The concepts of race and ethnicity are widely represented in literature as authors raise questions about society, culture, and their impact on identity and human relationships. Nella Larsen explores these notions in her novel Passing, where the two black characters adjust their personalities to varying degrees. In doing so, they avoid the adverse consequence of living in the white community, including racial discrimination, bias, and isolation. This essay aims to discuss the main themes in the novel Passing by Nella Larsen, such as race and identity, privilege, marriage, and motherhood.
The Themes of Race and Identity
The author explores the concept of race by portraying the challenges that black individuals face living in a white community. The idea of passing is central to the novel as the main characters use this method to assimilate into the dominant culture and avoid stigma. In particular, Larsen’s (2003) character Irene says, “It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don’t think it would be so simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for colored” (p. 79). Passing prevents people from embracing their culture and history, which leads to self-identity problems. As a result of rejecting her black heritage, Clare lives comfortably but becomes racially disoriented. In turn, Irene, who is partially committed to her true identity, is jealous of Clare’s success and privilege. Overall, the themes of race and identity are crucial for the novel’s characters.
The Theme of Privilege
Privilege is another essential topic that Larsen touches upon in her work. By cutting ties with the black society, Clare can have an affluent life full of advantages and free of racial discrimination. However, the woman loses her connection with her true culture, which has a negative psychological effect on her well-being. In Larsen’s (2003) Passing, Irene notes that Clare “not only … wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but … wanted to nibble at the cakes of another folk as well” (p. 51). These words emphasize the selfish side of the woman’s character.
The Theme of Marriage
The theme of marriage is explored from different characters’ perspectives. Generally, a spousal relationship is considered a source of stability and security in the novel, which can be seen from Clare’s approach to family. According to Larsen (2003), “Clare loved and yet did not love, but she still intended to hold fast to the outer shell of her marriage, to keep her life fixed, certain” (p. 113). Furthermore, marriage is one of the factors contributing to Clare’s problems with racial identity and adding to her crisis.
The Theme of Motherhood
The concepts of motherhood and childraising are essential to the novel’s narrative. The main characters have different opinions on parenting and running the household. Irene follows a traditional approach and views motherhood as an integral aspect of her life. In turn, Larsen’s (2003) character Clare states that “children aren’t everything [and] there are other things in the world,” even though “some people don’t seem to suspect it” (p. 83). Unlike Irene, the woman does not consider parenthood and childraising essential to her identity.
To conclude, Nella Larsen’s Passing explores a variety of themes, such as race, identity, privilege, marriage, and motherhood. The author raises questions about the role of society, culture, and discrimination in people’s lives by portraying Clare and Irene as black women trying to pass into the white world full of bias and racism. The novel captures the complex issues and challenges associated with one’s racial identity and intercultural relationships with others.
Larsen, N. (2003). Passing. Penguin Publishing Group.