Nella Larsen, Passing

Writer:  Penned her novels during the Harlem Renaissance – Born in Chicago, raised by her Danish mother –Published Quicksand, and Passing as her most notable works

Story:  Clare and Irene were two childhood friends. They lost touch when Clare’s father died and she moved in with two white aunts. By hiding that Clare was part-black, they allowed her to ‘pass’ as a white woman and marry a white racist. Irene lives in Harlem, commits herself to racial uplift, and marries a black doctor. The novel centers on the meeting of the two childhood friends later in life, and the unfolding of events as each woman is fascinated and seduced by the other’s daring lifestyle. The novel traces a tragic path as Irene becomes paranoid that her husband is having an affair with Clare (the reader is never told whether her fears are justified or not, and numerous cues point in both directions). Clare’s race is revealed to her husband John Bellew. The novel ends with Clare’s sudden death by “falling” out of a window. (Wikipedia Summary)

Version: Penguin Classic, 2003


  • “I’ve often wondered why more colored girls…never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve” (25).
  • “Later, when she examined her feeling of annoyance, Irene admitted, a shade reluctantly, that it arose from a feeling of being outnumbered, a sense of aloneness, in her adherence to her own class and kind; not merely in the great thing of marriage, but in the whole pattern of her life as well” (34).
  • Clare: “I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that she might be dark. Thank goodness, she turned out alright. But, I’ll never risk it again. Never!  The strain is simply too – too hellish” (36).
  • Zulena: “It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. Why shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it” (56).
  • Irene: “It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don’t think it would be so simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for colored” (78).
  • “She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. Clare, herself, or the race” (98).

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