Thursday, March 11, 2021

Nella Larsen's Passing


The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen/ Nella Larsen
NY: Anchor, 2001, c1928
278 p.

I picked up this collection of Nella Larsen's writings recently, and decided to read her classic, Passing, for the year 1929 of my Century of Books project. I've been meaning to read this for a long time, so picked it up at the end of February and began. 

It's a short novel, so was a fairly quick read. But all I can say is whoa, Nella, that ending was not what I'd expected! She really surprised me with her conclusion. 

The story is likely familiar to many; our main character Irene is a respected and important woman in her Harlem circles - she's married to a physician, has two sons, and spends her time arranging charity events for the community. But one day she comes across an old friend from childhood, Clare, who is now "passing" as white and is married to a wealthy white businessman who is also strongly and openly racist. 

Clare is feeling lonely and isolated from her past, and dangerously decides to keep in contact with Irene and her family, and others from Harlem, despite what being identified as Black might mean to her life. She wriggles her way into Irene's life in a way that Irene can't seem to say no to, despite how uncomfortable it makes her. And one day Irene realizes that Clare has taken more from her than she'd realized. 

The shocking conclusion comes when Clare is at a house party in Harlem, and her husband finds her there. But the danger lies in an unexpected quarter. The story examines the existential questions of identity and belonging, in both systemic and intimate ways. How much of the self are these characters prepared to hide, downplay, put aside for others? And how much of a character's identity lies in the areas of race, or gender, or relationship, or personality?

This is a brief , but one that sticks with you and makes you think about a lot of things. The sense of distrust and fear is lurking beneath its surface the entire time, and the outcome will make you question all your interpretations of the story. This is a classic for a reason. A startling and important read.


  1. Excited to read this. I have Passing on my tbr & now you’ve got me really excited to read it

    1. I think it's definitely a classic for a reason. Hope you find it a good read too!


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