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Generally regarded as Nella Larsen's best work, Passing was first published in 1929 but has received a lot of renewed attention because of its close examination of racial and sexual ambiguities. It has achieved canonical status in many American universities.

106 pages, Kindle Edition

First published April 1, 1929

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About the author

Nella Larsen

24 books516 followers
Nellallitea 'Nella' Larsen (first called Nellie Walker) was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote two novels and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, what she wrote earned her recognition by her contemporaries and by present-day critics.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,297 reviews
Profile Image for Lisa of Troy.
433 reviews4,247 followers
July 8, 2023
Checking out the Netflix Book Club (Which is confusing because it is actually on YouTube)!

Irene "Rene" is out doing some shopping for a birthday present when she becomes faint and slips into a taxi. The driver takes her to The Drayton, a hotel with a rooftop restaurant, to cool down. The rooftop is a section of the hotel that is restricted to blacks, but Rene is able to "pass" for white. When she is enjoying a nice glass of sweet tea, she notices a woman staring at her. When the other woman laughs, Irene realizes that she has run into Claire, someone that she has not seen for nearly 12 years. Claire "passes" all the time though. Her husband doesn't even know that she is black. How will things turn out for Claire and Rene?

This book reminded me a bit of Steel Magnolias, The Great Gatsby, and The Vanishing Half. Although less than 200 pages, this book offers quite some food for thought. It seems to focus on a few key locations, and Claire reminds me of Daisy Buchannan, charming everyone. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and Passing was published in 1929 so it is unclear if there is a bit of inspiration from The Great Gatsby or just a coincidence from the general time period. Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half, wrote the introduction to this book. Whoa! Spoiler city in the introduction! She was the perfect author for the introduction though, and her passion for this piece of literature really came through.

The Netflix Book Club is off to a wonderful start, and I truly enjoyed the discussion of the ending of the book. Can't wait to participate next month!

2023 Reading Schedule
Jan Alice in Wonderland
Feb Notes from a Small Island
Mar Cloud Atlas
Apr On the Road
May The Color Purple
Jun Bleak House
Jul Bridget Jones’s Diary
Aug Anna Karenina
Sep The Secret History
Oct Brave New World
Nov A Confederacy of Dunces
Dec The Count of Monte Cristo

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Profile Image for Brina.
933 reviews4 followers
March 17, 2017
For the first time, I am participating in a women's century challenge in the group catching up on classics. My 1920s selection is Passing by Nella Larsen, a semi-autobiographical novella, in which a young, mixed race woman light enough to pass decides to live her adult life as white. Delving into the perception of race from a myriad of perspectives, Larsen takes her readers back to a bygone era when African Americans were beginning to make inroads in northern society.

Irene Redfield and her husband Brian are members of W.E.B. DuBois' mythical talented tenth of Negro society. Even though Irene is light enough to pass for white in some circles, Brian is not, and the couple makes Harlem their home. Brian foresaw the danger of raising African American children in an integrated society and has urged Irene to immigrate to Brazil, where race is less of an issue. Yet, Irene is an American, and she is a well sought member of Harlem social circles, so the family stays in New York. A chance encounter with an old acquaintance, however, has Irene questioning her views on race for the first time.

Clare Kendry is light enough to pass for white, so she marries an upper crust banker and alternates her life between Europe and New York. Even after twelve years, Kendry omits the fact that she is black to her white supremacist husband, and after meeting Irene, decides that she wants to be a part of Harlem society instead of white America. Yet, Redfield is reluctant to admit Kendry to her inner circle as she experiences an internal emotional conflict. As a result, she questions her own views on race relations for the first time in her marriage, even wondering if her husband had been right about moving to Brazil. In the duration of the novel, the reader sees Irene's, Clare's, and both their husbands view on race, allowing insight into the country's feelings toward integration during the 1920s.

Larsen herself was light enough to pass and married white in order to better herself in society. As a white woman, she was able to publish Passing, Quicksand, and one other little read novel, but after the truth about her race came out, she was denied publication of her other works; additionally, her marriage ended in a bitter divorce. The migration of African Americans to northern cities had only begun in this era, and Larsen's opportunities were limited. She lived the rest of her life employed as a nurse in a Harlem hospital, living as a negro rather than white.

I found Passing to be a powerful piece of literature as the reader delves into many characters' conflicted emotions as they tackle the race question. Even though there might have been more opportunities as a white person during the 1920s, the talented tenth in Harlem brought their own culture to the American melting pot. Because of the personal nature of the novel, Nella Larsen offers in depth characters in her story. A candid look at the race question, Passing is a gem from 1920s literature, and a worthy entry in a century of reading women, for which I rate 4.5 stars.
Profile Image for emma.
1,869 reviews54.5k followers
March 21, 2022
Short classics are my passion. I love getting smarter in under 2 hours.

Now I'm more intelligent and more pretentious and I had a good time getting there.

Living the dream.

That's enough of a review.

Bottom line: Sometimes short and impressive is all a book has to be!!


reading books by Black authors for Black History Month!

book 1: caste
book 2: business not as usual
book 3: the color purple
book 4: the parking lot attendant
book 5: kindred
book 6: wrapped up in you
book 7: the boyfriend project
book 8: a song below water
book 9: filthy animals
book 10: passing
Profile Image for Jaidee.
605 reviews1,203 followers
September 14, 2021
5 "astute, biting, theatrical" stars !!!

2017 Honorable Mention with High Distinction Read

This was an extremely thought provoking and personally challenging read for me on a number of levels. Passing is such an odd concept for me to fully grasp on a deeper level. I straddle the line in so many ways in my own life and have always seen the world and expressed my own self in a non-binary fashion. Luckily this was not only accepted by my family of origin but also encouraged and nurtured by a select few.
And yet for others convenience or comfort I was sometimes pegged, labeled, at times ridiculed, singled out. Others wanted me to pass in some or all environments as white instead of mixed, straight or gay instead of bi, middle class instead of working class, masculine instead of androgynously. This was challenging and when feeling threatened I would do it myself not for acceptance or gain but rather to be safe or mix in and not be a target. This led to a dissonance at times not in terms of my own self identity which always felt solid but in terms of getting on in the world. As the world in my urban center has changed and become more welcoming of diversity of all kinds passing is less of an issue, less dangerous and I have a number of circles where being myself is not only just OK but welcomed. Interestingly, though, this matters less and less to me as I spend more and more time alone, or with my partner and our respective families deepening my spiritual faith and exploring my artistic interests. I am less frightened by others' misunderstandings and other's cruelties, prejudices and more willing to look in the mirror and challenge my own that come up daily. Challenging our own prejudices is very important work for ourselves, our society and the world. The more I understand that I am no different from others the more I can work towards personal and societal change. I am particularly interested in working within marginalized groups and how they oppress and marginalize sub groups and others. You see, the hunt for power and control and dominance is universal. I see it within all genders, sexualities and racial groups. We will never have a level playing field but that does not mean that we should not work towards this and fight for social justice for all and not just who we personally think is deserving.

