Synopses & Reviews
First published to critical acclaim in 1929, Passing
firmly established Nella Larsen's prominence among women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The Modern Library is proud to present Passing—an electrifying story of two women who cross the color line in 1920s New York—together with a new Introduction by the Obie Award- winning playwright and novelist Ntozake Shange.
Irene Redfield, the novel's protagonist, is a woman with an enviable life. She and her husband, Brian, a prominent physician, share a comfortable Harlem town house with their sons. Her work arranging charity balls that gather Harlem's elite creates a sense of purpose and respectability for Irene. But her hold on this world begins to slip the day she encounters Clare Kendry, a childhood friend with whom she had lost touch. Clare—light-skinned, beautiful, and charming—tells Irene how, after her father's death, she left behind the black neighborhood of her adolescence and began passing for white, hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband. As Clare begins inserting herself into Irene's life, Irene is thrown into a panic, terrified of the consequences of Clare's dangerous behavior. And when Clare witnesses the vibrancy and energy of the community she left behind, her burning desire to come back threatens to shatter her careful deception.
Brilliantly plotted and elegantly written, Passing offers a gripping psychological portrait of emotional extremity. The New York Times Book Review called Larsen "adroit at tracing the involved processes of a mind divided against itself, that fights between the dictates of reason and desire." The Saturday Review of Literature said, "[Larsen] has produced a work so fine, sensitive, and distinguished that it rises above race categories and becomes that rare object, a good novel."
"Passing," first published to critical acclaim in 1929, is the electrifying story of two women who dare to cross the color line in New York in the 1920s. This Modern Library Paperback Classics edition is published with an Introduction by Ntozake Shange and new explanatory notes.
Includes bibliographical references (p. [lxxxii]-lxxxv).
Reading Group Guide
is set in the 1920s, before the Supreme Court declared "separate but equal" facilities for nonwhites unconstitutional. What privileges are Irene Redfield denied as a black person? What do men and women gain by passing?
2. In Part One, Irene has tea with Gertrude and Clare, her two childhood friends. Compare the attitudes each woman has toward passing. To what degree does each pass for white?
3. Passing presents two women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, who make very different choices yet whose lives intertwine in startling ways. Compare the characters of each. What are each woman's strengths? Her weaknesses? What are each woman's attitudes toward race? How do these attitudes influence the novel's plot?
4. Consider Irene's fear that Brian and Clare may be having an affiar. Does her anxiety seem reasonable to you? Why, or why not?
5. Compare different characters' attitudes toward sexuality. For instance, in what ways are Irene's and Clare's thoughts on sex similiar? How are they different? How might these attitudes be related to each character's thoughts on race?
6. Discuss the novel's ending. Do you think Irene pushed Clare? What evidence does the novel offer either for or against this interpretation?
7. Certain critics have suggested that an erotic attachment exists between Irene and Clare. Do you agree with this reading? What evidence can you find in the novel to support this idea?