Passing Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Why exactly is Clare drawn back to the company of other African Americans?

    Clare's return to African-American social circles may be motivated by any one of a few different factors. Her attachment to Irene and her possible affair with Brian are among the most obvious motivations, though there are other, sociological reasons for her return as well. Clare could find the need to keep up a false racial identity exhausting; her trips to Harlem could be cathartic experiences. Perhaps, though, Clare has also realized that "passing" has not brought her the fulfillment that she had once envisioned--and believes that more genuine and meaningful human connections could be formed with people of her own ethnicity.

  2. 2

    As a character, is Clare Kendry meant to be admired or criticized within the broader context of the narrative?

    There are a few different arguments that one could use to argue that Clare is admirable: she exhibits courage in seeking exactly what she wants out of life by "passing," and she is elegant, witty, and personable. It is also possible to admire Clare, at least as a literary creation, precisely because she is flawed. Larsen has crafted Clare as a woman who grapples with strong emotions, and as a woman whose catastrophic fate is the result of her desire to live aggressively. Yet some of the same qualities can also be construed as reasons for criticizing Clare. Arguably, she is willing to treat an issue as serious as race relations as an elaborate game, is overly concerned with pleasures and appearances, and is incapable of facing the potential consequences--for Irene, for Brian, for her own family--of her riskiest actions.

  3. 3

    What are the advantages and disadvantages of delivering the narrative of Passing from Irene's perspective, as opposed to from Clare's?

    Unlike Clare, Irene is honest about her identity as an African-American; she is also meant to seem more levelheaded and less impulsive than Clare. Irene can thus provide a stable, assured perspective onto a story that involves sources of uncertainty and chaos. Using Clare as a narrator would have introduced a volatile and perhaps confusing narrative voice, although that choice could also--if handled properly--have enriched the entire narrative of Passing. Clare's unmediated perspective might have allowed Larsen to comment more pointedly on the social and emotional difficulties of "passing" itself. And while Irene's descriptions are often rich and detailed, Clare's temperament would have justified a level of passionate, dramatic writing that Irene's simply does not justify.

  4. 4

    Why is the truth about Clare's possible link with Brian never revealed?

    Throughout Passing, the narrative remains committed to Irene's perspective. By refusing to reveal the true nature of Brian and Clare's relationship, the narrative enables to the reader to feel some of the lingering, nagging uncertainty that Irene--at key points in the story, and perhaps in her future with Brian--certainly feels. Note, however, that the problems involving Brian, Clare, and Irene are ruptured by a moment of high drama: John Bellew's discovery. By leaving the possibility of an affair finally ambiguous, Larsen may also be signifying that this strand of the plot is less important, in terms of human cost, than Clare's downfall.

  5. 5

    What role does John Bellew's bigotry play in Passing? Why might Clare have married a bigot such as him?

    There are a few plausible motives that could explain Clare Kendry's marriage to a bigot. A marriage to a white racist would neatly complete Clare's attempt to "pass" as white, though other possibilities do exist; indeed, marrying Bellew could be a sign of unconscious aggression against Clare's own race, or an attempt to test Clare's own reserves of tolerance and caution. Whatever Clare's ultimate motive, it is undeniable that Larsen uses Bellew's bigotry to add an element of suspense and anxiety to the entire narrative structure of Passing.