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Nella Larsen's Passing Essay

3758 words - 15 pages

Nella Larsen's Passing

The Harlem Renaissance was a turning point for many African Americans. A vast amount of literature was created specifically for this group during this era. It was a period when the African American "was in vogue" and "white thinkers and writers were devoting a considerable amount of attention" to them (Taylor 91, 90). For the first time, African Americans were being told that it was okay to be proud of who they were. This new consciousness and self-awareness was prominent in many works of literate, but several writers began exploring the darker side of this movement with literature that concentrated on the negative aspects of race relations in America. Nella Larsen's novel Passing concentrates on this theme with the story of Clare, a tragic mulatto who "passes" as a white person. Not only is Passing representative of the plight of the "tragic mulatto", it is also a novel that explores the complexities of human relationships.
Clare Kendry's life is a perfect example of the plight of the "tragic mulatto." This is a conventional "character who 'passes' [as a white person] and then reveals pangs of anguish resulting from forsaking his or her black identity" (Tate 142). In Passing, Clare "seems to have one overriding urge: to return to the [African American] world she left" (Davis 98). However, once she does return back to the African American community, her story leads to a tragic ending.
Clare's desire to return to her African American heritage is obvious. She tells her childhood friend Irene Redfield that "she can't know how in this pale life of mine I am all the time seeing the bright pictures of that other that I once thought I was glad to be free of…It's like an ache, a pain that never ceases" (Larsen 145). She also realizes how much she want[s] to see [African Americans], to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh" (Larsen 200). Although Irene feels that there is "nothing sacrificial in Clare's idea of life, no allegiance beyond her own immediate desire," it is apparent that Clare's desire to return to her African American race is honest, even if the motives seem rather one-sided (Larsen 144). Irene considers Clare to be "selfish, cold and hard" (Larsen 144). Irene also feels that Clare does not have "even in the slightest artistic or sociological interest in the race that some members of other races displayed…[She] cared nothing of the race, she only belonged to it" (Larsen 182). This may be true, but it does not diminish Clare's own pain at having to deny her African American heritage, and her desire to return to it. Irene represents a portion of society who feel that people who pass must have a morally acceptable reason to return to their African American roots such as a desire to rebel against a white society that has forced them into the role of a white person. Just because Clare feels "no permanent allegiance to either the black or white worlds or any of...

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