Blurring the Lines of Race and Identity Part II

Part Two: Race, Duty, and Jealousy


(Nella Larsen)

At the end of part one, Irene is relieved to be rid of Clare after the unpleasant evening with John, but as you probably guessed, we have not seen the last of Clare. Part two begins with Clare desperately trying to reconnect with Irene, this time in Irene’s new home in Harlem, New York. John is away for business and Clare decides to use this time to reconnect with the African-American community by taking advantage of Irene’s connections. As Clare worms her way back into Irene’s life, Larsen uses this plot development to comment on themes concerning race, personal relationships, and the culture of African-American community at the time. I would like you to focus on the following themes as you read.


Historical Background: The Harlem Renaissance.

In Passing, Larsen gives us both an image of what life was like for a well-to-do African-American family in Harlem via the Redfields and a glimpse of the culture of the community with the scene at the charity ball. Before we discuss this scene, I want you to read the two brief primers on the culture of Harlem in the Twenties linked below. The first is the University of Texas Ransom Library’s history of the Harlem Renaissance. (make sure to click through all the sections) The second is a passage from Langston’s Hughes’ book The Big Sea in which he discusses what the clubs were like in Harlem of the 1920s (both are covered in the context quiz)

One of the important ideas to take away from Hughes’ account is how popular African-American culture had become in the Jazz Age. The young white flappers that you may be familiar with from The Great Gatsby began to explore jazz music and African-American artists and writers during this era. This was also the age of prohibition and the Harlem clubs offered bootlegged alcohol as well. Even though they may have meant well, as Hughes notes, they treated African-American performers like exotic creatures instead of equal, ordinary people like themselves.

In the scene during the charity ball, Larsen comments on what we would now term “exoticism”, the tendency of the majority population to treat the minority as an exotic “other”, and in the process stereotype and objectify them. This term comes from 19th century art in which inhabitant of “exotic” lands were depicted in sexual and alluring ways, giving people the impression that they had looser morals and were more “primitive”. This, of course, is a fantasy. In the following passage beginning on page 137, Irene speaks with the white writer Wentworth about the attractions between the races at the charity event and touches on the role exoticism plays.

But what I’m trying to find out is the name, status, and race of the blonde beauty out of the fairy-tale. She’s dancing with Ralph Hazelton at the moment. Nice study in contrasts, that.” 

It was. Clare fair and golden, like a sunlit day. Hazelton dark, with gleaming eyes, like a moonlit night.  

“She’s a girl I used to know a long time ago In Chicago. And she wanted especially to meet you.” 

” ‘S awfully good of her, I’m sure. And now, alas ! the usual thing’s happened. All these others, these — er — ‘gentlemen of colour’ have driven a mere Nordic from her mind.” 


” ‘S a fact, and what happens to all the ladles of my superior race who’re lured up here. Look at Blanca. Have I laid eyes on her 
tonight except In spots, here and there, being twirled about by some Ethiopian? I have not.” 

“But, Hugh, you’ve got to admit that the average coloured man is a better dancer than the average white man — that Is, If the celebrities and ‘butter and egg’ men who find their way up here are fair specimens of white Terpslchorean art.” 

“Not having tripped the light fantastic with any of the males, I’m not In a position to argue the point. But I don’t think It’s merely that. ‘S something else, some other attraction. They’re always raving about the good looks of some Negro, preferably an unusually dark one. Take Hazelton there, for example. Dozens of women have declared him to be fascinatingly handsome. How about you, Irene? Do you think he’s — er — ravishingly beautiful?” 

“I do not! And I don’t think the others do either. Not honestly, I mean. I think that what they feel Is — well, a kind of emotional excitement. You know, the sort of thing you feel in the presence of something strange, and even, perhaps, a bit repugnant to you; something so different that it’s really at the opposite end of the pole from all your accustomed notions of beauty.” 

“Damned if I don’t think you’re half- way right!” 

