Review of ‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen

I’m glad I finally got around to reading this short classic of the 1920s-30s Harlem Renaissance. It’s quite an intense book which you’ll be thinking about for ages afterwards.

The story follows Irene, who by chance meets a former schoolmate, Clare. Both women are mixed race, but while Irene embraces her heritage, Clare is ‘passing’ as white and is married to a racist who has no idea of her ‘black blood’. Irene despises her, but somehow Clare charms everyone and worms her way into the friendship group. The narrative focuses on the dynamics between the two women and Irene’s anxiety about her husband’s restlessness.

The strength of the book is in the powerful messages about being a woman and a black woman in particular. What struck me, however, was that there didn’t seem to be any terms for mixed race people. They were either described as ‘Negro’, ‘passing’ or in shades of their skin colour such as golden, beige or dark white. I don’t know enough about the historical context to say anything intelligent about this, I just thought it was notable.

While the ideas in this book are effective, I thought that the sentences were convoluted and repetitive. The dialogue was sometimes unrealistic, more like the characters were reciting speeches. I liked that there was a shocking twist at the end with a deeper meaning behind it. I felt that the book could have been filled out more with characters’ backgrounds and a detailed sense of place, as I was dissatisfied with the sketchiness of these aspects.

First published in 1929. This edition in the Penguin English Library, 2020.

2 thoughts on “Review of ‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen”

  1. I was the other way round – I enjoyed the writing but didn’t like the ending, It was too abrupt and I didn’t believe in it. But I thought the picture of the idea of “passing” was really well done. My understanding, which could easily be wrong, is that the words for mixed-race used then would be seen as slurs today, since they arose out of slavery classifications. The ‘one drop of blood’ idea of white supremacism was that if you were not purely 100% white, you were black, and you and your descendants could never not be black. Now, of course, thankfully we don’t feel black people should aspire to be white! But back then black people were so disadvantaged that passing for white must have been very tempting for those who could.

    1. That’s interesting! It was certainly the kind of ending that would divide opinion. Yes I agree, the focus on passing was very effective. I suppose that on one hand, it was an easier life for people with mixed heritage to pass as white (providing no one found out about it, especially racist spouses!) but on the other hand, they couldn’t be true to themselves and accepted for who they were.

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