This book is so brilliant in its execution. It very much appealed to me that both female protagonists were mildly unlikable. Their emotions, motivations and actions appeared so genuine in their contrived social niceties and their upward mobility in passing as white or greatly identifying as white when they were mixed race. The use of their beauty, grace, intelligence to manipulate their partners and society in general for a measure of security and social standing. Their reluctance to be devoted mothers, their submerging of racial identity and knowledge. This left them both bereft, vulnerable, mistrusting and every move was not only for survival but to usurp the other for a bigger piece of the societal pie.

Anxiety pervaded their lives and I felt it in my own being as I read.

Thank you Ms. Larsen for giving me another chance to reflect and gaze upon my own reflection and see myself for who I am today that might be somewhat different from whom I am tomorrow.
Profile Image for Lisa.
991 reviews3,320 followers
May 4, 2019
What if I could be someone else?

Crossing borders, sneaking into a different society through the back door, and living a secret life, fearing the consequences of detection - that is the main theme of "Passing", which I read directly after Quicksand, but had to let sink in for a couple of days before reviewing.

Quicksand is about how you slowly, steadily sink deeper and deeper into life, choking when you feel the lack of choice, the lack of freedom in a world that judges you for the colour of your skin, your gender, your attitude towards traditions."Passing" is about rebellion against the status quo, and it ends with an explosion of violence I was rather unprepared for, and still can't digest entirely, as it challenged my perception of "good" and "bad" characters to the breaking point, - which is something I appreciate in a novel.

Nella Larsen is definitely a new discovery for me this year, writing seemingly effortless stories of women facing racism and male dominance in the glamorous New York of the 1920s. But she does not end there. Her stories are also deeply concerned with the relationship between women themselves, and their contrasting responses to their shared situation. It is a tale of love and friendship and hate and betrayal, of victors that turn into victims and vice versa.

"Passing", the main topic of the short novel, was something completely new to me, as a phenomenon. Light-skinned women who have African American heritage choose "to pass" for white in certain circumstances to be able to move in the world that is closed to them if they admit their ancestry. In the time of strict segregation, this is a risky business. Fearing the humiliation of detection and expulsion from the society they are not allowed to enter on equal terms if they are honestly admitting their roots, they live a thrilling, but also nerve-racking life on the border of everyday, institutionalised racism.

The two main characters are childhood friends who choose different paths in life: one of them marries a white, blatantly racist man and lives her life in privilege and fear of discovery, while the other chooses to stay within the Harlem community and raise her children in the African American cultural setting.

Tension grows over the years, as the friends meet and compare notes. What are the rules for these women, in a society that is hugely unjust towards them? What is the game they are playing themselves? And what compensation are they entitled to?

It is a story of what women do to each other as well. Instead of uniting to create a better platform for themselves, they develop a (sub?)conscious competition. And the stakes are high! If you fall, they are deadly.

This novel left me deeply saddened, but also grateful. It opened a new door, and widened my perspective on discrimination, while giving me the kind of shiver only a good thriller can produce.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
July 19, 2023
Our Most Common Prejudice

This novel is an extended example of a figure of speech called synecdoche in which a part is used to reference the whole. What makes it unusual, and highly creative, is that the part that Larsen uses is the gross and glaring fact of racial prejudice. The whole is a much more subtle and barely expressible prejudice that most of us find instinctive - prejudiced rejection of the purposes of others.

The storyline appears straightforward. Because she is light-skinned, Clare, Irene’s childhood friend, has been able to pass as the white wife of a high-flying international executive. He knows nothing of this deception and is in fact an avid racist, possessing all the most crude attributes of the breed. Irene is understandably shocked when she encounters Clare en famille, as it were. She judges Clare for her ambition, which had led her, she believes, to such idiocy.

That a person should attach herself knowingly to another who is inherently and openly hateful to what she really is, would be classed as a psychological illness. But such a diagnosis ignores the underlying motive entirely. Irene dismisses Clare’s intention as one of greed, of trading her racial identity for a lifestyle in the white cultural world. But this is merely a prejudiced presumption. She had not discussed the matter with Clare. And even if she had it is possible that Clare had never adequately articulated her motives, even to herself.

So has Clare made an error or has Irene misunderstood her objective? Ultimately one is forced to either impose an intention on Clare or attempt to understand that intention from Clare’s point of view. The latter course can be characterized as one of respect. The former course, that is the summary rejection of the purpose of another, much less its frustration, is a prejudice as profound as that directed toward race. But it doesn’t appear so, largely because it is a rejection justified as ‘moral’, that is, in terms of some abstract general principle. This is Irene’s initial reaction.

Respect is neither general nor abstract but always particular and concrete. It refers not to a moral code but to the specific existential circumstances of another. Respect means recognizing the intention of another as justified, that is, as grounded in the unique experience of that person. In fact, this is a good functional definition of a person, namely an entity which has a unique individual purpose.

Almost simultaneously with her encounter with Clare, Irene discovers this intentional prejudice in the reaction of her husband to her own concern about her son’s education. Her husband considers her irrational and simply dismisses her concerns about the course of his schooling. His lack of respect for her intention - the welfare of the child - is obvious in the vacuous shibboleth he throws at her. This hurts Irene; but it also opens her to the possibility that she has been equally disrespectful to her childhood friend.

This is the pivotal point of the story. Irene is on the verge of recognizing her own prejudice against her husband: “It was only that she wanted him to be happy, resenting, however, his inability to be so with things as they were, and never acknowledging that though she did want him to be happy, it was only in her own way and by some plan of hers for him that she truly desired him to be so.” Whatever her husband’s judgment of her, she is guilty of a similar judgment of him, and possibly of Clare.

The moral philosophy implicit in Larsen’s fiction is profound. What Irene discovers is that there is no morality which attaches to purpose. Purposes, intentions, commitments, ambitions may be shared or not, attractive or not, attainable or not, but they cannot be judged as reasonable, correct, or ethical. Only the actions undertaken to pursue purpose have moral content. Actions not thoughts are what affect others. It is actions we have control over not the experiences we have. It is from these experiences that we ‘extract’ objectives, either to avoid the things we have learned to fear, or to obtain things we may have been denied.

