Thursday, June 18, 2009

Review: Nella Larsen, Passing

I just have to share news of this startling little novella I just finished: Nella Larsen's Passing.

Set in the late 1920s in a society still under the shadow of Plessy v. Ferguson, it's the story of Irene and Clare, both of mixed-race heritage and light-skinned. They grew up together, but Clare moved away after the death of her father, and they reconnect as adults—when Clare is "passing" for white, in her everyday life. Irene passes occasionally, for momentary social benefits, but identifies more closely with the black community, and lives her everyday life openly within it. Irene learns that Clare's (white) husband is horribly racist and unaware of Clare's heritage, and has to decide whether to keep Clare's secret—when doing so may also save Irene's own marriage—or stand up for her beliefs.

There are many threads of tension throughout, and some of the sexual tensions are interesting to read so soon after finishing The Awakening. But the issue of "passing," the fluid racial identifications, and the social confines of the time are what made this so fascinating and challenging, and so different from things I'd read before.

Thinking back, my reading history has little that depicts the early/emerging black middle class and the choices available to them (in all aspects, not just race), and I thought a lot about how setting this story among the middle class made it very different from the options the characters would have had if it had been set in a different time or place—cf. Imitation of Life, for just one example. I hadn't had previous occasion to think about race choices (a concept foreign to my experience) in this milieu. This book's effect on me reminded me of the phrase "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable"—a good thing, IMHO.

So although this was not on my Gaps list, reading it helped me realize that I had a gap—and on my next list I'll add Larsen's 1928 novel Quicksand.

PS: I read the Penguin Classics edition, which has a fascinating introduction by Professor Thadious M. Davis that I didn't read until after finishing the story. This intro is like a lit seminar, discussing virtually all the various threads of tension, as well as the place this work has in American literature in general, and Harlem Renaissance literature in specific.


Sandra said...

I really enjoyed this book too. So glad you found this author. There are so many good Harlem Renaissance writers to enjoy.

susan said...

Glad to hear you enjoyed it. If you're interested in other titles that examine or illustrate differences in choice because of class among African Americans, loved to talk books with you. Come by Color Online. We focus on women writers of color. We discuss and highlight a lot of books that are often reviewed.

Enjoyed your post.

Jolie said...

Oh man, I read this novel for a college lit class and was blown away. That ending ... it's incredible. I also recommend this book as women's fiction, independently of the race issues it deals with. The relationship between Irene and Clare is really interesting.

Rachel said...

Yes, there are so many things to think about in this one short work, it's remarkable. I have to say, I liked this one MUCH better than "The Awakening," although it's apples to oranges admittedly.

Jolie, I have little experience with categorized study of fiction -- I was a science major, my only lit class in college was all science majors in 2nd semester of senior year trying to finish up our lit requirement! So I don't tend to think about what I read in those same terms, but I can totally see how there's an opportunity for a full and deep discussion of women's issues and relationships within this work, in addition to the issues of race. I bet that was a fun class.

Susan, I did pop over to Color Online, thanks -- I bookmarked it for further review after I get through my two book group books that I have to read in the next couple of weeks (neither of which are on my gap list, unfortunately). One of them is The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. I look forward to investigating that site more deeply...

Jolie said...

I read The Awakening for the same class (20th century American lit) and liked it, but I found Passing more powerful. It packs a bigger punch in fewer pages.