Early in Passing, Clare refers to the biblical story of Noah's son Ham, a story that reminds her of her treatment at the hands of her own relatives: "they weren't quite sure that the good God hadn't intended the sons and daughters of Ham to sweat because he had poked fun at old man Noah when he had taken a drop too much. I remember the aunts telling me that the old drunkard had cursed Ham and his sons for all time" (188). This biblical story, which links the alienation and misfortune of people of black descent to a specific root cause, may be treated in a flippant manner by Clare herself; however, Passing itself is structured around themes of estrangement from one's community, for multiple characters. Clare comes to see herself (in a reversal of the anti-black account of Ham) as an outcast from a desirable black community, while Irene, at her most miserable, muses that she is part of the outcast race of "Ham's dark children" (248).
The Uncomfortable Weather (Symbol/Motif)
Some of the strongest motifs in Passing relate to the weather in Chicago and New York. For instance, in order to set up Irene's tense visit to Clare's quarters in Chicago, Larsen begins with by discussing the heat and climate on the day of Irene's visit: "On Tuesday morning a dome of grey sky rose over the parched city, but the stifling air was not relieved by the silvery mist that seemed to hold a promise of rain, which did not fall" (193). The discomfort that the weather causes Irene neatly echoes that psychological and emotional discomfort that Irene feels, and perhaps foreshadows the increased "heat" of emotion that Irene will feel after meeting the bigoted John Bellew. Nor is this the only time that weather reflects Irene's state of mind: in the final segments of the novel, Irene feels that the December weather is completely out-of-season, "The kind of weather for Easter. Certainly not for Christmas" (246). The weather is off-kilter and inharmonious--much like Irene's personal life, which has been disrupted by Clare's intrusive presence and by the possibility of an affair between Clare and Brian.
Brian and Brazil (Symbol/Motif)
After returning home from Chicago, Irene reflects on one of the sources of Brian's restlessness: namely, "That strange, and to her fantastic, notion of Brian's of going off to Brazil, which, though unmentioned, yet lived within him" (217). Brazil, for Brian, symbolizes escape from the medical duties that he finds increasingly unpleasant; for Irene, the country symbolizes exactly the opposite, a disruption of the household stability that she has worked so hard to create. Neither character, however, demonstrates any extensive knowledge of Brazil itself. Instead, the country is a fantastical place onto which Brian projects his foiled hopes, and onto which Irene projects her lingering fears.
Empty Socializing (Motif)
Looking back on the Negro Welfare League Dance, Clare realizes that many of her impressions are unremarkable, and with good reason: "the dance faded to a blurred memory, its outlines mingling with those of other dances of its kind that she had attended in the past and would attend in the future" (237-238). This is not the only instance of forgettable pleasantry in Passing; in fact, the very interchangeability and disposability of later social events (Irene's tea party, the Freelands' Christmas party) plays a crucial role in the narrative. The outward ease of Irene's social life starkly contrasts with the turmoil that Irene feels: the confusion of her feelings contrasts with her appearance of jaded calm in public.
The climactic events of Passing take place during the Christmas season, a time of year that should be marked by festivities and new beginnings but that assumes very different connotations in Larsen's narrative. Instead, Irene's own fears and anxieties reach their highest point and Clare's life comes to a catastrophic end. Although this reversal of expected imagery may seem unusual, it fits with Larsen's earliest description of the Christmas weather: "It wasn't, this mild weather, a bit Christmasy, Irene Redfield was thinking as she turned out of Seventh Avenue into her own street" (245). With this subtle statement, Larsen indicates that the entire Christmas season will go off-kilter for the Redfields and the Bellews.
Passing Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Passing is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Irene is an elegant and affluent woman of African-American descent. She spent her childhood in Chicago but relocated to Harlem, where she lives with her husband Brian and her two sons, Brian Junior and Ted. Alternately levelheaded and sensitive,...