So Clare’s commitment to herself to have a life free from the burdens of racial prejudice must be respected. This is quite different from approving of her actions in marrying a white racist. This action is not only irrational, it is wrong for Clare. But it’s purpose is not. Ends are simply ‘there’, possibly to be discussed, modified, compromised, or even abandoned, but never to be disrespected or rejected in principle. Means have values which can be disputed, and Clare does dispute them. But ends do not.

Larsen’s point, or at least my interpretation of it, may be controversial but part of its profoundness lies in its controversiality. What she has to say is not some obvious truism like ‘racial prejudice is horrible and some people react to it in strange ways.’ Her book is a literary exploration of an extremely nuanced view in which behavior is the focus of moral judgment; and within which respect for the purpose of others is a central tenet, even when, no especially when, that purpose is unstated.

This is not a worked out philosophy, but it is a valuable suggestion for a different way of understanding life’s responsibilities. It is a suggestion that puts racial prejudice in a larger and more general context while pointing to its real evil - the denial of the capacity for purpose to another human being. That it is a suggestion made in 1929 at a high point of racial atrocities in the United States, makes it even more remarkable.

Postscript 28Mar19: As If to make my point, I received a GR friend request with a comment, apparently provoked by this review, that I “sound like an apologetic white person.” It’s not clear if the remark was meant as a compliment of a slur. But it does demonstrate some instinctive reaction that human beings have to assign and judge motives with about as much care and attention as tying a shoelace.
Profile Image for Monica.
621 reviews631 followers
August 13, 2019
Since joining goodreads, I've made an effort to read the classics. Sometimes they fall flat, but most of the time they are better than expected. Passing is an example of the latter and I absolutely loved it! This novel at 90 years old feels like it could have been written today. What Passing has revealed isn't a huge revelation in my mind. First of all let me get my literary impressions out of the way. Nella Larsen is quite a talent. There is something about the way she writes that just blew me away. It seemed so modern. There was consideration and care taking of her characters. She showed instead of told. She had vivid descriptions. You get the visuals. You feel the emotions. You get inside the minds of the characters. Larsen had faith in the reader to draw their own conclusions rather than to spell it out.

I look at these classics as time capsules. A bird-eyed view of another time and place. This novel was ostensibly about "passing". From Wikipedia: "Passing is the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of an identity group or category different from their own, which may include racial identity, ethnicity, caste, social class, sexual orientation, gender, religion, age and/or disability status. Passing may result in privileges, rewards, or an increase in social acceptance, or be used to cope with stigma." In the book Clare is passing to improve her quality of life and privilege. Her husband (who admits to being racist) does not know she is passing and in fact denigrates Negroes to anyone who will listen. Irene can pass but chooses to embrace her Negro ties and only passes when convenient. The book explores the attitudes of both women fairly well. In fact the exploration is what I think sets Larsen apart.

There is an inevitable comparison to The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson though Passing was written almost 20 years later. They are both near-ish the Harlem Renaissance. Passing was told from a woman's point of view. There are obvious benefits to passing, especially during the era that both books were written. A small subset of Negroes could pass and had the ability to move within two different worlds and be seen as "one of us" regardless of whether "us" is white or Negro. In both Passing and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man when the ability to cross between two worlds was removed, both Clare and the unnamed protagonist lamented the loss of their "Negro" side. But other than an occasional trip into "white" spaces, Irene never fully took advantage of the full benefits of passing. The one thing that neither book explores is how people who can pass were received in the "Negro" world. Both authors paint a picture that people who could pass were completely were welcomed into the Negro environment like it was no big deal. In theory, it's much easier to "pass" in the white world than in the Negro world. I find myself speculating if there is an indirect, unspoken candor in the novel that poses white people as oblivious to passing because they assume that Negroes are incapable of navigating the white world undetected. I believe the term is hubris. I found myself wondering would Negroes fault a person for their ability to gain some prestige and benefits by passing. Passing gave some indication of that with Irene stoking the coals that Clare was a woman of ill repute. Clare clearly could not get away from some form of judgment in Irene's eyes. And Irene's eyes in this case are the eyes of the Negro environment. However in social events, Clare was well received and it didn't seem to matter to Negroes (besides Irene) what race she was. The politics of skin color has always been an issue. Back then and even now to some extent, an annoying and persistent stereotype is that light colored negroes are smarter and more culturally accepted than dark skinned Negroes. My family is full of examples of an uneasy coexistence with the varying shades of color. What are they really saying, when their characters lament the loss of their Negro side? I think they are saying, they miss the ability to travel between worlds. On the whole given the choice, the characters decided to live "white". In other words, they miss the ability to take advantage of the parts of being black that they like without having to experience the parts that they don't like. Both novels also paint the Negro life in a relatively rosy hue. Why would anyone want to pass as white since being Negro isn't bad? In Passing, the characterization of Clare almost suggests that she misses the adventure, the danger of being caught, the rhythms and cultures. Clare seemed a little self destructive and rebellious and self loathing. She was raised principally by the white side of her family who may have encouraged her to leave her Negro side buried. She left at such a young age that it was unclear what she missed about her "Negro" side. Was Larsen trying to paint Clare's Negro heritage as the more noble? More fulfilling? More exciting and rich with exuberance and spice and heritage? More welcoming? More of a community? More fun? And was Clare's ending, the inevitable consequence of denying/suppressing one's Negro heritage?

Fast forward to the 21st century and passing is passé. [sound effect: needle dragged across an LP record]. What?!? OK , Black people passing as white in America is passé. We've got White people trying to pass as Black and we aren't even going to get into cultural appropriation. We've got DNA test kits disappointing huge numbers of light-skinned Blacks by telling them that they do not have any Native American ancestry in their heritage. Tanning lotions are making a fortune in making people darker and/or truly people of color like orange. In other words, nobody wants to be white these days. OK, I’m being flippant, but the passage of time does highlight a different world. It is less likely for someone who identifies as "Black" to being passing as "White" in most of America the 21st century. Passing connotes an intent to deceive. There are more likely to be people who have Negro blood in them that identify as white; but if there is no intent, there is no passing. Though truth be told, there is probably still a lot of the Irene type of passing (or passive passing) going on. Over the phone, internet persona's or applying for a bank loan, etc. Passive passing is not about the attempt to deceive, it's the lack of intention to correct wrong assumptions. In fact that could be part of our issues with race in America today. Skin color doesn't quite offer the advantages that it used to. Hmm what could "Make America Great Again" possibly mean…

OK enough diversion from the book. I thought Passing was brilliant. It's a character study and it has staying power. Though the novel was primarily about the title, Larsen managed to convey thoughts on all sorts of issues such as the patriarchy, gender dynamics, masculinity, materialism, envy, feminism, freedom, and even some light homoeroticism (Irene was constantly distracted by Clare's beauty). Harlem Renaissance genius! Hard to believe this book was written in 1929. There is a style and élan here that is well ahead of its time. I think Larsen has written a timeless classic that will always be relevant. Highly recommended!!

