Passing – Books: In Review

By: Kyle Grubb

Yeah, it may be understandable to say that reviewing books that I need to read for class is a lazy practice. I call it killing two birds with one stone.

I would also like to mention before I start that this book is about race, particularly surrounding the black community. This is obviously still a touchy subject nowadays. While I have drawn my own opinions on the meaning of the book, I spend this review sharing the questions that I thought the book was attempting to ask. Not everything I ask reflects my own personal opinions. The best way to take your own interpretation of the novel is to read it yourself. It’s super short, and only a few dollars.

In Life:

This book is the second novel I needed to read for my American Literature course. Prior to that class, I had never heard of the book. The privileged white person I am, I had also never heard of the concept of passing. For those who don’t know, passing is the process where a person of one racial decent passes themself off as being a different race. In the US, this is usually a lighter-skinned person of black descent passing as white. For those who don’t live in America this may be a strange concept, but the history of the United States is, obviously, steeped heavily in racism. The ability to pass as white, especially in the 1920’s and 30’s when this novel was written, was a huge boon to a person’s potential social and economical standing. I still don’t know how it took until I was 23 to hear about this. It just feels like I should have known about it before now.

In Review:

Passing, written by Nella Larsen and released in 1929, is the story of two black women, Irene and Clare. Irene is comfortably middle class, with a doctor for a husband and two maids. Irene stops to get tea while shopping for a toy for one of her sons, and happens to run into Clare. The two were childhood friends, though Clare vanished after the death of her father. Irene manages to get swept up into Clare’s life and discovers that Irene is married to a very wealthy man and has a daughter. The only problem is that Irene’s husband is incredibly racist, as has no idea of Clare’s true heritage.

We're talking "Bioshock Infinite's Columbia" racist, folks.
We’re talking “Bioshock Infinite’s Columbia” racist, folks.

Center to the novel is the ideas of both race and class. Important to Irene is the concept of improving the black community as a whole. She fights, in her own subtle ways, to create a life for herself that would be of equal standing to a white woman in her same economic station. She is defined by her race, and all of her actions either are intended as representation of or are for progressing forward the black community. Clare, on the other hand, has found way to transcend race. Her black heritage in no way holds her back, and is able to float between both her upper-class life and her old friends.

In a perfect world, such actions would be ideal. In a world where the boundaries of race have been torn down, would not Clare’s approach to life be the goal? And yet, in the world these characters live in, is the very fact that Clare passes not an insult to her heritage?

And truly, what is race? Is it biological? Is it social? Who decides?
And truly, what is race? Is it biological? Is it social? Who decides?

Larsen seems to spend much of the book avoiding true judgment on both central characters. While we, as the readers, are privy to Irene’s opinions of Clare, the book seems determined to present enough detail for the reader to form their own opinions of the characters and their actions. Even the concept of passing is left to be self-interpreted. One one of the characters claims about it that “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, and yet we protect it.” Instead, Passing concerns itself with showing the possible ramifications the social constructs of class and race can do to people.

Clare provides a quandary to Irene that can have no easy solution, but to a woman like Irene, with whom her duty to her race is paramount, there is no true solution at all. To protect Clare from the potential wrath of her husband, Irene must stay silent of Clare’s true heritage. While staying silent would be condoning Clare’s actions, and thus betraying the race, speaking the truth could endanger Clare, and thus betray another black woman. This quandary, impossible for Irene to solve, drives much of the novel. At what point does loyalty to your race and heritage become a detriment, and at what point should it be cast aside? Should it ever?

A strong culture built by oppression. Can its very existence cause a different kind of oppression?
A strong culture built by oppression. Can its very existence cause a different kind of oppression?

The one true problem with this book is a problem that plagues many books of the time period: the writing style. Nearing a century old, Passing very much shows its age. While the style is hard to criticize too much, as that was merely how books were written back then, the jolted style and odd pacing is sure to give pause to some readers associated with more modern fair. I understand that this is a nitpick that many people will cry foul over, but it’s just me. I really enjoyed the book, but the way it was written made it feel much longer than it actually was.

In Summation:

The book, a novella that clocks just shy of 100 pages in most additions, is short but full. It asks interesting questions, but refuses to give the reader an easy answer. The reader has to decide for themselves whether the actions of Irene and Clare are justifiable, and whether or not the fault truly lies on them or for the society that shapes every decision they must make.

Passing is certainly an interesting book, but if you give it the attention it deserves, don’t expect to find simple solutions. And even after all of the time that has passed since this novel was first published, you may find yourself surprised with exactly how much of it may still ring true.





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