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20100216-1230 Larsen day 1 (Group 4)

Page history last edited by Heba 10 years, 9 months ago

"Passing" by Nella Larsen 1929


Larsen's novel chronicles the attempts of a woman of mixed race, Clare, to pass herself off in white society as fully Caucasian. The novel's title is a reference to the practice of racially mixed people assuming the position of fully white people in order to not be discriminated against during a time when African Americans had fewer liberties. Irene, another main character of mixed race, is proud that she is married to a black man and has a dark child but allows herself to be passed off as a fully white woman when she is taken by taxi to an upscale hotel. Despite occasionally passing herself for convenience, Irene warns Clare about the dangers of passing. Clare later has Irene visit her home in order to reveal her husband's bigotry, perhaps in an attempt to solicit sympathy from Irene.  Also joining them was another childhood friend, Gertrude.  Gertrude is there to show how easy it is to pass in front of company.  In the company of the ladies, she easily assumes the identity of a woman who is quick to hide her race.  When she was with Irene alone, she passionately vents about how horrible the racial abuse coming from Mr. Martin was. Clare's Husband, Mr. Martin, refers to Clare as "nig," a nickname derived from her perpetually darkening skin tone. He mentions that her skin color is acceptable because she is not actually black, unaware of her racial background. "Nig" was originally the novel's title, however Nella Larsen changed it to "Passing." Clare's character can be related to the title character from the novella "Daisy Miller." Both characters are flirtatious, reckless, and assume a false identity.


Word Count: 277




"The truth was, she was curious. There were things that she wanted to ask Clare Kendry. She wished to find out about this hazardous business of passing... As if aware of her desire and her hesitation, Clare remarked thoughtfully: 'You know 'Rene, I've often wondered why more coloured girls, like you... never 'passed over'" (17-18).

  • This interaction between Clare and Irene allows the reader to better understand why Clare is so eager to show Irene what her life is like in "passing." Clare understands Irene's curiousity and hopes to offer her a deeper understanding of the act of "passing." 


"Irene, whose head had gone up with a quick little jerk, now said in a voice of whose even tones she was proud: 'One of my boys is dark.'  Gertrude jumped as if she had been shot at.  Her eyes goggled.  Her mouth flew open.  She tried to speak, but could not immediately get the words out.  Finally she managed to stammer: 'Oh!  And your husband, is he--is he--er--dark, too?"'(26). 

  • Irene is proud of her heritage, proud of her race, and proud of her son.  This entire time the other woman were basically talking about how horrible it would be to be fully African American.  Irene represents the other end of the spectrum.  She represents the "talented tenth," the educated, proud sector of the African American community.  Here, Gertrude and Irene portray the other end of the spectrum, and here we can see the clash of these two ideals.


"There was a brief silence, during which she feared that her self-control was about to prove too frail a bridge to support her mounting anger and indignation.  She had a leaping desire to shout at the man beside her: 'And you're sitting here surrounded by three black devils, drinking tea'"(30). 

  • Here we get a peek of what is going on in Irene's head after she meets Clare's husband.  You see just how hard and dangerous "passing" is.  As she is thrust into this alter-reality, she has to fight her pride and passion in order not to endanger herself and her friends.  Here, we see that the key to passing is being able to swallow your pride and take the abuse to your race with a grain of salt. 



Key Terms


Great Migration: A movement of blacks to try and get out of the South. It was fueled by economic oppurtunities and education. This Great Migration lead to the development of Harlem, and the Harlem Renaissance.


Harlem Renaissance: Also called the New Negro Movement. It consisted of the following elements that were created by and about African Americans: literature, art, philosophy, music, dance, theater and visual arts. The Harlem Renaissance was fueled by the "talented tenth" that W.E.B. Du Bois talked about. This movement can also be related to modernism because in a way African Americans were breaking away from the norm and creating something new.


Talented Tenth: Coined by W.E.B. Du Bous.  Was the term for the top ten percent of the African American population who can rise up and become leaders of their race.  This "talented tenth" need and deserve to have a fomal education in order to reach their full potential.


Passing: The ability of a person to be seen and regarded as a different race. In the case of Nella Larsen's novel, a person of mixed racial heritage who takes the role of a white person.


Comments (2)

Heba said

at 9:05 pm on Feb 16, 2010

Hey guys lets try to keep in mind the comments that were made on our last notes and try to apply them to these notes.

Brian Croxall said

at 4:49 pm on Feb 19, 2010

This set of notes surprised me a bit since I had expected to see you mention the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance in the summary--if only briefly. Still, you covered these adequately in the definitions. Moreover, one function of this assignment is to give me a chance to see what seems to have made the most impression on the class for a particular day and to re-calibrate for the future if need be.

The real problem with your summary comes from it reading very close to the line of plot summary. I'll admit that class summary and plot summary can be very close, but for an example of the difference consider this: you note that Irene takes a cab to the hotel, but you do not note that her passing here is ironic vis a vis what she thinks to herself about Clare. Getting in those details about the three main things that we talked about (who's passing and the irony thereof; why Clare subjects Irene to the tea party; and the comparisons between Daisy and Clare) is what you should be thinking about for summaries.

The first thing that I want to say about the passages is to ask you to please format them so that it's easy to quickly see where your explanations start. I re-formatted the first passage as an example for what you can do. In the second passage, I was glad that you pointed out that Irene is a representative of the talented tenth; it would have been useful to point to the Harlem Renaissance as well as a moment where blacks began to take more pride in blackness. The third passage's explanation was interesting and a new approach, which I appreciated.

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