“I’m sure I am. Completely. (Except, of course, when it’s just patronizing kindness on their part.) And I know coloured girls who’ve experienced the same thing — the other way round, naturally.” 

“And the men? You don’t subscribe to the general opinion about their reason for coming up here. Purely predatory. Or, do you?” 

“N-no. More curious, I should say.” 

Wentworth, whose eyes were a clouded amber colour, had given her a long, searching look that was really a stare. He said: “All this is awfully interestin’, Irene. We’ve got to have a long talk about it some time soon.

As you read over this passage, consider what Irene’s argument is about why the white population is interested in African-American culture. How might this apply to her opinion of Clare who is actually of African-American heritage, but acts much like the white people at the ball? What do you think Irene means by the term “patronizing kindness” coming from white people attending African-American cultural events?
This then leads to to the next theme I want you to consider in this part of the novel:


Race and the sense of “duty” and “belonging”


(Passing was a theme explored in films like this one above from 1960)

At the beginning of part two, Irene receives a letter from Clare about her impending arrival and remembers the awful experience she had meeting her husband. While deeply reflecting, she wonders why Clare has such a consuming desire to reconnect with her old friends and her African-American roots. As you read the passage below that illustrates Irene’s thoughts, I want you to think about why Clare wants to risk everything to be able to re-enter African-American society? What is it that she might be looking for? What might her motives be?

And mingled with her disbelief and resentment was another feeling, a question. Why hadn’t she spoken that day? Why, in the face of Bellew’s ignorant hate and aversion, had she concealed her own origin? Why had she allowed him to make his assertions and express his misconceptions undisputed? Why, simply because of Clare Kendry, who had exposed her to such torment, had she failed to take up the defense of the race to which she belonged? 

Irene asked these questions, felt them. They were, however, merely rhetorical, as she herself was well aware. She knew their answers, every one, and it was the same for them all. The sardony of it! She couldn’t betray Clare, couldn’t even run the risk of appearing to defend a people that were being maligned, for fear that that defence might in some infinitesimal degree lead the way to final discovery of her secret. She had to Clare Kendry a duty. She was bound to her by those very ties of race, which, for all her repudiation of them, Clare had been unable to completely sever. 

And it wasn’t, as Irene knew, that Clare cared at all about the race or what was to become of it. She didn’t. Or that she had for any of its members great, or even real, affection, though she professed undying gratitude for the small kindnesses which the Westover family had shown her when she was a child. Irene doubted the genuineness of it, seeing herself only as a means to an end where Clare was concerned. Nor could it be said that she had  even the slight artistic or sociological interest In the race that some members of other races displayed. She hadn’t. No, Clare Kendry cared 
nothing for the race. She only belonged to It.

In this passage, Larsen also brings up the idea of a sense of “duty”, that people of a minority race are bound by their background to help others and to work first and foremost for the good of their community. Irene hates the fact that Clare “cared nothing for the race,” or at least that’s what she thinks at first. Later, we learn that Irene works for African-American rights causes and charities and has been devoting her time to their events at the cost of a strain on her marriage. This raises the question, “Does one have an inherent duty to remain loyal to one’s community?” Has Clare committed an unpardonable sin by turning her back on her community? Does Irene have an inherent duty to help Clare even though Clare has done nothing to help the African-American community?

Jealousy and Desire

quote-o-beware-my-lord-of-jealousy-it-is-the-green-eyed-monster-which-doth-mock-the-meat-it-feeds-on-william-shakespeare-286 (1)

(Shakespeare’s famous quote from Othello)

Why does Irene allow Clare to worm her way back into her life? By all accounts, Clare is selfish, she has abandoned a cause near and dear to Irene’s heart, and she made Irene suffer racist abuse from her husband. As Irene reflects in the opening of part two:

The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well. (88)

Have you ever heard the phrase “ to have your cake and eat it too” before?  It seems like Larsen is playing on this phrase with her description of Clare. She’s the type who seems like she can get away with anything. Irene is jealous of her boldness and audacity. In principle, she opposes passing and the kind of selfish, reckless behavior that Clare exhibits, and yet, she is strangely allured by it. Irene resents Clare because Clare can break the rules and get away with it, and while Irene believes in these morals, she cannot help but somewhat wish that she could too.

