Passing: Close Reading

You Ken Tan Christopher Hennessy LI 208 U. S. Multicultural Literature 26 Feb 2013 Passing: An Analysis and Close reading Nella Larsen’s Passing is a story about the tragedy of an African American woman, Clare Kendry, who tried to “pass” in the white American community. However, while she passes as white, she constantly seeks comfort from her friend Irene Redfield who is a representation of the African American community. Gradually, Clare has become the double image of Irene, due to the similarities of their ethnicity and the contrasting lives they lead.

At the end of the story, Clare’s death is a result of the extreme burden on Irene’s shoulder due to the presence of Clare in her life. The death of Clare is very much Irene’s responsibility based upon her suspicious acts at the end of the story. The ending of Passing, and of the life of Clare Kendry, begins on the sixth floor of an apartment complex at a party in the home of Felise and Dave Freeland. During the party, Irene says that, “It seems dreadfully warm in here. Mind if I open this window? ” (Larsen 110) However, when Irene opens the window, “It had stopped snowing some two or three hours back” (Larsen 110).

This means that the weather is still rather cold and despite the freezing temperature, Irene still sits beside the window. Another reason why Irene would want to open the window is because she wants to smoke her cigar. She politely uses the warm temperature in the room as her excuse to open the window. Although this action may seem reasonable today, during the 1930s, there was no social etiquette that required opening a window to smoke. The fact that Irene stays by the window after her smoke makes us question exactly what keeps her warm; perhaps it is her anger and rage towards Clare.

Later when Irene finishes her cigar, she throws it out and “watch[es] the tiny spark drop slowly down to the white ground below” (Larsen 110). To Irene, the sense of falling is either giving her an inspiration for her actions against Clare or a practice run before the real deal. In addition, the falling cigar sparks are being described in a very beautiful manner. “Tiny spark drop” gives us the sense of something small light and shiny which moves in a relatively stable winter air mass. The small shiny bits of cigar also contrasts with the twinkle stars in the clear ky after the snow stops. The action of “slowly down” is a romanticized version of the falling flakes. As Irene focuses on the falling flakes, she is also picturing the falling of Clare in a very calm and elegant way as if Clare’s fate is justified and beautiful. The separating flakes from the cigar also resemble the feeling of things falling apart. As Irene observes the flakes flying away, she sees Clare’s life being dismantled. In the next scene, Clare’s husband, John Bellew storms into the party after he found out that Clare is actually black and starts to burst out in rage.

In the midst of the confrontation, Felise says, “Careful. You’re the only white man here” (Larsen 111). Felise is stating that John is the only white person in the room, and she does not acknowledge Clare as being white. Although Clare has passed, they do not treat Clare as a white person or an outsider and would not hesitate to help her when she needs them. This demonstrates the strong unity of African American community and one cannot truly be passed and separated from the origin or background he or she comes from. During the confrontation, Irene has a thought in her mind, “One thought possessed her.

She couldn’t have Clare Kendry cast aside by Bellew. She couldn’t have her free” (Larsen 111). Irene is disgust by the thought of Bellew casting Clare away because this would be a great insult to Irene’s life. At the same time, this may be the end of Irene’s life as a “white” person. She would have to return to who she was before: black, poor and alone. In addition, this would also be an insult to the lives of people in the African American community who are always oppressed and marginalized by the authority the whites.

Besides, Irene would not want to set Clare free from Bellew because this would pose a bigger threat to Irene’s life and family. In the middle of the story, there is a mutual attraction between Clare and Irene’s husband, Brian Redfield, and Irene suspects that Brian is having a love affair with Clare. This internal conflict might explain the following scene, which is also Irene’s solution to end all of this – by ending Clare’s life. “What happened next, Irene Redfield never afterwards allowed herself to remember” (Larsen 111).

All the reader is informed of is that “one moment Clare had been there, a vital glowing thing, like a flame of red and gold” and “the next she was gone” (Larsen 111). What is made clear in these descriptions of Clare’s fall is that it is in some sense out of her own control; the event just happens with no clear explanation. But again this provides a significant parallel with the beginning of this work; as shown in the beginning of the story, “a man toppled over and became an inert crumpled heap on the scorching cement” (12).

Once again someone collapses onto a public street and their falling is hidden in uncertainty. While the cause of the man’s falling is unknown to Irene because she quickly flees the scene, the reason for Clare’s falling being uncertain is because Irene immediately represses this memory. Here, one might argue that in both the beginning and the end of this text the cause of falling is unknown to Irene because she willfully choses to refuse this knowledge, either by rushing away or repression. The connection between the beginning and the end is also reinforced by a syntactic similarity.

Additionally, in the beginning of this novel we discover “what small breeze there was seemed like a breath of a flame fanned by slow bellows” (Larsen 12). These same images are revisited in the conclusion. At the time of her fall, Clare is “a flame of red and gold (Larsen 111) with an furious John Bellew lurching towards her. Not only does her approaching husband’s name resemble the word bellow, but also at the party he actually “bellows” to Clare “So you’re a damned dirty nigger”( Larsen 111). Thus, in both the beginning and end of Passing, we find an imagery of bellows moving towards a flame.

In Passing, Clare and Irene are doubles for each other in multiple aspects. The fundamental connection between them is that their roots are from the same racial, social and gender groups. As readers, we are eager to find out why Irene tries to avoid Clare throughout Passing and what is the fear Clare poses upon Irene. One reason for this is that the constant appearance of Clare in Irene’s life serves as a constant reminder for Irene’s self. Since they are mirror images of each other, Irene sees herself in Clare in an eerie way.

Through Irene’s lens, Clare lives a life she can only image but never engage. It becomes a scary thought for Irene that someone so similar to herself can transform to carry a different identity on the surface. The constant comparison of Clare and Irene has forced Irene to raise questions about her own life. The recurring uncanny doubling effect from Clare presents such a constant pressure on Irene that only death can resolve this conflict. Works Cited Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

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