- In the Place of Clare Kendry:A Gothic Reading of Race and Sexuality in Nella Larsen's Passing
Feeling her colour heighten under the continued inspection, she slid her eyes down. What, she wondered, could be the reason for such persistent attention? Had she, in her haste in the taxi, put her hat on backwards? Guardedly she felt at it. No. Perhaps there was a streak of powder somewhere on her face. She made a quick pass over it with her handkerchief. Something wrong with her dress? She shot a glance over it. Perfectly all right. What was it?—Nella Larsen, Passing
In a book where the protagonist prides herself in knowing who she is, the final question in the epigraph above is indicative of Irene Redfield's willful self-ignorance. It is also a reasonable question readers have had about the protagonist and her relationship with the notorious Clare Kendry. What was it between the two women that in the end warrants Clare's demise? The answer to this question lies somewhere within Irene's need for ontological certainty—sureness in the knowledge of her own being—that begets security in every aspect of her life. Irene's security is based on, among other things, stasis. When we meet her, Irene has already meticulously defined and secured her concepts of race and sex and relegated them to their respective compartments in her psyche, never to be revisited. For revisiting either of these ideas would surely breach the serene outlook she entertains about her life. It is her resolve to maintain security that drives the action of the novel and will illuminate what it "was" in Clare that incites such anxiety.
On the roof of the Drayton, unsure of why she elicits a stranger's scrutiny, Irene responds to the stubborn stare by inspecting herself, mentally running through a list of possible reasons for this unsettling attention (Larsen 149). Her mind whirls as she attempts to pinpoint what it is about her appearance that might be worthy of this penetrating gaze. It is not until after she has exhausted the list of possible material/physical anomalies that she finally resolves to ignore the woman and "let her look!" (149). Ironically, however, foreshadowed by her heightening "colour," at length Irene suspects "it" may be something less visual, less tangible than her hat, makeup, or dress: "Gradually there rose in Irene a small inner disturbance, odious and hatefully familiar. She laughed softly, but her eyes flashed. Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?" (150). This early scene is indicative of Irene's incongruous character. She prides herself in her bourgeois participation toward racial uplift, and yet race does not cross her mind until there is no other alternative. It is [End Page 143-] a remarkable juxtaposition between the title of the novel Passing, which implies race as no less than the major theme, and the absentminded protagonist who pinpoints the issue only after she has ruled out all else. It is no wonder criticism of Passing has struggled with its importance. Because Irene's interest in race proves sparse and erratic, the reader may resist its significance to the novel, and certainly to Irene, altogether.
Ambiguity surrounding the issue of race is not the only thing vague in Larsen's novel. The book has a penchant for opacity: the unreliable narrator,1 the conflation of protagonist with antagonist,2 the shocking and uncertain ending3; critics have been flustered by this murkiness since its publication. For example, in his 1958 book The Negro Novel in America, Robert A. Bone dismisses the novel as Larsen's "less important" one, preferring Larsen's other work Quicksand (101). His dismissive attitude is illustrated through his irritation by certain structural features in Passing. For Bone, "a false and shoddy denouement prevents the novel from rising above mediocrity" (102). Hoyt Fuller has similar concerns; in his introduction to the 1971 publication of Passing, he asserts that Larsen's "deliberate scene setting" is reminiscent of a "mediocre home magazine story teller" (18). Because these critics position the work...