Sunday, April 01, 2012

1920s- Passing (1929)

It's taken me a while to get around to blogging about Passing by Nella Larsen, even though I started writing up notes for a blog post a while ago, so it's now April even though this was my book for March for the Century of Books. I think there are a couple of reasons for that, one is that I really didn't have particularly strong feelings about it, and the other is that I just left it for a while and when I think about a blog post for too long I tend to lose enthusiasm for actually writing it. But it's definitely an interesting book, and there is a lot I could talk about, so it's worth the blog post (and worth a read).

I first heard about Passing through a review over at Evening All Afternoon, and it just sounded fascinating. Passing follows the perspective of Irene, who reconnects with a friend from childhood, Claire, through a chance meeting in Chicago. Both Irene and Claire are of mixed race, which in 1920s America means they are both classed as black and therefore subject to segregation. But while Irene lives the life of a middle class black woman in Harlem, Claire is 'passing' as a white woman, married to a white (and fairly racist) man and dividing her time between New York and Europe. Claire's path is is a dangerous one, which fits with Claire's somewhat reckless personality. Irene, on the other hand, values safety and stability very strongly, and their friendship is somewhat strained from the beginning by the clash of their values and personalities.

As someone who doesn't know much about this area of history, it was interesting to read about the black middle class milieu that Irene lives in- I would love to read more about 1920s Harlem in future. The 'one drop' rule- that meant that anyone with "one drop" of non-white blood was not considered white, and was therefore segregated- just seems to ludicrous. I mean, if it is so difficult to distinguish between different races how do you even justify such a law? But it's fascinating to see how that shapes peoples identities as well as defining social status. 

The character of Irene was the most interesting for me, it's hard to judge (particularly towards the end of the book) how reliable she is as a narrator. Certainly there seem to be some discrepancies in her world view- she is critical of Claire for 'passing' yet is happy to do so herself in situations where it suits her, she is proud of being black and values security but can't understand how much her husband Brian hates living in a country of lynchings and segregation. But Irene is comfortable in her world, and feels safe there, she dislike anything that represents instability.

Irene's love of stability is one of the things that creates a rift between her and Claire. Claire represents risk and instability to Irene- and always has. The many differences between them set the stage for the dynamic of their relationship, which seems to be in tension between sympathy and lack of understanding. A lot of the commentary about this book has talked about a homo-erotic subtext in the relationship of the two women. I didn't really read that (though Larsen may have intended it to be there)- it felt like such a good representation of an uneasy friendship- what I noticed when I was thinking about their relationship is that Claire very much stands in for the 'other' for Irene. At one point Irene talks about Claire's "mysterious eyes", and since those eyes at other points indicate Claire's race and gender it is almost as though those elements that the two women share are also the things that make them so different. They both have such different relationships to race, they are both such different women.

Claire is a mystery to Irene- she can't fathom her motivations or true thoughts and feels, and this makes her uneasy. It also means her motivations and feelings are not really revealed to the reader, and Irene's increasingly sinister interpretations of Claire's actions may or may not be trustworthy. Claire remains distant and mysterious to both Irene and the reader (or me, at least)- I felt like she was almost an archetypal 'mystery woman with damaged past', even as the character of Irene had so much depth. Though it's unusual to see that archetype presented from a female perspective I think. 

Overall, there's a lot to think about in this book! I haven't even discussed what happens in the ending, which could be a discussion in itself. And it's a fascinating insight into a different world. Even if I didn't love it, I certainly didn't hate it, and I'm glad I read it.

Now... Any recommendations for the 1930s?

ETA: I came across this link in my library course- it's a digital archive of life in Harlem from 1915-1930. It focuses on the lower class and crime records, but still if you're interested in Harlem (or in representing archives) it might be worth a look.


  1. Digital Harlem is a project by Boots' supervisor! Boots did a bunch of work on it.

    1. How exciting! It looks like a really interesting project.