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20090223 Larsen Day 2

Page history last edited by pdavis5@... 11 years, 8 months ago



     Nella Larson, known as the second best novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, published only two books, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). The Harlem Renaissance was an effect of the Great Migration, large numbers of African Americans moving from the south to the North, West, and Midwest. During this time, black culture flowered, and there was an increase in African American output. While the change was noticeable, people knew this renaissance was not going to last. Larson grew up in a nearly white household, as her mother remarried to a white man. In 1926, Larson decides to become a writer, and three years later, write Passing. Due to a writing scandal, Larson cuts ties with the literary movement in 1930.

     In Passing, Larson describes the ending with ambiguity. It is unclear whether, Irene murdered Clare, Clare committed suicide, or if it was an accident. Clare's sudden disappearance can be paralleled with Irene throwing her cigarette in the snow. One moment she is there, the next moment, she is gone. Her personality causes her to fleet in painful situations, such as the death of her father, and now, the confrontation of Irene.

     One of the main reasons Irene would have killed Clare is given by Larson’s description of Irene’s need for stability. Clare “brings a menace of impermanence,” which threatens, Irene’s safety and comfort of the middle class (72). Irene’s need for stability can be seen in her actions in her charity event, when she spends all of her time moving around, mingling with people. In contrast to Clare, Irene had to work for her comfortable middle class life, and we can see the Irene’s bitterness from this unfair advantage throughout the story.

     Larson’s Passing reflects some aspects in her personal life, such as living in a nearly white family.


Word Count: 298




"For a very long time she had stood like that, silent and staring. Then, quite suddenly, she gave way to a torrent of weeping, swaying her thin body, tearing at her bright hair, and stamping her small feet. The outburst had ceased as suddenly as it had begun. She glanced quickly around the bare room, taking everyone in, even the two policemen, in a sharp look of flashing scorn. And, in the nest instant, she had turned and vanished through the door." (6)

- This describes Clare's character. She is emotional and becomes fleeting in painful situations. This type of behavior can be seen again when Clare falls through the window. 


"Or, lacking the boys, she would descend to the kitchen and, with--to Irene--an exasperating childlike lack of perception, spend her visit in talk and merriment with Zulena and Sadie." (57)

- Clare's inabilty to behave properly is displayed here. She does not understand some of the social norms of society, moreover, her place in society, passing as a white lady. Interacting with the servants is an inappropriate behavior.


"'But it's true, 'Rene. Can't you realize that I'm not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I'd do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, 'Rene, I'm not safe.' Her voice as well as the look on her face had a beseeching earnestness that made Irene vaguely uncomfortable."

- Irene and Clare are contrasted here. Clare's statement explains how she gets what she wants, for example, living the life of a wealthy white lady. Also Irene keeps this in mind when realizing her husband and Clare might be having an affair. This character of Clare, her instability, is what discomforts Irene.


Homosexual Subtext between Irene and Clare?


Irene and Clare are at a great risk to see one another. For Irene, her husband doesn't approve, and for Clare, her secret biology could be brought to light. Larsen adds a sensual aspect to the language between the two women, and their relationship is portrayed with an almost romantic, forbidden quality.


Clare: "I'm sure they were all beginning to think that I'd been carrying on an illicit love-affair and that the man had thrown me over" (46)


"Looking at the woman before her, Irene Redfield had a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling. Reaching out, she grasped Clare's two hands in her own and cried with something like awe in her voice: 'Dear God! But aren't you lovely, Clare!'" (46)


"For Clare had come softly into the room without knocking, and before Irene could greet her, had dropped a kiss on her dark curls" (45)


Clare: "You mean you don't want me, 'Rene?" (46)


Clare: "But if you could know how glad, how excitingly happy, I was to meet you and how I ached to see more of you" (34)


"Her lips, painted a brilliant geranium red, were sweet and sensitive and a little obstinate. A tempting mouth. The face across the forehead and cheeks was a trifle too wide, but the ivory skin had a peculiar soft lustre. And the eyes were magnificent! Dark, sometimes absolutely black, always luminous, and set in long, black lashes. Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about them." (21)


Toward the end of the novel, Irene claims, "strange, that she couldn't now be sure if she had ever truly known love" (76), but earlier she referred to love as "that exquisite torturing emotion" (52). Would someone who speculates that she may have never felt love see it in such a passionate light? Could it be that Irene is very much in love with Clare, but doesn't see it as "real" because Clare is a woman?

It is important to note the strong affect that Clare's presence has on Irene. Irene's most passionate emotions are directed toward this woman (anger, awe, etc). Her marriage with Brian is dull and monotonous, almost like a roommate or business partner. It is clear that passionate love escapes the couple, so it is unlikely that Irene would even suggest that she would have "exquisite torturing" emotions toward this man at all, but could we describe her feelings toward Clare as exquisite or torturing? yes...


Key Terms


Great Migration: 1916 - 1930; 500,000 African Americans move from the South to the North, West, and Mid-west with a desire to find better economic opportunities and escape Jim Crowe laws.


Harlem Renaissance: Also known as the New Negro Movement; Resulted from the great number of people who moved to Harlem, supported each other, and preserved their customs. These black artists rejected the past in celebration of their own identities and cultural ties back to Africa.


Horatio Alger: Novelist of the 19th century; Popularized the American rags-to-riches myth that if you work hard enough you can raise your social position; commonly associated with the American Dream.


Modernism: During this time, black novelists and artists reject the past such as European culture. Instead they embrace their traditional African ties.

Comments (4)

Allix said

at 12:05 am on Feb 25, 2009

guys? these are due by the start of class tomorrow. i added the quotes, wrote some key terms, and started the summary. can y'all help me out here? it's getting late...

Apoorwa Thati said

at 10:33 am on Feb 25, 2009

hey guys i just did a summary, cut the quotes to three, and explained them. i figured it had to be done, feel free to change them if there is time. I need you guys' input

pdavis5@... said

at 11:26 am on Feb 25, 2009

I added a speculation on the homosexual content in the novel... i know there's not much time, but if you guys don't like any of it, feel free to edit! :)

Brian Croxall said

at 11:18 pm on Apr 16, 2009

Your notes for the second day of Passing are good. I would have liked to see the summary emphasize Irene’s desire for class status even more strongly. And the paragraph describing Clare’s death is a bit confusing; you move from a sentence about the cigarette (which could be linked to Irene killing Clare) to one about Clare fleeing painful situations (which could be linked to Clare’s suicide).

You’ve picked three good passages, but your explanations of them could be a little bit more clear. For example, the first quotation only makes sense in terms of Clare’s suicide and not simply of her falling through the window. Since you already discussed this in the summary, however, I think I would have gone with a different quotation.

The definitions are good, and Trish added some good material about the possible homoerotic subtext of the novel, much of what I ended up discussing with the class on Wednesday. So good reading there, although those notes perhaps don’t belong on this day of class.

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