5 Stars

Read on kindle.
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,119 reviews44.8k followers
April 23, 2017
I read this a few months ago now, and I drastically undervalued its brilliance. I’m writing an essay on racial encounter in the modernist movement for university, so I’ve been picking this book apart during my second and third readings of it.

During the course of it, I’ve noticed something equally as important. Racial encounter is at the centre of this book, but it is not the heart of it. Indeed, repressed sexual desire and love are what drive the narrative forward. But love isn’t easily recognisable to our narrator Irene Redfield. She’s in love with a woman, and she doesn’t quite know it yet. Her feelings for Clare Kendry switch back and forth between lust and hatred; she hates how this woman has a pull over her, an irresistible force of attraction that she cannot shy away from.

And it’s ruining her life; thus, the completely open end of the book. She wants to destroy such an object of power, but I don’t think she really ever stopped to consider what the object actually meant to her. Her marriage is cold and loveless; she doesn’t know what love is, so when she experiences it she doesn’t recognise it or understand it. There are so many passages I could quote here. I have them marked down in my edition. There’s so many suggestions of it, some subtle musings and others plain lust. It’s worth reading the book with this relationship in mind.

But, anyway, issues of race and postcolonialisms are what I’ve been really looking into. More and more I seem to be referencing the ideas of Franz Fannon’s Black Skins White Masks whenever I review a book like this. It’s so ridiculously apt and summarising the situation. Fannon’s arguments suggest that the black man has been indoctrinated with this idea that he is inferior. Who he is, and where he comes from, is inferior. Therefore, he is forced to adhere to this model of what is superior. And at this time that was the foolish notion of elite white culture. The black man then pretends to be white; he speaks like a white man, he dresses like him and acts like him: he tries to be him, rather than establishing his own sense of identity.

So what is the concept of Passing? Essentially, it is where people of black heritage, who are very white, can pass of as completely white. For example, you may have had a black grandfather or great grandfather who has intermingled with white culture and has watered down his blood. So the result is a child who is what 1920s American society would still deem a “Negro” but to all appearances is not one. The individual is left with two choices: own their heritage, and embrace it, or pretend to be something else.

“It’s funny about passing. We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

And this book captures both sides. To be a Negro here is to be a second class citizen, nobody wants the stigma attached with that, so they distance themselves from the label as much as possible. Even if it means marring a racist bigot of a husband who has no idea his own wife is actually descended form black heritage. Some embrace who they are and are proud of it. The psychological framework that has built the prior example is understandable. Nobody would want to be in such a situation, though the truly brave are those that resist it and stand up for who they are. Those that ignore the societal pressures, as they should, are the ones that help make change and social progress.

This is an interesting novella, it captures an element of the postcolonial legacy I was unaware of previously, and it has suggestions of homosexual desire which really is highly characteristic of some of the literature of the period. It's really worth a read.
Profile Image for Adina .
890 reviews3,541 followers
November 10, 2022
Two lightly colored childhood friends meet again after many years. One passes as white while the other lives in the black community of Harlem. Let the drama begin. Review to come.
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews964 followers
July 24, 2018
A novel about passing as white, coded with queer subtext, Passing follows protagonist Irene Redfield as she rekindles a deep bond with her childhood friend Clare Kendry at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Both Clare and Irene are light-skinned Black women who grew up in the same neighborhood; since the time of their separation from each other, though, Clare has married an aggressive white supremacist and begun passing as a white woman, while Irene has thoroughly involved herself in the racial politics of her upper middle class Black community. A chance encounter in a tearoom brings the two women together again, and they latch onto each other as an escape from their dissatisfying domestic lives. All the while, Irene internally fumes over the pleasure Clare takes in using her as a means to access Black culture from afar, without living in a Black community or caring about racial solidarity. Written in easy-to-read prose that blurs by, the novel has a simplicity of form that thinly veils the messiness of its exploration of a diverse range of social issues.
Profile Image for Chrissy.
109 reviews110 followers
October 27, 2022
Childhood friends, one of whom is now "passing" as white, meet again in 1920's Harlem.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,137 reviews4,179 followers
October 19, 2022
A sharp, measured but intense, psychological novella about identity, told with elegance and forensic care. Two affluent black women, who knew each other as children, meet again when they are in their late thirties. Glamorous, cat-like Clare, with a “caressing smile”, lives as a white woman, while Irene is a pillar of black society and charitable works. It’s told from Irene’s point of view.
Strangers in their ways and means of living. Strangers in their desires and ambitions. Strangers even in their racial consciousness.

Image: Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in “Passing” (Source)

Clare is good at getting what she wants, and what she wants now is to have a toe in black society in NY, while retaining her white privilege in Chicago. In essence, Clare is a white woman who now wants to pass as black, occasionally.

Irene thinks passing is “dangerous” and “abhorrent”, but as things get complicated, she’s torn by conflicting loyalties: to her family, her friend, and her race.
She had to Clare Kendry a duty. She was bound to her by those very ties of race, which, for all her repudiation of them, Clare had been unable to completely sever.
Clare just floats in and out, seemingly oblivious of any difficulties.

Although the consequences of rekindling their friendship become obvious to the reader before they are to the protagonists, the way it unfolds is carefully done. Secrecy matters.
It hurt like hell. But it didn't matter if no one knew.

It closes with a sudden dramatic event (foreshadowed by crockery), while retaining plenty of ambiguity. If it’s a sort of karma, which transgression is it for?

Image: Black is white and white is black. (Source)

It also explores community, keeping up appearances, aspiration, social class, racism, toxic relationships, secrets, loyalty, marriage, parenting, and much more. The New York jazz age setting adds sparkle.

It was published in 1929, so black people describe themselves as colored and Negro.

About race and passing

It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve.
The idea of a black person “passing” as white was something I’d heard of, but given little thought to until I read Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half last year. The advantages are obvious, but I’d never considered the multifaceted disadvantages, especially of living one’s whole life that way. I found Bennett’s book eye-opening and explored the ideas of carving and cleaving destiny in my review, HERE.

