Race and "tragic mulatto"
Though Passing does indeed relate the tragic fate of a mulatto who passes for white, it also centers on jealousy, psychological ambiguity and intrigue. By focusing on the latter elements, Passing is transformed from an anachronistic, melodramatic novel into a skillfully executed and enduring work of art.—Claudia Tate, 1980
Passing has been described as "the tragic story of a beautiful light-skinned mulatto passing for white in high society." The tragic mulatto (also "mulatta" when referring to a woman) is a stock character in early African-American literature. Such accounts often featured the light-skinned offspring of a white slaveholder and his black slave, whose mixed heritage in a race-based society means that she is unable to identify or find a place with either blacks or whites. The resulting feeling of exclusion was portrayed as variably manifested in self-loathing, depression, alcoholism, sexual perversion, and attempts at suicide.
On the surface, Passing conforms to that stereotype in its portrayal of Clare Kendry, whose passing for white has tragic consequences; however, the book resists the conventions of the genre, as Clare refuses to feel the expected anguish at the betrayal of her black identity and socializes with blacks for the purposes of excitement rather than racial solidarity. Scholars have more generally considered Passing as a novel in which the major concern is not race. For instance, Claudia Tate describes the issue as "merely a mechanism for setting the story in motion, sustaining the suspense, and bringing about the external circumstances for the story's conclusion."
Catherine Rottenberg argues that Larsen’s novella is a prime example of race and gender norms portrayed in the US. The main characters, Irene and Clare, and their struggle with their own identification problems in the novel, helps readers understand the difference between gender and race norms. These two central characters are able to pass as white women even though Irene does not fully pass over, and Rottenberg argues the difference between Clare and Irene by re-evaluating the idea of desire/identification. The mis-identification Clare deals with stems from her re-connection with Irene after twelve years of not speaking. Seeing Irene sparked a desire in Clare for her to get back in touch with her African-American culture. Irene's identification trouble is associated with her need to feel safe and in control in her life, the main reason Irene chooses to pass over only on occasion. Irene doesn't want to put herself into a dangerous situation.
Scholars have identified a homoerotic subtext between Irene and Clare, centered on the erotic undertones in Irene's descriptions of Clare and appreciation of her beauty. In that interpretation, the novel's central metaphor of "passing" under a different identity "occurs at a surprisingly wide variety of levels," including sexual. The apparently sexless marriage between Brian and Irene (their separate bedrooms and identification as co-parents rather than sexual partners) allows Larsen to "flirt, if only by suggestion, with the idea of a lesbian relationship between [Clare and Irene]." With Irene considered "an unreliable narrator," she is portrayed as mistaken about events and her interpretations of them.
The character of her husband, Brian, has been subject to a similar interpretation: Irene's labeling of him as queer and his oft-expressed desire to go to Brazil, a country then widely thought to be more tolerant of homosexuality than the United States was, are given as evidence. It is also shown that Brazil is considered to be a place with more relaxed ideas about race.
Scholars such as Claudia Tate suggest there is a theme of jealousy throughout the novel. Irene displays it here when deciding whether to expose Irene or not "She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. Clare, herself, or the race. Or, it might be, all three. Nothing, she imagined, was ever more completely sardonic.” Larsen uses jealousy as the main source of conflict in the novel, and uses race solely as a vehicle for Irene to potentially rid herself of Clare. At this point in the story Irene realizes she can expose Clare’s true racial identity to remove Clare from her life, and regain that security she desires more than anything.
Scholars such as Catherine Rottenberg examine how Larsen’s characters struggle against race and gender norms of "whiteness" in the United States. Rottenberg shows how the main characters in the novel confront normative characteristics of white culture. Clare, who is of mixed race, choses to identify with the white culture. Irene, who identifies as an African American, choses to pass when she feels the need to blend into white culture. The essence of Rottenberg's scholarship shows how the novel's characters struggle against the desire for whiteness because of the positive stereotypes society has created around "white" identity. Clare's experience growing up with her white aunts, who treated her as a servant, directly impacts Clare's initial desire towards whiteness. Hence, she passes as a white woman, marries a white man, and forgets her African American culture. Even though as a society the white race is the desirable race, Rottenberg explains how there are limitations put into place so the inferior race can never fully be white. For example, Clare has this desire to pass as a white woman because she believes that is the only way she will have a social power, but after reconnecting with her childhood friend Irene, she begins to struggle with her misplaced desire for whiteness and returns to her African American identification. Seeing Irene sparks a desire in Clare to get back in touch with her African American culture. Similarly, Irene identifies as black, but because she desires to feel safe and in control at all times in her life , she chooses to pass over only on occasion. Irene's desire to be white comes from her wanting the middle-class lifestyle because it will give her the security she needs. Irene doesn't want to put herself into a dangerous situation, which in a way, makes her feel like her marriage and the life she knows at risk. Throughout Larsen's novel Rottenberg explains how Clare has evolved from wanting to achieve whiteness to reconnecting with the African American culture, while Irene still has a desire to achieve "whiteness" for the feel secure.