Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand, and The Stories

The Pleasures and Perils of Passing College

In her novel Passing, published in 1929, Nella Larsen delves into the identity struggle experienced by some African Americans who possess the same outward appearance as Whites. Clare Kendry, a protagonist in the novel, permanently crosses the boundaries of the color line in order to escape confinement and gain White privilege. I argue that Passing provides a critique of racial passing and of the arbitrary and deceptive construction of one’s race. Through an investigation of whether or not Clare Kendry’s African American heritage is an escapable aspect of her human nature, it becomes evident that Clare’s feigned way of life in which she conducts herself as a White member of society ultimately results in her personal destruction as symbolized through her tragic death.

After experiencing a childhood characterized by poverty and a lack of security, Clare yearns for a more luxurious life. Following her father’s death at age fifteen, Clare lives with her racist White aunts who require her to fulfill the domestic duties of the household, reinforcing society’s perception of her position in the inferior race. Clare explains her motivation to escape this inhibiting atmosphere when she comments, “I was...

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