The Vanishing Half wasn’t a bad book in isolation, but now it feels like a simulacrum of this. Where this is taut, that took the idea of girls who grew up together living as different races in adulthood, and then padded it out with box-ticking subplots.

The ease with which some people pass fits with the idea of race as a social construct, which I thought was a recent idea (see Race and society). However, Irene’s husband, Brian, suggests similar by being unable to define race. He observes that all the people he’s known who passed felt drawn back to their culture, but he doesn’t know why.
If I knew that, I’d know what race is.
Another time, Irene is chatting with white friend Hugh, who asks how one can tell. She says no one can tell by looking:
I’m afraid I can’t explain. Not clearly. There are ways. But they’re not definite or tangible.

Image: We’re so often told we can be anything if we set our mind to it, but that’s rubbish. We can change and improve ourselves and our lives, but we can’t be ANYthing. It’s a lie that leads to disappointment. (Source)


• “Chicago. August. A brilliant day, hot, with a brutal staring sun pouring down rays that were like molten rain. A day on which the very outlines of the buildings shuddered as if in protest at the heat… Sharp particles of dust rose from the burning sidewalks, stinging the seared or dripping skins of wilting pedestrians. What small breeze there was seemed like the breath of a flame fanned by slow bellows.”

• “Between them the barrier was just as high, just as broad, and just as firm as if in Clare did not run that strain of black blood. In truth, it was higher, broader, and firmer; because for her there were perils, not known, or imagined, by those others who had no such secrets to alarm or endanger them.”

• “She wanted no empty spaces of time in which her mind would immediately return to that horror which she had not yet gathered sufficient courage to face.”

• “Christmas, with its unreality, its hectic rush, its fake gaiety, came and went.”

See also

• Rebecca Hall’s 2021 film adaptation, stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. It’s filmed in black and white, and nearly square, rather than cinematic “letterbox”, which suits the setting. See imdb HERE. (Hall’s grandfather was a black man who passed as white. See HERE.)

• Brit Bennett wrote an introduction to a recent edition of the Passing, a book she heavily borrowed from for her own novel, The Vanishing Half. See my review HERE.

• I didn’t enjoy Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, but it makes interesting points by reversing the races in the slave trade. See my review HERE.

Rachel_Dolezal is a white woman who passed as black and even became a chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

• Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo features colourism and fitting in. See my review HERE.

• Toni Morrison’s Beloved. See my review HERE.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,493 reviews2,374 followers
October 16, 2017
Written in the late 1920's, this is indeed a powerful piece of writing, and all these years later still remains an important one, dealing with the uncomfortable critique on modern race relations. Nella Larsen holds her own place in history for being the first African-American woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, and while her body of work hardly got off the ground in terms of numbers, what she did produce was fascinating insight into the tough lives people of mixed race had to endure. This short novel was an uneasy read, with some quite painful moments, which looks at the lives of two very different young, black women in Harlem. Irene Redfield, is part of the elite. Accomplished, reasonably wealthy and sophisticated, but living in a cultural enclave. Whilst Clare Kendry, is just as isolated, but worryingly from her own race. Like a handful of others, Kendry is 'passing' for caucasian, her husband makes jokes about her skin tone, but has no idea she is classed as non-white.

This is as much a story about the gap between private and public selves as it is about racial identity, but what I found particularly thought-provoking was the subtle nature it offers on standards of beauty from within as well as on the outside. That, it seems, are just as ingrained now as they were back then nearly one hundred years ago. Even today, there appears a constant stream of controversies involving black celebrities having their skin lightened in tone for magazine covers and interviews. Does for example buying into black idols just perpetuate the idea that women have to conform to a white woman's standards of beauty in order to get in the spotlight? Absolutism though has no place in Larsen's novel, there is much sympathy for Clare, even if she is participating in events that harm and insult other black women. There is a desire to be swept up in a social group that was still very much above the one she was born into. She still want's to hang out with her real kind, and through letters this leads her to rekindle a friendship with Irene (or Rene) who is wholly uncomfortable about the idea.

Obviously America has come a long way since this book was written, but not far enough (having a racist leader doesn't help), this could quite easily be happening out there right now. Certainly there are plenty of pressures on all of us at some point in out lives, but it always ends up with non-whites bearing the brunt of it. I have to be honest, although Larsen raises a serious topic here, the story as a whole just kind of underwhelmed me. The structure of the narrative never gave me the impression of being anything that great. I was certainly drawn to the circumstances of both women more than how Larsen went about telling it. It did however feature a shocking finale which I didn't see coming, but ultimately it shouldn't have surprised me, as what went before was never on the happy side. A major work on race it maybe, but just lacked that extra something to be a memorable one. A solid 3/5
Profile Image for Traci Thomas.
590 reviews10.5k followers
January 7, 2022
This is so good. The suspense. The ambiguity. It’s short. It’s great.

Second read: it’s so good. The language and discussions around race and respectability and belonging and ownership are just spot on, even 100 years later. Also the scenes are so drama packed and yet so so short. Ugh this is a very good book.
Profile Image for Fabian.
957 reviews1,623 followers
September 14, 2020
Unfortunately I've not read many Harlem Renaissance greats. I've only previously read the novels "Native Son," "Go Tell it on the Mountain," "Invisible Man," &, well, pretty much. The simplicity of the way this story is told, with a heavy and interesting overuse of commas and a well-rounded anecdote which deals with self-proclamation and self-deception, makes this my favorite one in the canon. It speaks of the race problem with the use of melodrama, a very tricky device which feels snuggly & at home here.

Irene is a woman who has bought into her class, she is very much involved in her social circle and is motherly. But when her very opposite comes into her life, a question surges forward & it is this: how much of your race constitutes you as a person? Race is an issue, it is bravely brought out to the forefront with minimal embellishment, & all this occurs at a swift & elegant, even speed.
Profile Image for Samadrita.
295 reviews4,676 followers
October 17, 2015
Huzzah for neat seguing of plot pulse and theme! This one proves to be a much better outing than Quicksand because it relies on dialogue and interactions between characters to gradually disclose its cleverly withheld secrets. Till the very end Larsen successfully kept me guessing at the hidden fears, ambitions and motivations that drive Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry - two light-skinned black women who subscribe to different forms of morally ambiguous survivalist ideology to counter the omnipresent threat posed by a white supremacist socioeconomic milieu.
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.

