Nella Larsen, in her novel Passing, creates an interesting and eye-opening medium through which we can analyze the complex topic of identity and self-identification. The characters in Passing all have a unique relationship to their own identities, as they are molded by the identities society wants them to have, and as they interact with the identities of others. Passing reconceptualizes identity by showing us characters who have a warped sense of self, and how these characters navigate the world when they don’t know what their “true” identity is. This balancing and rebalancing of identity is evident in the text mostly through the characters of Irene and Clare, whose identities are at first characterized by how much they are able to “pass” as white, but which shift through the text to also encompass their conception of sexuality and their class and social status. Ultimately, while Irene and Clare’s identities as “passing” white women seem to be more superficial, they inherently have conflicting identities underneath the surface that cause Irene specifically to try to subconsciously push Clare away for her own security. In this way, we can see that Irene’s identity is ruled over by her overwhelming need for security.
Irene’s worry about others finding out her true race is a constant anxiety that is present throughout the novel, and initially, this is the crux of her identity, as well as the base for her judgement on Clare. This is the first point of Irene’s identity that is obvious to the reader. For example, in chapter two, Irene enters the Drayton hotel, and immediately feels self-conscious because of the stares of another woman there (who, after a while, reveals herself to be Clare). At this moment, she is attempting to conceal her true self by assuming another identity: the identity of a white woman. She is afraid that the stranger (Clare) sees through her and suspects her actual race. This is a little example of a larger anxiety: her identity is crafted through pretending to be someone she’s not in public. She states on page 150 that it is “absurd” for someone to suspect her race, because “they always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy” (150). She says that “they couldn’t possibly know.” She seems certain, yet worried of her identity as a disguised black woman, however, this identity shifts and changes towards judgement of Clare and Clare’s decision to be certain and confident. However, she is not fully immersed into the idea of assuming the role of a white woman in society. Irene may “pass” as a white woman in public, but she still retains some parts of black culture and identifies as black, where it seems Clare has completely immersed herself into white culture. Her identity is confused in this way, and so when Clare, a confident “passing” woman, reappears in her life, she is unsure of how to handle Clare’s attachment to her, juggling her own safety in her identity and Clare’s physical safety.
Clare’s identity is more secure than Irene’s. While Irene has more of a complex relationship with her race and how she presents herself, Clare has fully immersed herself into living as a white woman. She marries John Bellew, a bigoted white man who hates people of color, and she even has a child with him. Her identity is separate from her race, and yet, she obsesses over Irene, wanting to be close to her. Irene’s security is now in danger. Irene is a woman who needs control in her life; she needs to maintain stability. Clare’s reappearance disrupts that security, and so Irene reacts subconsciously to rid herself of Clare, so that her own identity can be made secure. She denies Clare from visiting her on multiple occasions, refuses to answer letters, and tries to deny speaking with her about their identities or their friendship. Irene in this way is attempting to stop Clare from disrupting her safety as a “passing” white woman who has a stable home life with a black man. Clare brings uncertainty and chaos into her life, something that Irene cannot handle.
Clare not only disrupts Irene’s perception of race. She also interferes with Irene’s sense of sexuality and intimacy. There are hints towards a possible romantic relationship between Irene and Clare, who both are drawn to each other for seemingly unknown reasons. On page 194, Clare confronts Irene, who hadn’t been answering her letters. The conversation seems to be about race superficially, but there is an undercurrent of the pain of an impossible love beneath. Clare visits Irene to confront her for not responding to her letters, and she kisses Irene as she enters. Irene states that she “can’t help thinking that you ought not to come up here, ought not to run the risk of knowing Negroes,” and Clare replies: “You mean you don’t want me, ‘Rene?” Irene then even replies that it’s not that, but that it’s “not just the right thing.” Not only is Irene stating that Clare leaning towards her white identity is not right, she’s also stating that them being together “isn’t right” societally. Additionally, on page 169, when they are speaking together with Gertrude about Claude Jones, a man who identifies himself as a black Jew, they debate the concept of someone identifying as something they’re not. Clare states that it might be possible that Claude is being sincere, but she is surprised that Irene thinks he is. Irene states that she can’t talk about that “here and now,” meaning in front of Gertrude. Since they were talking about race beforehand, the only topic they would not have been able to talk about in front of Gertrude would be their sexuality, and Irene and Clare’s romantic feelings for one another. Clare’s identity has been shaped to be a “passing” white woman, and she wants to become physically closer to Irene, but Irene’s conflicting identity of a black woman and wanting to be in the closet denies that, so Irene pushes her away.
This is all to say that the identities of both Clare and Irene are multilayered—their “true” identities are covered up by superficial identities, for reasons of survival in a society which is racist and homophobic, perhaps, but also because of the inherent stigma that they have subconsciously. Once again, we see Irene subtly pushing away Clare in these moments so that she can better protect herself. Clare brings in change and fluctuation, and Irene doesn’t want to admit both that she disapproves of Clare’s lifestyle as a fully “passing” white woman, and Irene additionally doesn’t want to come out of the closet or admit that there is something resembling romance between her and Clare.
Because of Clare’s ability to make Irene feel unsafe and confused in her identity, Irene projects her internal turmoil outward onto Clare. She starts suspecting that Clare is having an affair with Brian—a baseless accusation—and believes that she cannot be truly free of the pandemonium Clare has brought upon her life until Clare is gone from both Bellew (for Clare’s safety, and thus Irene’s safety), and from Irene’s life so that Clare no longer causes this confusion with Irene’s identity and disrupt her home life. The entire novel hints at Irene’s want to kill and remove Clare, and towards the inevitable action of her actually doing the act. On page 146, a man falls on the sidewalk, but Irene ignores him and moves on, just as she acts emotionless and has to reaction to Clare’s falling and death at the end. On page 221, a cup falls, a cup who was owned by the Confederates. Hugh states that he “must have pushed” Irene, and apologizes, and Irene states that he didn’t push her, and that she was glad it was gone: it was a simple solution in order to “rid of it for ever.” Irene transfers this idea onto Clare—to be rid of the disruptive ideals of “passing” whiteness and homosexuality that Clare has brought into her life, she must kill Clare. She commits premeditated murder—she kills Clare in order to protect her identity; an identity that she refuses to let be changed.
This underlines how important identity is to an individual—the novel is remarking about how important maintaining an identity is, and how explosive it can be if an identity is undermined. Irene’s inability to accept Clare’s different identity and her inability to adapt her identity into the changing world caused her to violently lash out at Clare. Ultimately, Larsen posits that identity can often have multiple layers and it can be difficult to balance the identity that society wants us to have and the identity that we hold within ourselves. If Irene and Clare are any indication, the novel suggests that while it is important to protect your sense of security, it is more important to be open to change and to explore your identity before lashing out at others or repressing your own desires.
Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing. Rutgers University Press, 1986.