Subversive Themes and Dangerous Sub-plots in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Houda Ayari


This paper explores Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), a Harlem Renaissance fictious work that displays its author’s avant-gardism in her approach to race and gender issues of the 1920s segregated America. Larsen’s novel centers on the theme of passing, as a social phenomenon that was in vogue during the 1920s. Larsen’s critically tackles this complex subject by juxtaposing two passing figures, namely, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Whereas the former passes for convenience (situational/functional passing), the latter’s passing is a life commitment (pathological passing). Many critics suggest that biracial authors’ identification of two sorts of passing articulate their pardoning of the situational passing, perceiving it as a mechanism of resistance to the economic and social oppressions, they were subject to during this era, while indicting the other form. The power of Larsen’s Passing lies in its depiction of a multi-layered passing that turns out, as we closely read the novel, to include five tropes of passing. Clare's passing for White is to attain the social and material privileges of the White world. Second, Irene's attraction to Clare; hence Irene's passing for a heterosexual. As a matter of fact, the plot is passing for a racial one covering its sexual sub-plot. The following form of passing is the narrator’s. In fact, many textual clues reveal that Irene is attracted to Clare, but the narrator never mentions it explicitly. The narrator’s disguise is another form of passing. Last but not least, Clare's death finds its symbolic correlative in passing, for death signifies the ultimate crossing over. Accordingly, the complexity and real challenge of this novel lies in the revision of the definition of passing, rather than in having a sexual sub-plot, as many critics went on to explain. Larsen's use of passing-as-structure suggests that the most compelling and pertinent aspects of her characters' lives are to be found in imaginative constructs, in the subtext rather than in subplots. Both Queering and passing, major themes of the novel carry a subversive potential. While queering challenges White heteronormativity, racial passing constitutes a veritable laugh at the color line. Both subversive narrative strategies destabilize the White Other’s expectations and, therefore, help subvert the existent locus of power, as later revealed by identity politics theorists. It is along these lines, that I came to qualify Nella Larsen as an avant-garde author.


Passing, Black Feminism, Queering, Woman-to-woman Bond, Harlem Renaissance Literature.

Full Text:



  • There are currently no refbacks.