Unlike Quicksand, the plot doesn't reflect a monomaniacal desire to observe the unities of time. Snippets of disconcerting social gatherings and passive-aggressive conversations are braided together to represent the common thread of an uneasy, even dysfunctional, relationship spread out over the span of years. In a way, 'Passing' is less about two intelligent women cautiously toeing the invisible boundary separating white and black America and more about characters futilely grappling with a malignant identity crisis. The race issue looms large in the background like a perpetual accompaniment to the marital discord and sexual jealousy but it never overshadows the finely balanced interplay of thought and action that steers the story ahead.
She was surprised that, having thought the thought, conceded the fact, she was no more hurt, cared no more, than during her previous frenzied endeavors to escape it. And this absence of acute, unbearable pain seemed to her unjust, as if she had been denied some exquisite solace of suffering which the full acknowledgement should have given her.

The rating is an acknowledgement of the degree of my emotional involvement and the fact that the ending left me slightly slack-jawed.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,589 reviews2,813 followers
June 13, 2023
You can read this one both as a masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance and as part of a genre called - you guessed it - fictions of passing, which also encompasses titles like The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Caucasia, or, oh yes, The Human Stain. Larsen text tells the story of two childhood friends who meet again as married wives with young kids, and one of the women, Clare (a talking name), has crossed the color line: She lives as a white person and even married a racist who has no idea about his wife's heritage. Through her friend Irene, Clare aims to re-connect with her Black roots, which is obviously a dangerous endeavor... (as the text mentions, this could bring her to court, see the real divorce case Rhinelander v. Rhinelander).

This text offers a complex take on the phenomenon of double consciousness as described in The Souls of Black Folk, but with a twist: Light-skinned Black women who are not easy to categorize live in a singular space within a racist society, and Larsen discusses the question of privilege vs. marginalization in the contexts of race, gender, class, and even sexuality. There is not only sexual tension between the women, one of husbands might be gay or bisexual. Plus, Clare has crossed class lines and married up, while Irene fluctuates between working and middle class, thus showing that strict separations are social constructs.

The short novel is rooted in Larsen's own experience: She had a Danish mother, her father was supposedly a mixed-race Afro-Cribbean immigrant who might never have identified as Black. As a child, Nella was discriminated against in a white American neighborhood, later she attended both the historically Black Fisk University and the University of Copenhagen.

A well-deserved classic.
Profile Image for Reggie.
116 reviews392 followers
February 11, 2022
You're living your adult life in the 1920s. You are extremely fair skinned although you are labeled Negro due to your ancestry. Because of being labeled a Negro you grew up in a world of fear, discrimination & possibly worst of all, poverty. Add in the fact that you grew up as a girl in a patriarchal society.

You realize you have an opportunity to "become white." You can forget all of the bullshit that accompanied your childhood as a Negro. You can crossover to the mainstream! You can have a white husband, you can have all of the things! Your new biggest fear is the possibility of becoming a mother & having a child come out dark, which doesn't have a high probability!

What do you do?

The story of Clare Kendry(/Bellew) & Irene Redfield has answers to the scenario presented above, but Passing is much more than a story about the ability of lighter-skinned Black people having the ability to pass for white in the United States. It's more than a story about two friends who are (possibly) suppressing their sexual desires for one another.

The story of Clare & Irene is a story of rules being made for the sole purpose of their breaking. The rules of race, gender, class & ambition, among others. This is a story of refusing to allow ANYTHING to deter you from a goal that you have. This is a story of the breakdowns, mainly mental and emotional, that occur due to a lack of communication.

Clare is the most memorable character of this classic novel. A charismatic woman who is living her married white life on the edge. A natural risk-taker who wants to do something as small as hearing Negroes laugh after she is reunited with her old friend, Irene, a wife, a mother of two boys & a leader in the Black community. A reunion that goes left, QUICKLY, in this short book.

Emily Bernard, who wrote a masterful introduction to this edition, compared Clare Kendry to Janie Crawford of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Sula from Sula & Birdie from Caucasia.

The irony there is amazing, because Clare was a reluctant mother throughout Passing, yet, she still went on to birth three of the most memorable women in all of literature.


This is book #4 of the #10Books10Decades Challenge. Representing the 1920s.

I would love for you to participate if you get the chance!

More information on the challenge in the link below.

Profile Image for luce (that loser crying on the n° 2 bus).
1,438 reviews4,046 followers
January 22, 2022
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“It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

At once alluring and disquieting Nella Larsen's Passing presents its readers with a piercing examination of the interplay of race, gender, and class in 1920s New York.
Clare and Irene, the women at the centre of this novel, grew up in the same Black neighborhood. Both are light-skinned and can 'pass' for white but whereas Irene now lives with her husband, who is a doctor, and two sons in Harlem, and seems to enjoy a respectable middle-class existence, Clare left their community and rumour has it that she is now passing for white.
Irene has never paid much attention to the talk surrounding Clare's 'disappearance' from their neighbourhood. A chance encounter in Chicago reunites the two women. Clare, now living as a white woman and married to a white supremacist, views Irene as a link bank to the Black community and culture that she abandoned. While she's clearly made the most of the privileges that come with being white, Clare feels a lure towards her 'old' identity. Irene too may be more dissatisfied than she'd liked to believe and begrudgingly rekindles her friendship with Clare.

The fraught dynamic between Clare and Irene brought to mind that between Sula Peace and Nel Wright (from Toni Morrison's Sula). Both sets of women used to be childhood friends, Clare and Sula leave their community only to return years later. Their beauty and insouciant attitude arouse jealousy and envy in their old friends.
While Clare is using Irene as her ticket to re-enter and re-connect with her Black community, she does seem to be genuinely happy to be spending time with Irene. Irene, on the other hand, grows resentful of Clare's careless vacillation between a white and Black identity. When Irene perceives a new strain in her relationship with her husband she attributes this to the 'change' brought by Clare reappearance in her life.

“There were things that she wanted to ask Clare Kendry. She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted for oneself.”

Desire and jealousy cloud Irene and Clare judgments. They seem drawn to each other, perhaps because they are in many ways polar opposites. There is an intensity to how Irene thinks about Clare and to how Clare looks at Irene that seemed almost sexual (or maybe that's just me).
Yet, underlining this mutual attraction is something closer to animosity. Irene judges Clare for passing and for having married a white supremacist, while Clare, in her unrelenting efforts to latch onto Irene and her lifestyle, is much harder to pin down. Much about her remains a mystery to us. Irene's growing hostility towards Clare could also be seen as a defence mechanism, as in this instance aversion may be preferable to attraction. Her repressed desire mutates in something ugly, something that is part hatred part lust. One could also see them as doubles of sorts: they can both pass but only one of them chooses to do so 'permanently'.

