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Literature / Passing

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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."
Irene Redfield

Passing is Nella Larsen's second novel, written in 1929.

The main character of the story is Irene Redfield, a lady prominently ensconded in Harlem's vibrant society of the 1920s. Her charmed existance, however, is shaken up by a chance encounter with Clare Kendry, a childhood friend that has been "passing for white" and hiding her true Negro identity from everyone, including her racist husband. Clare's actions provoke both ladies to confront the hazards of public and private deception.


This work features the following tropes:

  • Foreshadowing: The very first actions taken by Irene in the novel is to examine an envelope that's seemingly out of place and alien when compared to the rest of the mail, and was sent by a woman that (in her opinion) is always stepping on the edge of danger.
  • Pass Fail: The novel is entirely about examining this phenomenon - it contains three "black" women, one who has basically switched to a white identity by continuously passing (Claire), one that can pass, but doesn't (Irene),and one who passes occasionally out of convenience (Gertrude). It does not work out well for the first two in the end.
  • Psycho Lesbian: Pops up when reading into the subtext. The egotistical, needy, manipulative Clare, a practiced seducer, uses her beauty and charm to fascinate Irene before setting out to take over Irene's life and husband. Irene possibly murders Clare while still attracted to her.

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