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Passing by Nella Larsen

Passing by Nella Larsen

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Passing (1929) is a psychological fiction novella by American author Nella Larsen (1891-1964). As a light-skinned Black woman, Irene Redfield occasionally enjoys the benefits of "passing" as white in certain social settings. Irene's childhood friend, Clare Kendry, is so light-skinned that she can keep her Black identity a secret from her family. Nella Larsen drew on her own experiences as a biracial woman to analyze themes of race and identity.

Passing by Nella Larsen: Summary

The following summary of the novella is in three sections: "Encounter," "Re-Encounter," and "Finale."

Part One: "Encounter"

Irene Redfield is a light-skinned Black woman who lives in Harlem, New York. Due to her complexion, she can "pass" as white in certain social situations, a privilege she occasionally uses to her advantage. Despite her ability to pass, Irene maintains a connection to her Black identity and is involved in several community groups seeking to improve African Americans' conditions. Irene's childhood friend, Clare Kendry, is even more light-skinned than Irene and has completely turned her back on her Black identity and married a white man who does not know she is Black.

Passing, New York, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Despite the everyday racism in New York, Irene enjoys a comfortable life in Harlem.

While visiting family in Chicago, Irene runs into Clare, who talks about her fabulous new life as the wife of an investment banker moving between exotic locations in Europe and America. When Irene visits Claire at her hotel, she meets another light-skinned friend of Clare's who also passes as white. John Bellew, Clare's husband, arrives and begins to make racist remarks about Black people, unaware that the three women are Black.

How do the three women respond to John's racist remarks?

Shortly afterward, Irene receives a letter from Clare apologizing for her husband's behavior, but she burns the letter and moves on with her life.

Part Two: "Re-encounter"

Two years later, Clare moves to New York and attempts to reconcile her friendship with Irene. Unable to rebuff her old friend's effort, Irene meets Clare and tells her about her work with the "Negro Welfare League," a social society run by upper-class Black people. Despite Irene's protests, Clare invites herself to an upcoming event hosted by the league. As Clare spends more time in Harlem, she explores Black culture and becomes increasingly popular within Irene's social group.

The "Negro Welfare League" is a fictional organization inspired by two real-life organizations; the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Meanwhile, Irene notices her husband's growing frustration with life. Despite enjoying a comfortable life as a doctor, Brian is disgusted by the human body and feels like he only became a doctor at Irene's bidding. He yearns to leave the racism of America behind and move the family to the more tolerant atmosphere of Brazil.

Part Three: "Finale"

Irene suspects Brian and Clare are having an affair and considers outing Clare to her racist husband for revenge. One day Irene goes shopping with her friend, Felise Freeland, who has a darker complexion, and they run into Clare's husband, John. He attempts to start a conversation, but a panicked Irene fears that the presence of her Black friend may make John suspect her and Clare's true identity.

Irene does not inform Clare of the situation, fearful that it may lead to a divorce. She also fears that Brian may run off with Clare if she is single. Irene and Brian attend a Black social function with Clare, and John storms in to tell Clare he knows about her secret. A chaotic argument ensues as Clare edges closer to an open window. Both John and Irene move towards her, and in confusion, Clare falls out the window and plummets to her death. It is unclear whether she was pushed or jumped.

Passing, Jazz band, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Harlem was home to a thriving Black cultural scene during the 1920s. The neighborhood's nightclubs hosted some of the world's best jazz bands.

In the end, various accounts of the incident cannot agree on the true nature of Clare's death. The police rule the incident as an accidental death, and Irene is left to mourn for her friend.

Characters in Passing by Nella Larsen

Each of the novella's main characters has a different relationship with race and their identity.

Character Analysis

Irene Redfield

The novella's protagonist is a biracial woman who sometimes takes advantage of her light complexion to pass as white. Irene is the wife of a doctor and enjoys a comfortable life in upper-class Black society in the culturally vibrant neighborhood of Harlem.

Clare Kendry

Clare is Irene's childhood friend. Due to her light complexion, she can hide her biracial identity from her white husband. While society accepts Clare as a white woman, she struggles to find peace, knowing that her secret has the potential to ruin her family.

Brian Redfield

Brian is Irene's husband and has a successful career as a doctor. Although they enjoy a comfortable life, Brian is growing sick of America's segregation and racist policies. He dreams of leaving America and starting a new life for his family in Brazil.
John (Jack) BellewClare's husband is sociable and travels a lot for work. He is also a violent, racist white man who is unaware of his wife's black heritage and frequently uses racist slurs in the novel.

