Classics Circuit: Passing


Nella Larsen

Penguin Classics

121 pages

Today I am a stop on the Harlem Renaissance tour for the Classics Circuit.  I decided to go with an author I had absolutely no familiarity with whatsoever–Nella Larsen.   I didn’t know what to expect going into the book, but I anticipated a great exploration of race relations in the 1920s.

Passing is the story of Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield.  The two women grew up together and meet again by chance as adults on the roof of the Drayton, a hotel in Chicago.  Both women are “passing”, meaning that they are black women that are light skinned enough to pass as white women.  Irene passes only occasionally, as she is doing on the day she meets up with Clare, whereas Clare has completely adopted the life of a white woman.

One of the most unbelievable aspects of Passing is that Clare’s husband, John Bellew, is not only unaware of his wife’s race, but he is also a raging racist.  As Clare and Irene begin to see more and more of one another, the danger of John discovering Clare’s true origins becomes more realistic.

John’s behavior was unbearable at times.  He was always openly racist when speaking with Clare, Irene and their aquintances because he is ignorant to the fact that he is degrading their own race.

‘So you dislike negroes, Mr Bellew?’

John Bellew gave a short denying laugh.  ‘You got me all wrong there, Mrs Redfield.  Nothing like that at all.  I don’t dislike them, I hate them.  And so does Nig (Clare), for all she’s trying to turn into one.  She wouldn’t have a n—-r maid around for love and money.  Not that I’d want her to.  They give me the creeps.  The black scrimy devils.’

Irene was incredulous that Clare could stomach living with someone who felt so disparagingly towards her race, and I agree 100%.  It was pathetic that somone could be so ready to turn on their own race to the point where they would continue to live with someone who continually put them down on the basis of their race, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

On a side note, I want  to make a brief complaint.  My biggest concern with this book had to do with this edition.  As is always the case, I read the introduction first.  This seemed fitting, as the introduction was at the beginning of the book.  You would figure an introduction would fulfill the purpose of doing what it imples–introducing a reader to the text.  I got more than I bargained for in this case.  The introduction completely spoiled the end of the book. Even after finishing Passing, I am aggravated at the fact that the ending was spoiled for me.  Suffice it to say, I would have been completely shocked by the ending and would have preferred to have it reveal itself to me naturally.

Ok, back to Passing.  I don’t feel like I connected all that well with any of the characters but it was a compelling story and I especially loved Clare’s character because of her colorfulness and I liked that she seemed like she was finally breaking free of the facade she was hiding behind.

Other Reviews:

Books and Chocolate

I borrowed this book from my local library.

8 Responses

  1. I haven’t heard of this book before and it sounds interesting.

    I have had several books ruined by the introduction, so I always avoid reading them until I’ve finished the book. I often avoid reading the blurb too – sometimes even that is too much information for me.

  2. I completely agree about spoilers in introductions! I have stopped reading them until after I read a book — it’s extremely irritating. I think that’s the only thing I don’t like about Penguin classics. And sometimes endnotes have spoilers too. Thanks for your thoughtful review.

  3. Ironically, the only review I’ve read of this came from your previous commentor, Karen ( – she reviewed it near the beginning of the tour and it sounds like a really interesting book, though I’ll be sure to avoid the spoilery introduction. To be honest I tend to ignore intros in general, though.

  4. I never read introductions to classics. I always used to but they really do spoil endings and often, the “introduction” is just an essay about the book which picks it all apart and talks about every detail. They’re much more useful after I’ve finished the book.

    This does look like an interesting book, though. I’ll keep note of it!

  5. This sounds wonderful. Being light skinned enough is still a big thing in black culture even today.

    My mom grew up in the segregated south, so I hear stories about light skinned Black people trying to pass.

  6. Interesting – I’ve never heard of this one. It sounds like a compelling story.

  7. I think I’d have a hard time reading this one because that husband sounds like a total jerk. Did she know he was like that when she married him? The friendship between the two women sounds interesting, though.

  8. I always read the introdutions after I finish the book. Although I’m a person not bothered by spoilers. I actually know how this one ends up :).

    The husband really sound odd. HOW could she put up with Him? I am curious about this book and I may have to find it! Thanks for the review.

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