Throughout Passing, Larsen's characters think about social and cultural questions in largely racial terms. Clare, for instance, is motivated to rejoin a black social circle that is fundamentally separate from the white world she knows. Her sense of racial disorientation--first as a black woman passing as white, then as a participant in white society who wants to reconnect with her roots--propels much of the novel's tension and conflict. Yet racial issues play out in different ways for the other characters. While Irene is mostly satisfied with her place in Harlem's black society, her husband, Brian, finds that a sound and supportive ethnic community is not enough to bring him fulfillment.
Passing gives considerable attention to the marriage dynamics existing within the Redfield and Bellew households. For Irene, Clare, and many of their peers--Gertrude, Hugh, and even minor characters such as Felise--marriage appears to offer a source of security and partnership. Yet as Larsen's narrative progresses, the seeming stability that marriage initially offers is exposed as deeply problematic. Irene's marriage is strained by the possibility of an affair between Clare and Brian--and by Brian's lingering discontent--while the marriage between Clare and John Bellew is driven to the point of crisis by a very different factor: Clare's hidden ethnic identity.
The central relationship in Passing--namely, the connection between Clare and Irene--makes friendship one of the central themes in Larsen's narrative. Nonetheless, the conception of friendship that is present in the novel is complex and even problematic. At times, the "friendship" between Clare and Irene seems completely asymmetric, since Clare consistently and eagerly reaches out while Irene, in contrast, resolves to keep Clare at a distance. Nonetheless, there are signs of a genuine bond between the two women. Irene, after all, is genuinely worried about the repercussions of Clare's attempt to "pass" as white, and develops an admiration for Clare's elegance and sociability that, given time, could have matured into a more profound sense of fellowship.
To some extent, the structure of Clare Kendry's entire adult life is based on deception. She has decided to "pass" as a white woman, and in doing so has deceived both her white companions and her bigoted white husband, John Bellew, regarding her true ethnic roots. Though Clare's ploy is dramatic and risky, it is not the only deception (racial or otherwise) at work in Passing:other African-American women, such as Gertrude and Irene, are capable of passing in their own ways. And Irene herself faces a troubling possibility of deception of a very different sort later in the novel; after all, Clare's apparent bond with Irene could simply veil Clare's affair with Brian.
Uncertainty and Indeterminacy
In choosing Irene Redfield as the narrator of Passing, Larsen selected a character who, despite her powers of emotion and observation, remains in many ways incapable of discerning the full reality of what is happening around her. For instance, Irene is unable of establishing certainty about the status of Clare's link to Brian, and spends later stages of the novel wondering whether Bellew has discovered Clare's true ethnic identity. Such uncertainty is not a flaw of the novel: in fact, Irene's inability to figure out exactly what Clare is thinking makes Irene both realistic and sympathetic, and makes Clare increasingly complex.
Almost every principal character in Passing has a stake in a household with fairly young children. While Irene spends much time reflecting on the upbringing of Brian Junior and Ted, other characters have the power to influence their offspring in dramatic ways. Clare, for instance, occasionally reflects on the role of her daughter Margery and on the complicated position in her the "passing" attempt has put this young girl. And after Clare's possible liaison with Brian and possible discovery by Bellew set crises in motion, Irene reflects on how such problems may affect her sons--and Clare's daughter.
Privilege and Prosperity
Initially, Clare's "passing" maneuver serves as a manner of escaping her dreary relatives and of entering a world of privilege and affluence that she had once only observed from a distance. But as Passing progresses, the theme of privilege--along with Clare's relation to privilege--is significantly transformed. Both Irene and Clare inhabit privileged worlds, although these worlds are divided by ethnic identity. In passing into Harlem's highest social circle, Clare aims to hold on to the lifestyle of sophistication and prosperity that she knows while seeking racial fellowship.
Passing Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Passing is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.