Passing - Nella Larsen


The title of this book refers to African Americans in this story being able to “pass” as white in 1920s society.

This book tells the story from the viewpoint of Irene Redfield, who is married to a Doctor, has 2 sons, and enjoys a life of privilege in Harlem. On a trip to Chicago, she reconnects with a childhood friend - Clare Kendry. Clare, she learns, is “passing” - unbeknownst even to Clare’s White Banker husband and daughter.

Irene is hesitant to form a closer bond with Clare. However, Clare is adamant about rekindling their friendship and inserts herself into Irene and their family's lives. The story takes a turn when Irene suspects her husband of having an affair with Clare.

This is a relatively short story that I read (and listened) to. It was beautifully written in that turn-of-the-century style of English prose. The plot is straightforward and uncomplicated, yet the underlying subject matter of race and prejudice is not.

It is unclear whether Clare and Irene’s husband were indeed having an affair or whether Irene was responsible for how the story ended. It is clear, however, that the author intended this to be an exercise in imagination for the reader.

But at several points in the book, it is evident that there is some sort of discontent between Clare and her husband, who is bound by some restlessness.

Following a book club discussion, I did some more research in the subtexts on Sexual Identity written in this book and read the following two articles - Larsen's 1929 novel Passing,existing structures of these identities.

The following sections cover some quotes from the three themes that stood out to me in this book.

  • The Affair
  • Race
  • Clare

The Affair

Over and over in her mind his last words: “Don’t expect me to give up everything,” repeated themselves. What had they meant? What could they mean? Clare Kendry?

Brian growled: “I can’t understand how anybody as intelligent as you like to think you are can show evidences of such stupidity.” He looked at her in a puzzled harassed way.


She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. Clare, herself, or the race. Or, it might be, all three. Nothing, she imagined, was ever more completely sardonic.

“Various motives,” Irene explained. “A few purely and frankly to enjoy themselves. Others to get material to turn into shekels. More, to gaze on these great and near great while they gaze on the Negroes.”

All sorts of people go, anybody who can pay a dollar, even ladies of easy virtue looking for trade.


The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.

Clare made a small mischievous grimace and proceeded. “Besides, to their notion, hard labour was good for me. I had Negro blood and they belonged to the generation that had written and read long articles headed: ‘Will the Blacks Work?’ Too, they weren’t quite sure that the good God hadn’t intended the sons and daughters of Ham to sweat because he had poked fun at old man Noah once when he had taken a drop too much. I remember the aunts telling me that that old drunkard had cursed Ham and his sons for all time.”

That, Irene pointed out, was exactly like Clare Kendry. Taking a chance, and not at all considering anyone else’s feelings. Gertrude said: “Maybe she thought we’d think it a good joke. And I guess you did. The way you laughed. My land! I was scared to death he might catch on.”