"Queer Ideas": Sexuality, Race, and Repression in Nella Larsen's Passing College

Widely celebrated as a cornerstone text of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing is concerned with its titular subject in more ways than one. While racial passing undoubtedly constitutes the text’s thematic center, Larsen’s narrative also implicitly addresses the theme of sexual passing. This is most readily observable in Irene Redfield, who manages to “pass” as heterosexual while simultaneously harboring a desire for the enigmatic Clare Kendry. An analysis of Irene’s suppressed erotic desire for Clare not only contextualizes the former’s obsession with the latter but also sheds light on the exact nature of Irene’s troubled relationship with her husband, Brian. Moreover, such a reading offers another lens through which the reader can interpret Irene’s questionable actions in the novella’s finale. In response to critics who contend that queer reading and theorizing are little more than acts of ideological and political navel-gazing, I argue that to examine Passing from a queer perspective does not undermine the gravity of Larsen’s narrative. Rather, the thematic implications of this perspective harmonize with Passing’s moral message. Ultimately, Larsen’s work is a succinct treatise on the psychological...

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