The Setting of Passing by Nella Larsen

The setting of Nella Larsen's novel Passing is primarily in the city of Chicago in the 1920s. The novel takes place during the era of the Harlem Renaissance, a time of cultural and artistic flourishing for African Americans in the North, particularly in New York City and Chicago.

The story also takes place in other locations such as New York City, and a summer resort. The novel explores the experiences and perspectives of a small group of middle-class African Americans living in Chicago during this time period. It also touches on the social and cultural issues of the era, such as racial identity, passing, and the limitations and discrimination faced by African Americans in a society that does not accept them for who they are.

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that occurred during the 1920s and 1930s, primarily among African Americans living in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. It was a time of great artistic and intellectual flourishing, with writers, artists, musicians, and thinkers of African descent creating and sharing their work on a national stage. Famous Harlem Renaissance people include Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson.

Themes in Passing by Nella Larsen

In Passing, Larsen uses the contrasting experiences of two light-skinned Black women to examine themes of race and racial identity.

Race and Identity in Passing

As two light-skinned women in an upper-class setting, Irene and Clare have conflicting views on their identities. While Irene sometimes uses her ability to "pass" to her advantage, she remains proud of her Black identity. She is involved in social organizations aimed at improving life for Black Americans. Conversely, Clare has a light complexion which allows her to "pass" as white all the time. Clare seems proud of her ability to avoid discrimination, while Irene sees this as a betrayal.

Passing, Racist headline, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Irene and Clare live in a time when segregation was openly encouraged by the vast majority of the population.

Despite their opposing views on "passing," both women can quickly move between Black and white social settings without detection. Larsen uses the women's ability to "pass" to highlight the arbitrary nature of racial classifications. The term "passing" can be read as either meeting a standard for entrance or passing from one state to another. With Passing, Larsen challenges the strict system of segregation that dictated many aspects of life in American society.

Passing takes place during the 1920s, a time of great racial tension in America. At the turn of the century, American society was strictly organized along racial lines, which favored white Americans and discriminated against Black Americans. At the turn of the century, America's rapid industrial growth led to an increased demand for labor. Millions of Black Americans moved from impoverished Southern states to seek opportunities in northern cities like New York and Chicago.

This vast movement of people, known as the Great Migration, changed the face of American cities.

As the city's population increased, there was an increase in interracial marriages and biracial children. In a deeply segregated society, many white Americans feared this development, and the "one-drop" rule declared that any person with any non-white heritage was to be considered Black.

Passing, photo of Rhinelander, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Alice Jones Rhinelander was light-skinned and able to "pass" as white.

In the novella, Clare's secret has the potential to ruin her life completely. To illustrate how stridently the society of the time opposed interracial marriage, Larsen references the "Rhinelander Case." In 1925, Leonard Rhinelander, son of one of New York's wealthiest and most powerful families, married a working-class woman named Alice Jones. Initially, high society was scandalized that Rhinelander married outside his class. Shortly after the marriage was announced, newspapers revealed that Alice's father was Black, and despite her appearance, she was biracial.

The case caused outrage throughout the nation and resulted in a public divorce case with Leonard accusing Alice of hiding her true identity. While Jones eventually won the case, she was left with deep psychological scars.

Passing by Nella Larsen: Analysis

What can we analyse from the novella? To begin, the novella's title comes from the sociological concept of racial "passing," whereby an individual from one ethnic group "passes off" as a member of another group. In American history, the concept was mainly applied to light-skinned Black Americans who appeared white and could enjoy freedom from discrimination. As a biracial individual, Nella Larsen had first-hand experience of this phenomenon but also suffered from conflicted feelings about enjoying a privilege that meant denying her true identity.

This conflicted feeling informs much of Irene and Clare's relationship. Larsen uses a third-person limited narrative view to explore the conflicting emotions of biracial individuals. This perspective makes Passing an example of the psychological fiction genre.

Psychological fiction: a literary genre that focuses on a character's inner thoughts and psychological development. The genre often employs stream-of-consciousness and flashbacks to illustrate the characters' minds. A famous example of psychological fiction is The Bell Jar (1963) by Slyvia Plath.

Larsen exposes the reader to Irene's inner thoughts on race, gender, class, and family issues. Some prose sections reflect her mind's inner workings by employing free-flowing associations or real-time reactions to the story's events.

For example, Irene considers the different identities in the Negro Welfare League Dance, with her conversation with Hugh Wentworth showing the time's (perhaps shallow) interest in knowing and finding out the name, status, and race of people simply by looking at them.