Think about it. Have you ever had a friend or knew someone that had the ability to simply take what they want, damn the consequences, and seem to always come off scot free? We hate that they trample people and abandon morality to get what they want, but we also cannot help but admire their boldness and agency even though we oppose what they do. A part of us wishes we could be like them, but we know it is wrong, and we hate ourselves for thinking like that. This is what’s playing on in Irene’s mind.

Clare even admits that she has a selfish attitude and lacks a moral compass after admitting that she was glad her daughter is in boarding school so she can be “free”:

Clare, suddenly very sober and sweet, said: “You’re right. It’s no laughing matter. It’s shameful of me to tease you, ‘Rene. You are so good.” And she reached out and gave Irene’s hand an affectionate little squeeze. ‘Don’t think,” she added, Whatever happens, that I’ll ever forget how good you’ve been to me.” 


“Oh, but you have, you have. It’s just that I haven’t any proper morals or sense of duty, as you have, that makes me act as I do.” 

“Now you are talking nonsense.” 

“But it’s true, ‘Rene. Can’t you realize that I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe.” Her voice as well as the look on her face had a beseeching earnestness that made Irene vaguely uncomfortable. 

She said: “I don’t believe it. In the first place what you’re saying is so utterly, so wickedly wrong. And as for your giving up things — ” She stopped, at a loss for an acceptable term to express her opinion of Clare’s “having” nature.

Consider why Irene reassures Clare that she does indeed have a sense of morality when we know that Irene truly doesn’t think so. Let’s go back to the example with the selfish friend. Why do we remain friends with selfish, self-serving person like Clare? We hate that they get away with immoral behavior and we wish we could indulge, but how do we cope with it? We pride ourselves on moral superiority. Irene likes that Clare is dependent on her to reconnect with her African-American roots, that she has something her bold friend wants. Furthermore, Irene can make her feel good about missing out on some of the “having her cake and eat it too” that Clare partakes in because she can praise herself for her moral fortitude. In essence, Irene is using Clare to make herself feel morally superior. It gives her a reason to look down on someone that she’s jealous of.
But will such a tension hold? Will Irene be able to control her jealousy? Will Clare be able to moderate her dangerous indulgence? When we read part three, we will see how deeply Irene becomes obsessed with Clare, and we will learn whether or not Clare will get away with trying to nibble at everyone’s cakes.


Part Three: Obsession 

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(From Edward Dmytryk’s 1949 film)

By the final part of the text, Irene’s jealousy over Clare’s ability to flaunt the rules of society and make herself the center of attention crosses over to an obsession. In her article “What Drives Jealousy” Dr. Lisa Firestone writes the following about jealousy and obsession, which we can apply to Irene’s thinking in the text:

Jealousy isn’t something we have much control over. In truth, it is a natural, instinctive emotion that everyone experiences at one point or another. The problem with jealousy is that it masks other feelings and attitudes that are even more hurtful to us and those closest to us. Its intensity is often shielding deep-seated feelings of possessiveness, insecurity or shame. I believe that what lies at the heart of jealousy very often isn’t the threat itself, but a drive we have within us to torment ourselves and berate ourselves with self-critical thoughts.

Think about the thoughts we have when we feel jealous. Lurking behind the paranoia toward our partners, or the criticisms toward a perceived third-party threat, are often critical thoughts toward ourselves. Thoughts like, “What does he see in her?” can quickly turn into “She is so much prettier/thinner/more successful than me!” Even when our worst fears materialize and we learn of a partner’s affair, we frequently react by directing anger at ourselves for being “foolish, unlovable, ruined or unwanted.”