Larsen's naturalist approach to her characters' behaviours and feelings reminded me of Edith Wharton (“Brought to the edge of distasteful reality, her fastidious nature did not recoil. Better, far better, to share him than to lose him completely. Oh, she could close her eyes, if need be. She could bear it. She could bear anything.”) . Larsen, similarly to Wharton, can be incredibly perceptive—in her social commentaries, in her honing on the subtleties of certain feelings, impressions, and thoughts—while also allowing for a certain opaqueness to surround her characters, their motivations and actions. This sense of ambiguity, although present from the novel's opening scene, soon seems to dominate the narrative, so that the more I read, the more uneasy I felt towards the characters. Larsen's disillusioned portrayal of marriage and domesticity also made me think of Wharton's (the two also have a penchant for tragedies). The oppressive unease permeating Irene's story called to mind authors such as Patricia Highsmith and Danzy Senna.

Larsen doesn't lose herself in the ethics of passing, rather she portrays the system of white supremacy which seeks to control and undermine people of colour (regardless of their class).
As Larsen navigates themes of race, gender, and identity, she brings to life 1920s New York from its norms to its social hierarchies. Larsen's commentary on race feels modern and all-too relevant to today's society.

“The social, psychological, and economic motivations for passing, they also perform acts of literary trespass in exposing the cultural and legal fiction of race.”

Through her elegant and contemplative writing, Larsen captures the discordance between self and society. The tension between Irene and Clare results in a fraught atmosphere, one that makes Passing into a work of psychological suspense. If you are looking for a novel about transformation, liberation, jealousy, and betrayal, you need not look further.

The only 'downfall' of this novel is that Larsen employs the dreaded 'tragic mulatta' trope...

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads
Profile Image for Sawsan.
1,000 reviews
August 13, 2022
الهوية والعِرق جزء أساسي في تكوين الانسان ونشأته وحياته
تصنيف البشر بحسب اللون من أفدح وأسوأ التصنيفات البشرية
عجرفة وتعنت الجنس الأبيض تجاه الآخر المختلف في اللون لمجرد الأذية والتعالي
نيلا لارسن تكتب عن العنصرية في أمريكا في آخر عشرينيات القرن العشرين
عندما يضطر أصحاب البشرة البيضاء من أصول عرقية سوداء للعبور
العبور إلى الجانب الأبيض للحصول على فرص أفضل في الحياة
عبور مصحوب بالمعاناة والقلق والتخلي المؤلم عن الانتماء للعرق والأهل والهوية

لقاء بين امرأتين تكتشفان خلاله الحدود المختلفة للحرية, الأمان, الخوف والسعادة
في سرد هادئ وجميل أجادت لارسن التعبير عما يدور في ذهن ونفس كل منهما
Profile Image for Kevin.
523 reviews108 followers
September 4, 2023
Passing: (as it pertains to racial identity) is when a person classified as a member of one racial group is accepted, passes, as a member of another. Historically, the term has been used primarily in the U.S. to describe a person of color who assimilated into the white majority in order to escape the segregated social conventions of racism. -Wikipedia

Nell Larsen gifts us with two extraordinary characters - Irene and Clare. Both women, black by birth, are light skinned enough to “pass” as white. Whereas Irene passes occasionally, often accidentally, Clare has made passing her life’s work. Published in 1929, the interactions between Irene and Clare illuminate the trauma of systemic bigotry and racial discrimination.

Larsen’s mastery of projecting the ethos of her era had me all tied up in knots. This is one of those novels that burrows up in your brain and plays hand ball against the backside of your eyes. 90+ years have passed since Nell Larsen first put pen to paper, we should be a lot further down this road - and yet, here we still are. Only now it’s the racists that are passing. Passing for patriots. Passing for Christians.
Profile Image for Henk.
875 reviews
January 14, 2023
A very readable classic, reflecting on race relationships and offering a narrator with much more depth and dark edges than initially would expect. One is lured in by the seemingly simple language, but the outcome, although sudden, is complex.
The trouble with Clare was not only that she wanted her own cake and eat it, but that she wanted to nibble at other folks their cake too

Clare and Irene meet again. Hailing from the same background, Clare has chosen to pass as white (Money is awfully nice to have), while Irene married a black doctor in Manhattan (definitely being upper middle class with a maid and everything). Their meetings are described by Nella Larsen in unadorned prose, with a keen eye for the social differences and some very awkward scenes involving the racist husband of Clare.

Irene her relationship with her doctor husband is also fascinating, and this forms the crux around which the last part of the book resolves. Here Irene and her motifs for telling her story (As we said before, everything needs to be paid for, please be reasonable ) to us comes into a new light.
The confrontation that follows is thought provoking, and definitely makes this an interesting piece of fiction to read. 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Mara.
1,637 reviews3,889 followers
June 26, 2020
Wow, for such a short novel, this one packs a punch! A classic of Harlem Renaissance literature, this little book explores what the concept of "passing" as white has meant for Black women throughout history. This book challenges our notions of what makes someone a part of a racial group, and hooboy. That ending though.
Profile Image for Raul.
295 reviews210 followers
July 18, 2023
This book was published 90 years ago, during the Harlem Renaissance that brought with it great works of art, and this novel being one of them. Given the title and main theme of the book, I had some reservations before reading this, but what a pleasure and wealth of knowledge I would have missed had I bypassed it.

The story begins when Irene, the protagonist, remembers meeting her childhood friend Clare in her hometown of Chicago while passing in a restaurant meant for white people only. Both characters are biracial but their physical features allow them to venture into white society unsuspected, perceived and even received as white. But whereas Irene only passes for access to places like the theater and restaurants, Clare has totally immersed herself into white society going as far as marrying a racist white husband and having a child with him, and after meeting Irene, uses her as a contact to the blooming vibrant Black community of Harlem, trying to escape the stifling hateful environment she’s entrapped in, and meanwhile they have to be careful that her true racial identity is not known to Clare’s husband.

In engaging descriptive prose, Larsen writes of the environment that creates such precarious and demeaning conditions. Taking us to the vibrant Harlem parties of the 1920s and describing the social structure that defined status, security, desirability, and, at most times, survival. There’s a particular passage in this book where Clare explains that she won’t have another child for fear of the child being born dark and she would be found out to which Gertrude, another biracial childhood friend of Clare’s and Irene’s, remarks that no one really wants a dark child. There were times in the story I thought: “She won’t go there! She won’t…. She will…. She did!” There’s even a more disturbing passage after this where the three friends have to listen to demeaning racist vitriol coming from Clare’s husband and remain silent for Clare’s security.