She... let her gaze wander over the bright crowd below. Young men, old men, white men, black men; youthful women, older women, pink women, golden women; fat men, thin men, tall men, short men; stout women, slim women, stately women, small women moved by. (Ch. 3)

As well as reflecting on Irene's struggles, Larsen uses the techniques of this genre to share Irene's thoughts concerning the social setting. Irene's thinking and beliefs are constant challenges by the social settings and shared expectations of her time.

Passing, Teacup, StudySmarterFig. 5 - The fancy teacup shatters, mirroring Clare's death.

Symbolism in Passing

Larsen uses a fancy teacup to symbolize Clare's fragile situation and foreshadow the novella's ending. As Clare begins to reconnect with Black society, she attends a tea party with Irene's friends. During the event, Irene becomes paranoid that the beautiful Clare may usurp her in the group of friends and steal Brian away. Enraged at the thought, Irene purposely smashes a teacup on the ground. The cup was a family heirloom dating back to the Civil War and was decorated with Confederate flags. Irene explains that she smashed the cup because of the Confederate flags to mask her anger and jealousy. This action suggests that Irene may have purposely pushed Clare out of the window at the end.

Passing by Nella Larsen: Quotes

In the following quotes, Nella Larsen illustrates the character's complex relationship to "passing" and each other.

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." (Part One, Ch. 1)

Irene and Clare have radically different views on "passing." While Irene admits it can sometimes be helpful, she remains proud of her Black identity. Clare attempts to live her entire life as a white person, but her new life is at risk when she begins to reconnect with her true identity.

The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well." (Part Two, Ch. 1)

As a work of psychological fiction, the novella gives vital insights into Irene's thoughts and feelings. Although Irene dislikes Clare's efforts to hide her Black identity, she is also jealous of her ability to attract friends and the attention of men effortlessly. Irene's jealousy of Clare often clouds her judgments.

Passing by Nella Larsen - Key takeaways

  • Passing is a novella by American author Nella Larsen.
  • Irene Redfield and her friend, Clare Kendrya, are light-skinned Black women able to "pass" as white. While Irene only uses this occasionally, Clare has constructed a new life in the white community.
  • Nella Larsen uses the women's story to analyze themes of racial identity and the arbitrary nature of segregation.
  • Larsen drew on her own experiences as a biracial woman to illustrate the complex lives of people who are able to "pass" as white.
  • The novella is an example of the psychological fiction genre.


  1. Fig. 1 - Manhattan Skyline by Berenice Abbott, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manhattan_Skyline_I_South_Street_and_Jones_Lane_Manhattan_by_Berenice_Abbott_March_26_1936.jpg
  2. Fig. 2 - Mamie Moffitt and Her Five Jazz Hounds from Jazz Heritage, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mamie_Moffitt_and_Her_Five_Jazz_Hounds.png
  3. Fig. 3 - Opening door headline from the Chicago Tribune, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Opening_Door.jpg
  4. Fig. 4 - AliceJonesRhinelander1924 from The Pittsburgh Courier, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AliceJonesRhinelander1924.png

Frequently Asked Questions about Passing by Nella Larsen

The novel deals with the social situation whereby some light-skinned Black individuals could "pass" as white and avoid discrimination.

The circumstances surrounding Clare's death remain unclear. While the police rule the death a misadventure, there is some suggestion that Irene may have pushed her out the window.

The concept of "passing" is when a light-skinned Black person could "pass" as white and enjoy the benefits of being white. The story follows two light-skinned women who each have a complex relationship with the concept of "passing."

Nella Larsen uses Passing to highlight the senseless nature of both race and racial division. While society cares deeply about a person's skin tone, Irene and Clare can move smoothly between the white and Black communities, illustrating that race is a socially constructed concept.

Passing was published in 1929. 

Final Passing by Nella Larsen Quiz

Passing by Nella Larsen Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


The sociological concept of "passing" refers to a person's ability to identify as a _____________. 

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Different race

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Despite Irene and Claire's biracial background, they would be classified as Black due to a rule known as what? 

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One-Drop Policy

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In which New York neighborhood does Irene live? 

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What is the name of the social society Irene is involved with? 

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The Negro Welfare League

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During a party with friends, Irene becomes jealous of Clare's popularity and smashes a __________. 

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Passing references a real-life case involving an interracial marriage. What is the name of that case? 

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The Rhinelander Case

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Which genre best describes Passing

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Psychological fiction

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Tired of America's racism, Brian wishes to move to _________. 

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Clare's death is clearly shown to be suicide. 

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Irene is often reluctant to embrace her Black identity. 

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