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Old 02-15-2018, 01:38 AM   #4
gmw
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Feel free to treat this as tl;dr. For a summary of this see my previous post. What follows is a dump of my notes collected as I read this rather curious story.

Spoiler:

The story is told through the eyes of Irene Redfield, which allows it to paint a very personalised view of the world - and that view is far from attractive. Irene is so judgemental, and apparently so dissatisfied with her own situation in life, that it is not obvious where the reader's sympathies are expected to lie, nor how much of Irene's view we are even supposed to believe. Such ambiguity underlies much of the book.

I was intrigued to find that the opening of the story does not mention race. It's not until halfway through the second chapter that the real subject of the book comes out - and in such a wonderful manner:

Quote:
Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?
Up to this point we had had no firm statement that Irene was a Negro (indeed, this is the first occurrence of the word "Negro" in the book), and we have yet to learn that "that woman" in the statement is also a Negro, which makes the statement all the more neatly presented: a perfect turning point.

We go on to meet Clare (nee Kendry) and eventually her white husband, Jack Bellew. We get the curious little scene in which Clare herself prompts Jack to explain why he calls his wife "Nig" (because she keeps getting darker) and thereby opens up the conversation in which Jack Bellew can demonstrate his racism. (I feel as if this was somewhat overdone, but perhaps that is a too modern perspective?) At the time I read this scene I wondered: Why does Clare do this? Is she just careless or is she trying to prove something? Is it a test of her guests? After reaching the end of the novel it seems reasonable to suppose Clare is pushing the situation with her husband because she wants to break free.

We come back from Irene's memories of that encounter, 2 years previously, to the letter that triggered those memories, and I wondered about the letter itself. When it was first described by Irene we get a sense that this letter is part of the artifice that we might expect from Clare (that even the letter is part of the "passing"), but we've learned more now and realise that a letter on European paper might well be expected of someone that has spent so long in Europe. So my distrust of Irene's perspective grew.

The story thus far felt a little too pat. One Negro woman passing as white to a very racist white man. One Negro woman able to pass as white but married to a white man who knows she is Negro. And Irene, a Negro woman able to pass as white married to a Negro man. It's almost fairytale-like in its three-part symmetry.


As the story proceeds we get to see some of the life between Irene and her husband, including this paragraph:

Quote:
It was only that she wanted him to be happy, resenting, however, his inability to be so with things as they were, and never acknowledging that, though she did want him to be happy, it was only in her own way and by some plan of hers for him that she truly desired him to be so. Nor did she admit that all other plans, all other ways, she regarded as menaces, more or less indirect, to that security of place and substance which she insisted upon for her sons and in a lesser degree for herself.
While this seems realistic and consistent with the character of Irene, I am curious about what the author wants me to see. This strained relationship between Negro wife and Negro husband is obviously deliberate, part of the message of the book, but I'm not really seeing why this matters yet.

The second chapter of part two I found quite peculiar. The writing felt stilted and awkward, beyond the intentional awkwardness, and beyond what has gone before - it made me wonder if this was the first chapter written. And the relationship between the two women is strange, almost childlike. Clare is being revealed as a passive-aggressive, adept at manipulating others. Irene is becoming even less likeable as she continues to think horrible things in the background while professing good intentions - and still not having the strength of character to stand up to Clare (or anyone) and say what she really means.

One thought I had at this point was whether this truly was a "chick's novel". Not so much in the sense normally suggested by the phrase, but because I could recognise the behaviour being exhibited by the two women, it was familiar, but I could not relate to it. This made me wonder if women may understand or relate to it better than I did.

As I read on I began to realise that the story was turning away from being only about race, and "passing", toward a personal story of Irene's life and relationships. (Yes, we might stretch "passing" to cover many of the situations, but it is stretch.) We meet more people, white and black and mixed, and see their status and relationships entirely through the eyes of Irene; and the further along we get the less reliable does Irene's view of the world seem to be. By the time Irene has the internal battle about whether Clare and Brian (Irene's husband) are having an affair the reader has no firm ground. Is there an affair or not? So many details appear suggestive, but of course they do, we are seeing them as Irene sees them; we have, earlier, seen enough of Brian's sarcastic nature to understand that he is a man that could easily be misread, and Clare's motives have been obscure (to Irene, and so also to us) right from the start.

As we approach the end, Irene is facing (or believes she is facing) that mundane personal crisis: competition for her mate. (I use "mate" deliberately since it appears that - for Irene - this is as much, or more, about Brian's position as father of her children as it is about love.) Most of the usual aspects of the dilemma arise, including the "best friend" thing (does Irene have any other/better friends?), but added into the mix is that Clare has made herself vulnerable by "passing" as white. So Irene now studies the possibility of using race as a weapon. She dismisses informing Bellew directly, but she sees various ways that she might achieve the desired result by indirect means.

For me, where Larsen really excelled in this book was in presenting race not just as an issue of external oppression, but also as a tension from within, and this use of race as a weapon in manipulating personal relationships really highlights that (though there are other examples in the text).

Then we get to where Bellew sees (and recognises) Irene with another woman who is more obviously Negro. We've been expecting something like this since meeting Clare. Irene pretends not to recognise Bellew, and fails to tell Clare or Brian of the incident. Later she understands that having Clare set free of Bellew could be the worst thing for Irene, so believes that her silence is for the best - despite what this might mean for Clare (and for Margery, Clare's daughter).

And so we hit the final scene with Bellew confronting Clare in a room full of Negroes, and Clare's fall to her death, and the ambiguity as to whether Clare fell, jumped or was pushed by Irene. It is conceivable that Bellew pushed Clare but that seems less likely, for me his final call to "Nig" seems intended to indicate affection rather than anger.

In many respects this felt like a cop-out to me - and perhaps to others, I see on Wikipedia that this situation in stories was common enough to have a name: "tragic mulatto" (or "mulatta" for women). Like many other parts of the story it's just a bit too neat, too obviously a set up (the walk up 6 storeys, "the long casement windows" etc.). I read this ending as Larsen indicating: "I've said what I came to say - the end."
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