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."
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.
The 1920s witnessed violent attempts to establish and regulate social and racial boundaries, and there was a great deal of national discourse on the so-called "color line". Larsen, however, challenged the traditional ideologies of identity politics at the time; her "nuanced handling of Clare's passing and Irene's 'allegiance' demonstrates that ideologies which conceptualize race as an ethics, whether originating in black pride or white racism, vary enormously, depending in large part, upon whether they attempt an answer to... 'what race is.'" Rather than reflect that rigid views of race that were prevalent and resulting in violence and deaths, Larsen portrays race as fluid and identity politics as complex.