Passing

By Nella Larsen
Sexual and Racial Tension in Larsen’s Passing Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield
are the two main characters in Nella Larsen’s Passing. We do not learn about
the both of them by seeing or hearing the story from a neutral point of view.

Rather, we are subject to envision the entire novel from behind the eyes of only
one of these characters, Irene. At first, forcing the reader to suspend
themselves in only one of these two complex minds may seem like a biased action
on the part of the author. However, as we read further into the book, we soon
discover that the limited third-person view is necessary to bring both of these
figures to life. This is because Irene’s perspective thrives off of Clare.

Despite the fact that each have heavily contrasting personalities. Irene’s
vivid but seemingly painful descriptions of Clare only augment the racial and
sexual tension that exists between them. From the very first page of the book,
it is clear that Irene Redfield’s personality clashes with Clare Kendry’s.

The moment Irene spies the second letter Clare has sent her, dressed up in

"Italian paper...out of place and alien" (Larsen 9), it is obvious that
there are many differences between these two young women. As the book progresses
further, we soon learn more and more why Irene’s feelings of resentment
towards Clare are justifiable. Growing up, Clare had "never been exactly one
of the group" (Larsen 20) and always wanted more out of life. Her desires and
light skin eventually landed her in the "other world," passing off as white.

Irene finds especially shocking how Clare could just drop her entire heritage
like a brick and live with someone who considers African-Americans "black
scrimy devils" (Larsen 40). Here we see the first signs of racial and sexual
tension that exists between the two women. Irene is upset at Clare not only for
completely denying and neglecting her own race, but also for letting herself be
drawn to a man who does not appreciate her for who she is. Although Irene
sometimes passes herself as white for certain perks in life, such as eating in
fancy restaurants or associating with high class people, she still has kept most
of her African-American ties in tact by marrying a upper class black man. There
is sexual tension existing at this point as well. Sex is a forbidden and
terrifying thing for young ladies who are passing. In Clare’s case, there is
fear. Fear that a black child may be conceived and her secret may be revealed.

For Irene, sex is risky. She has set up such a perfect lifestyle with her
husband and two kids that another child could threaten to ruin that. As the
story continues, we see a roller coaster relationship forming between Clare and

Irene. At various points in the book, they are the best of friends and the worst
of enemies. However, one omnipresent theme remains throughout the story: the
fact that Irene is constantly drawn back to Clare, regardless of what
shenanigans she pulls. After her first incident with Clare, Irene vows that

"[she] is through with Clare Kendry" (Larsen 31). Yet, it is not too far
down the road when Irene once again finds herself drawn back to Clare. And like
clockwork, she once again finds herself mortified by Clare’s behavior, this
time for supposedly having an affair with her husband. There is an obvious
reason why Irene is constantly drawn back to Clare. She is sexually attracted
and fascinated by her. Every time she talks about Clare, it is in a vivid and
almost seductive way. The sexual attraction also goes both ways. Clare longs to
return to her roots as a black person and stop living a life of secrecy. She
expresses this desire through her allure towards Irene. The hints of sexual
tension existing between these two women are peppered throughout the novel:

"looking at the woman before her, Irene Redfield had a sudden inexplicable
onrush of affectionate feeling..." (Larsen 65), "Clare’s ivory face was
what it always was, beautiful and caressing..." (Larsen 92). Clare’s husband
finally confronts her for being black. Even then, Irene is the last one to hold
onto Clare before she falls out of a window and kills herself. Although Irene
would admit that she only held Clare’s arm to resist her freeing herself of
her husband, I believe that Irene was attracted to her in an unconscious way and
her first instinct was to protect Clare’s safety. Thus, there is a heightened
amount of sexual and racial