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