These critical inner voices and the feelings of humiliation that they foster can be more painful to us than the threat itself. They can also be more real. This negative self-coaching accompanies us into our personal relationships and instills in us a level of doubt and criticism that keeps us from perceiving ourselves as truly lovable. It reminds us to be suspicious with thoughts like, “She doesn’t really care about you” or “You can’t trust him. Just keep him at a distance.”


The first paragraph may give us insight into why Irene becomes obsessed with Clare. As we learn in the second and third parts of the novel, Irene is not fully happy with her home life and her marriage with Brian:

Christmas, with its unreality, Its hectic rush. Its false gaiety, came and went. Irene was thankful for the confused unrest of the season. Its irksomeness, Its crowds, Its Inane and Insincere repetitions of genialities, pushed between her and the contemplation of her growing unhappiness. 

She was thankful, too, for the continued absence of Clare, who, John Bellew having returned from a long stay in Canada, had withdrawn to that other life of hers, remote and inaccessible. But beating against the walled prison of Irene’s thoughts was the shunned fancy that, though absent, Clare Kendry was still present, that she was close. 

Brian, too, had withdrawn. The house contained his outward self and his belongings. He came and went with his usual noiseless irregularity. He sat across from her at table. He slept in his room next to hers at night. But he was remote and inaccessible. No use pretending that he was happy, that things were the same as they had always been. He wasn’t and they weren’t. However, she assured herself, it needn’t necessarily be because of anything that involved Clare. It was, it must be, another manifestation of the old longing. (177)

Here it is possible to see that Clare’s happiness is threatening to Irene. Clare can alleviate herself of the burdens of everything that makes Irene unhappy. She has left her child and husband and is freely partying with all the hip figures of the Harlem Renaissance without a feeling of consequence. Irene deeply resents the kind of freedom Clare allows herself to have as a self-centered, reckless person. She does not feel the sense of insecurity that Irene does, which Firestone identifies as a cornerstone of jealousy:

In spite of her searchings and feeling of frustration, she was aware that, to her, security was the most Important and desired thing In life. Not for any of the others, or for all of them, would she exchange it. She wanted only to be tranquil. Only, unmolested, to be allowed to direct for their own best good the lives of her sons and her husband. (199)

Here, Irene admits to herself that security is the most important aspect of her life, yet she resents Clare for not worrying about being secure and thus freeing herself to do as she pleases. This feeling of resentment becomes Irene’s obsession, and soon, this obsession leads to paranoid thoughts. For example, she convinces herself that Brian and Clare are having an affair:

What bitterness ! That the one fear, the one uncertainty, that she had felt, Brian’s ache to go somewhere else, should have dwindled to a childish triviality ! And with It the quality of the courage and resolution with which she had met It. From the visions and dangers which she now perceived she shrank away. For them she had no remedy or courage. Desperately she tried to shut out the knowledge from which had risen this turmoil, which she had no power to moderate or still, within her. And half succeeded. 

For, she reasoned, what was there, what had there been, to show that she was even half correct In her tormenting notion? Nothing. She had seen nothing, heard nothing. She had no facts or proofs. She was only making herself unutterably wretched by an unfounded suspicion. It had been a case of looking for trouble and finding it in good measure. Merely that. 

With this self-assurance that she had no real knowledge, she redoubled her efforts to drive out of her mind the distressing thought of faiths broken and trusts betrayed which every mental vision of Clare, of Brian, brought with them. She could not, she would not, go again through the tearing agony that lay just behind her. (175)

At this point in the story, Irene has convinced herself (at least partially) that Brian and Clare are having an affair. But think about it, what evidence is there to support it? Have we even seen Brian and Clare together alone? They have barely ever spoken about one another or entertained each others presence. Yet, a part of Irene believes this based on little evidence. This is the dangerous element of obsession. It has turned into paranoia, in that she is now perceiving motives and behaviors that simply do not exist so as to justify her feelings of being threatened. Irene is so obsessed with the resentment she feels for Clare that she has turned this resentment into the perception of a real threat. Previously, she was a threat only in the sense that Clare reminded Irene of her own insecurities and unhappiness. But, because the mind cannot always process such an abstract threat, she has turned that into a “real” threat, by assuming that Clare is having an affair with her husband.

