Widely celebrated as a cornerstone text of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing is concerned with its titular subject in more ways than one. While racial passing undoubtedly constitutes the text’s thematic center, Larsen’s narrative also implicitly addresses the theme of sexual passing. This is most readily observable in Irene Redfield, who manages to “pass” as heterosexual while simultaneously harboring a desire for the enigmatic Clare Kendry. An analysis of Irene’s suppressed erotic desire for Clare not only contextualizes the former’s obsession with the latter but also sheds light on the exact nature of Irene’s troubled relationship with her husband, Brian. Moreover, such a reading offers another lens through which the reader can interpret Irene’s questionable actions in the novella’s finale. In response to critics who contend that queer reading and theorizing are little more than acts of ideological and political navel-gazing, I argue that to examine Passing from a queer perspective does not undermine the gravity of Larsen’s narrative. Rather, the thematic implications of this perspective harmonize with Passing’s moral message. Ultimately, Larsen’s work is a succinct treatise on the psychological dangers of repression and self-loathing. A queer reading does not muddle or detract from this message—it fortifies and enriches it.
Irene’s infatuation with Clare is evident from their first encounter at the Drayton Hotel, the remembrance of which causes “[b]rilliant red patches [to flame] in Irene Redfield’s warm olive cheeks” (Larsen 11). The feeling is obviously reciprocated: In her letter to Irene, Clare remarks, “I […] cannot help longing to be with you again, as I have never longed for anything before; and I have wanted many things in my life. [….] It’s like an ache, a pain that never ceases” (11). Irene’s descriptions of Clare are distinctly homoerotic in tone. To Irene, Clare is a “lovely creature” (17) with “strange, languorous eyes” (16) and a smile Irene considers “a shade too provocative” (15); later in the novella, she employs a similar figure when she notes that Clare “was just a shade too good-looking” (70). This bubbling sexual tension between Irene and Clare climaxes in a scene fraught with subdued sensuality: “[l]ooking at [Clare], Irene Redfield had a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling. Reaching out, she grasped Clare’s two hands in her own and cried with something like awe in her voice: ‘Dear God! But aren’t you lovely, Clare!’” (65). While Larsen never explicitly states that the relationship between these two women is a homoerotic one, one can glean from this textual evidence that the possibility of a romantic and sexual subtext would not be far-fetched.
Far from distracting from Larsen’s principal narrative of internecine racism and self-loathing, reading Passing from a queer perspective adds an extra layer of complexity to Irene’s already nuanced character. Much in the way that Clare “passes” as white partly by marrying a white man, one can argue that Irene “passes” as heterosexual through her participation in heteronormative marriage, albeit a sexless one. A successful and lauded doctor, prodigiously devoted to his profession, and also a thoroughgoing pushover, Brian is the perfect husband for Irene, who subconsciously seeks to maintain the illusion of heterosexual propriety and respectability without compromising her aversion to male intimacy. Larsen’s narrator leaves little room for interpretation concerning Irene’s motive in marrying Brian: For Irene, “security was the most important and desired thing in life. [….] 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” (107). When she begins to suspect that Brian is having an affair with Clare, Irene breaks down—not because she loves her husband and fears losing him but because she fears the loss of stability and heterosexual propriety that he represents. Irene’s marriage to Brian is one of pragmatism and control rather than love and respect; to Irene, Brian is merely “her husband and the father of her sons” (107), the key to the bourgeois security she so desperately craves. In this way, Irene’s marriage to Brian complements the novel’s textual politics by mirroring Clare’s marriage to the deeply racist John Bellew. Both Irene and Clare have forced themselves to suppress integral aspects of their identity—race and sexuality, respectively—to conform to a cultural metanarrative of white supremacy and heterosexism.
Larsen’s attitude toward these women’s choices is overwhelmingly evident, if a bit dramatic: For both Irene and Clare, repression and self-denial lead inevitably to violence and destruction. Clare voluntarily subjects herself to an abusive relationship with a staunch white supremacist. Moreover, unable to cope with the knowledge that her husband and conduit to a respectable heteronormative existence is possibly committing adultery with the true object of her affections, Irene is driven to homicide. Granted, Larsen leaves the question of blame somewhat ambiguous, but the text itself seems to support the claim that Irene is responsible for Clare’s death in the novella’s final chapter. Perhaps, then, the question to ask is not whether it was Irene who pushed Clare, “[t]hat beauty that had torn at Irene’s placid life” (110), to her death from a six-story window; rather, a more pertinent question would be whether Irene pushed Clare to keep her away from Brian or whether Irene pushed Clare to keep her away from herself.