Passing Study Guide

A tightly constructed, psychologically incisive commentary on race relations in the early decades of the 20th century, Passing (1929) is the single best-known work of African-American novelist Nella Larsen. On one level, the book is a study of a fraught social choice: the decision that an African-American woman, Clare Kendry, makes to leave black society and "pass" as white. Yet on another level, Passing is a more universal study of psychology and perception--a consideration of the uncertainty of friendship, the difficulties of marriage, and the dissatisfactions that neither wealth nor education can erase.

While Clare and her choice motivate much of the action in Passing, the novel itself is delivered mainly from the perspective of another African-American woman, Irene Redfield. These two women were linked by childhood friendship, and are reunited by chance in Chicago. Both Irene and Clare are cultured and prosperous; nonetheless, their adult relationship is strained. Although Clare sees Irene as a means of reconnecting with the black community, a variety of forces--Clare's marriage to a white bigot, Clare's possible affair with Irene's husband, and Irene's reservations about Clare's "passing"--make Irene's contact with Clare consistently uneasy.

With Passing, Larsen continued the intensely psychological exploration of educated African-American communities that she began in Quicksand (1928). That earlier novel highlighted the difficulties that even a beautiful, talented African-American woman would experience in trying to find a place in a society shaped by racial consciousness. Clare's measures are perhaps more extreme than anything attempted by Helga Crane, the protagonist of Quicksand. Yet throughout her fiction, Larsen was dedicated to diagnosing the condition of displacement that--despite the vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance and the incremental progress made African-American education--was an unavoidable condition of African-American life in her own time.