Also, consider Firestone’s comment about the “inner voices” that drive the individual psyche toward obsessive jealousy. Notice how when Larsen’ narrates this part of the story, it is all from Irene’s perspective and that we are privy to her inner-thoughts as they occur. Larsen does not summarize what she thinks, but instead gives Irene a stream of consciousness for her thoughts, and they are often contradictory and do not logically follow one another. Consider this scene from after Irene is spotted by Mr. Bellew in New York:

She thought: *’Why didn’t I tell him? Why didn’t I? If trouble comes from this, I’ll never forgive myself. I’ll tell him when he comes up.” 

She took up a book, but she could not read, so oppressed was she by a nameless foreboding. 

What if Bellew should divorce Clare? Could he? There was the Rhinelander case. But in France, in Paris, such things were very easy. If he divorced her — If Clare were free — But of all the things that could happen, that was the one she did not want. She must get her mind away from that possibility. She must. 

Then came a thought which she tried to drive away. If Clare should die ! Then — Oh, it was vile! To think, yes, to wish that! She felt faint and sick. But the thought stayed with her. She could not get rid of it. 

She heard the outer door open. Close. Brian had gone out. She turned her face into her pillow to cry. But no tears came. 

She lay there awake, thinking of things past. Of her courtship and marriage and Junior’s birth. Of the time they had bought the house in which they had lived so long and so happily. Of the time Ted had passed his pneumonia crisis and they knew he would live. And of other sweet painful memories that would never come again. 

Above everything else she had wanted, had striven, to keep undisturbed the pleasant routine of her life. And now Clare Kendry had come into It, and with her the menace of Impermanence.

Notice how Irene’s thoughts run dramatically from feeling guilt over putting Clare in danger to day dreaming about her death. The thoughts of obsession tend to overflow, based on justifying one’s current feelings (which are conflicted here). Her perception of Clare is clouded by her confused inner-thoughts trying to justify her feelings of insecurity and jealousy, mixing fantasy and reality.

Many scholars have also proposed that part of what threatens Irene about Clare is an undeclared attraction. One could possibly interpret that Irene has a sexual or romantic feeling for Clare that she has deeply repressed and projected onto her husband. As you read, look for all the passages in which we read a description of Clare’s beauty from Irene’s point of view. Do they seem to cross the line from aesthetic description to sexualized attraction? What do you think?


The End? (Spoiler Alert)

The ending of the novel is notoriously ambiguous. All we know for sure is that Clare ends up plummeting from a window at a party in Harlem once Bellew arrives and discovers her secret. What we don’t know is what exactly caused the fall. Several scenarios could have happened:

  1. Bellew intentionally pushes Clare and she falls
  2. Bellew unintentionally pushes Clare and she falls
  3. Clare attempts to back away from Bellew and she falls accidentally
  4. Clare faints and she falls accidentally
  5. Clare knows she is caught and purposefully jumps
  6. Irene intentionally pushes Clare because her secret is out and she can live freely in Harlem
  7. Irene unintentionally pushes Clare because her secret is out and she can live freely in Harlem

Perhaps you can think of additionally possibilities beyond the scenarios I have listed. Larsen purposefully makes the ending of the story ambiguous so as to end on a sense of inexplicable mystery. Each scenario makes for a different moral to the story and perhaps changes the way we view some of the themes and ideas discussed earlier in the text. As you read the ending, I want you to think about what you believe to be the cause of Clare’s death and how that scenario would change the meaning of the story.

About drdimock

Dr. Chase Dimock teaches Literature and Composition at Broward College
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