By Charlotte Wood, V Form
A Novel of Reaction: Larsen’t Passing
W.E.B. Dubois wrote that “all Art is propaganda and ever must be…” He thought that artists and writers should try to make the world a better place through their work. Nella Larsen, the author of Passing, would not agree. Her novel centers on two light-skinned black women, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, and their respective decisions to pass as white or not. I believe she wrote this novel not to persuade the reader of something or to convince them to enact change, but rather to reflect the world how she sees it. The book is a reaction to society, not something for society to react to. Passing itself is portrayed as something that simply is, not wholly good or wholly bad. Both characters participate in it, and so the reader is not meant to side with one over the other. The relative passivity of its message is reflected in the passivity of its main character, Irene. Because she is not active, the intention of the novel is not active. Lastly, the ambiguity of the ending leaves the reader, like Irene, with more questions than answers.
The complicated way in which Larsen examines passing itself clearly shows that this novel is not a piece of propaganda written to promote or discourage the act of passing. Although Clare is much more dedicated to passing, and has built a life around her newly claimed identity, Irene also passes, indicating the neutrality of how passing as a concept is treated in the novel. Early on, Irene goes to a restaurant and is seated in the white section. She gets a strange look from a woman that later turns out to be Clare Kendry and momentarily wonders if she knows that Irene is not white. “Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro? Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell…They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro.” (16) Irene’s thought process seems to indicate that, though she does not pass all the time, as Clare does, she does pass quite often. The fact that white people “always” take her for something she is not makes it sound as though this is a recurring pattern. However, Larsen does not judge this behavior. She does not impose a slant on it meant to convince the reader that it is a good thing or a bad thing. Also, by refusing to polarize the two women, to make one pass all the time and to make one never pass, she creates a more complex treatment of the issue and the blurred color line it reflects.
One could argue that this book is one of reaction rather than action based solely on the voice in which it is written. While it is written in the third person, it seems to lean more toward third person limited, with only Irene’s thoughts and feelings being directly presented to the reader. Irene, being a relatively passive character, tells the story from a relatively passive point of view. Things happen to her, but she rarely drives any action. She also spends much of her time observing, as seen here, when she notices her husband, Brian, seemingly waiting for something and withdrawing further from her. “It was extraordinary that, after all these years of accurate perception, she now lacked the talent to discover what that appearance of waiting meant. It was the knowledge that, for all her watching, all her patient study, the reason for his humour still eluded her which filled her with foreboding dread.” (86) Here she clearly identifies herself as an observer, using phrases like “years of accurate perception,” “all her watching,” and “her patient study.” But, even though she notices things, she rarely acts on what she has noticed. When she suspects Brian of having an affair with Clare after he invites her to a party, she internally begins to panic, “Clare Kendry! So that was it! Impossible. It couldn’t be.” (89) But outwardly she shows no signs of distress and does not do anything to address or change the situation. “’Of course,’ she said carefully, ‘I’m glad you did. And in spite of my recent remarks, Clare does add to any party. She’s so easy on the eyes.’” (89) If Passing was supposed to be a piece of propaganda Larsen would probably center it around a much more active character, one that would give the reader a much clearer message. A more active character is much easier to imitate, and if the goal of art is to improve the world, as Dubois claims, leading by example would be an effective way to do so. But Larsen centers her book around a passive character, which makes her much harder to imitate. Irene’s passivity fuels a novel of passivity. Because she in not active, the intention of the novel is not active.
Lastly, the ambiguity of the ending leaves both Irene and the reader with more questions than answers. Clare somehow falls from a window to her death. The way in which this happens is never fully explained to the reader, and Irene is left in the dark as well. “What happened next, Irene Redfield never afterwards allowed herself to remember. Never clearly” (111). Our observant, passive set of eyes has failed us. Because the ending is unclear, it gives the reader no definitive answer in the way of how to interpret the story. What it is meant to do is get the reader to reflect, because these things happen. Larsen is trying to capture reality, to hold a mirror up to her audience. That is, to force her readers to see and think about their own behavior and the conditions of the society in which they live. Whether or not that spurs positive change is up to the reader. While to some readers the fact that Clare dies is an indication that Larsen thinks passing is a bad thing, these readers clearly have not read this novel carefully enough. The conditions of her death are completely unknown to both the reader and all the characters within the novel. The only factual information we are given is that she died. Whether it was accidental, murder, or suicide is unknown. This is also the end of the novel, leaving no room for any examination of her death or the impact it may or may not have had on the other characters within the novel. Her death essentially exists in a vacuum. If Larsen wanted to make a clear statement about passing, this was not the way to do it. Some readers think that because she died and Irene did not, Larsen is telling us passing is bad, but clearly the situation is not that simple. Both characters passed, the effects of her death on others are unknown, and ultimately, her death may have had more to do with her personal relationships than with the fact that she passed. The conditions and implications of her death are completely unknown, and therefore it is very unlikely that Larsen killed Clare to make a point to the reader about passing.
In conclusion, Larsen would not agree with Dubois’ statement that art has to make the world a better place. Sometimes, it seems, it just has to present the world as it is. Passing is not a novel of persuasion. It is one of reaction. As Anton Chekhov said, “The role of an artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” Her work is subtle, and does not try to push the reader onto one side of the issue, but rather tries to make the reader reflect on the issue. In this way, her work stands in stark contrast to that of writers like Dubois or even Douglass, who both have clearly stated stances and pages of persuasive work supporting and promoting those stances. Her approach leans more toward someone like Hawthorne’s, who is a bit more ambiguous and more willing to explore the complexities of the issues he chooses to write about, rather than attempting to simplify them.
However, one could argue that, in forcing the reader to reflect, she is trying to make the world a better place. It is likely that, in reflecting, readers of Passing may seek to improve their own outlook and behavior, thus improving society as a whole. While this approach is not a propagandistic one, and therefore still, in many ways, objects to Dubois’ statement, it is a valid one nonetheless. This type of subtle, complex persuasion differs from propaganda in that it still leaves it up to the reader to come to their own conclusion. It is less direct, less willing to tell the reader what is right and what is wrong. Rather, it encourages the reader to come to their own conclusion and adjust as they see fit. It is hopeful, in that it trusts the audience to do the “right” thing, whatever that may be.
Charlotte Wood is a V Former from Wellesley, Massachusetts. She is an avid actor and has recently produced a stellar new advertising campaign for Red Bull in her St. Mark’s Saturdays class, ‘Gender and Advertising.’