I now understand why there’s so much study on this work, it even gave me one of the best descriptions of fetishistic desire I’ve ever read:
“I think that what they feel is—well, a kind of emotional excitement. You know, the sort of thing you feel in the presence of something strange, and even, perhaps, a bit repugnant to you; something so different that it’s really the opposite end of the pole from all your accustomed notions of beauty.”

A fantastic book and I can’t wait to read the rest of the writer’s work.
Profile Image for Gabrielle Grosbety .
123 reviews78 followers
March 23, 2022
“ “It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion but we protect it.” ”

This book reminded me of The Vanishing Half in the way that it focuses in on one light-skinned black woman’s journey to deciding to pass as white while someone that used to be close to her, who is also a light-skinned black woman, watches from afar. Afar in the way that everything that person does is slightly beyond comprehension. The person’s decision to pass as white deeply frays the ties they once had to the black community, effectually estranging them from it to the point that they can’t remember what it feels like to be around a community that recognizes them in their entirety. Even their most intimate partner in life doesn’t truly see them because they are leading a double life that requires the utmost precision in upholding.

Ambiguity and murky haziness in being and identity belies Passing the most as there is a double-sidedness to the surrealness of someone’s consciousness and the setting that they’re in, which happens vividly within the character of Clare. Clare fully and entirely breaks from her identity as a black woman and lives entrenched in the depths of a larger than life lie. She paradoxically goes to the greatest of dangers in hopes of ensuring her safety, but every minute her safety is put under incalculable duress as she dissociates from the woman she once was, in the way that she talks, acts, and thinks, and is complicit in her husband’s casual, despicable racism. However, everyone in this time becomes products of a socially conditioned system, in which their socialization teaches them to hate or fear what they don’t understand. It teaches them to go to great lengths to alienate and segregate from ‘the other’ as everyone lives in discordant, distressing acrimony.

Irene, also a light-skinned black woman and Clare’s childhood friend, feels wildly conflicted with the idea of Clare. As she becomes recklessly enthralled and intrigued by her charms and the “caress” of her smile, but also feels uncomfortable and intensely emotional towards her, which sometimes harvests itself to become bitterly filled aversion and distaste. In fact when I imagine Irene’s reaction to Clare I see bright paint splattering itself over an empty canvas because it feels like each part of the color is constructing a charged narrative of what it’s like to lay eyes on Clare and feel so deeply what she has done as it refreshes itself with each new appearance she makes.

“Actually they were strangers. Strangers in their ways and means of living. Strangers in their desires. Strangers even in their racial consciousness.”

The moment that Clare and Irene first meet again after so much time has elapsed, however, feels especially meaningful as they eye each other across a room that resembles an ethereal dream, which all may shatter if just a piece of their interaction goes astray. Moments are fragile and this one felt alive with possibility and confusion because there’s no denying that there’s something magnetic about the way that these women are drawn deeper and deeper in to each other. It’s like the other is a long forgotten song that they’re just beginning to remember the lyrics to: with caution at first, but then letting the other in for better or for worse with the consequences that it will bring.

This novella strikingly analyzes what can be the troubling irresoluteness in identity, amongst the backdrop of 1920s New York, and just the lengths that someone will go to in order to escape the chains that would accompany their existence otherwise. However, what that person doesn't fully initially realize, however, is that on their way to liberating themselves from the fears of living in their own body and existence, they replace them with new fears of working in overdrive not to be found out. In the end, liberation is a complicated concept, not fully fathomable like the rest of what occurs in this novella, and comes at a price never to be underestimated.
Profile Image for Anne .
455 reviews376 followers
October 16, 2020
“ It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well.”

Passing, written a century ago in 1922 by Nella Larsen is a complex and compelling novel which looks at the relationship between racial loyalty and identity. It is a study in contrasts, following the increasingly fraught relationship between two very different biracial women. They are both able to pass as white, but the ways that they choose to pass reveal their racial identities, concerns and personalities which could not be more different. This important novel written so long ago and raising so many important questions about race, especially for women, 
is written in a very spare style and reads like a page turner.

The novel starts with a chance encounter at a tea shop between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Once childhood friends in Harlem, New York, Irene and Clare are separated when Clare decides to leave the Black community behind, to ‘pass’ for white, marry a white man, and live as a white woman. While the 2 women catch up Clare asks Irene if she could come to one of her parties; she misses being around Black people. Irene agrees and then she meets Clare’s racist husband. Irene is shocked. She lives within the African-American community, is married to a black man and is anxious about passing though she does it. In fact, Irene’s biggest desire in life is for security, while Clare is a risk taker.

Irene, now sorry that she invited Clare to a party, questions her about coming to a party in Harlem and her husband finding out. Clare says that she will only come over when her husband is out of town.

The first party feeds Clare’s desire to be among black people again and Clare seeks out Irene more and more while Clare tries sometimes unsuccessfully to avoid her. In the end, Clare secretly joins Irene and her husband at the best clubs and parties where the Harlem literati and intelligentsia meet not caring that her husband will discover her identity. While Irene nervously warns her of the terrible danger of discovery -- the ever-present cost of ''passing'' -- Clare welcomes it as an opportunity to end her marriage, wanting to live again as a black woman.

Irene, is not only concerned about Clare’s safety; she is also very worried about her own passionless marriage and begins to see Clare as a threat. The more Clare shows up at Irene’s house and parties, sometimes unannounced, the more anxious Irene becomes not only about Clare’s safety but about the safety of her own marriage. Irene begins to suspect a special relationship between Clare and Brian, her husband. In her mind, the only way that she could lose her husband to Clare is if Clare’s husband found out the truth about Clare’s color. So, while Clare wants her husband to find out that she is black, Irene is terrified of the same.

As partying and worrying on Clare's part continues the tone of the novel becomes increasingly tense until the surprising ending.

Profile Image for Majenta.
300 reviews1,288 followers
May 28, 2016
PASSING gets an above-passing grade. It was on my TBR list for so long that I'm not sure why I might have wanted to read it, but I'm glad I got through it and...yeah, I'm glad I read it.
Profile Image for Duane.
828 reviews430 followers
October 14, 2016
Nella Larson (1891-1964) was born in Chicago to mixed race parents. Her mother was Danish and her father was Afro-Caribbean, also with a mixed race heritage. So Nella was caught in between worlds, not quite white, not quite black, so it was natural for her to write of her life experiences. And that's what she does in Passing (1929). The story is set in Harlem and revolves around two women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, both light skinned, one secure and happy, accepting her racial identity, the other "passing" as a white woman and burdened with all the insecurities her secret causes. It is beautifully written and Larsen's characters are created with such visual and verbal clarity that they dominate the narrative.

4.5 stars
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