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Old 02-17-2018, 02:40 AM   #61
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Two questions.

Since the book is entirely Irene's POV, would it have worked better as a first-person narration? I think the use of third person makes Irene less unreliable than she would have been if telling the story herself.

Passing was actually Nella Larsen's second novel, preceded by Quicksand, which was apparently more successful. Has anyone read Quicksand?
I have not read Quicksand.

You are probably correct that a first person telling could be more deceptive (unreliable) than this third person telling. ... But this story is quite strongly Irene's perspective, rarely lapsing into omniscient or alternative views, so there's not a lot of room for the reader to see past Irene. See also my slightly confused reaction to Clare, noted below, because I think that probably relates to this question.

In some respects I felt as if the most effective part of Larsen's writing was her ability to make me actively dislike Irene so quickly. It's a brave (or foolish?) writer that puts such a negative figure between the reader and the story.

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I wasn't at all sympathetic to Claire. She didn't have to marry someone who hates people of color. She took that risk and even introduced Irene to him. Claire took the risk and it backfired on her.
I started out with some sympathy for Clare. Part of that, I think, was a reaction to the overly judgemental Irene. But as the story progressed my sympathy waned because I came to think that Irene was right about Clare in at least some respects: Clare was manipulative, and very good at getting what she wanted.

Clare frustrated my understanding. Even though Clare says "You don’t know, you can’t realize how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh.", I'm never really sold on this being the reason for her behaviour. What, a sudden urge after 15 years, brought about by meeting two part-Negroes passing as white women? No, somehow it all strikes me as more of a whim, and this woman - so used to getting her own way - is happy to sacrifice everything to fulfilling her whim.

How much of my reaction to Clare was forced on me by seeing Clare through Irene's eyes, and how much exists with less bias, formed from the reported words and actions? I find it difficult to tell - because I really don't trust Irene to have told me everything I need know, not even in the third person perspective.

Ultimately I didn't like either of the women very much, and wouldn't have been upset if Clare and grabbed hold of Irene on her way out the window. (Why didn't she? Isn't anyone's reaction, upon falling, to reach out and grab at anything? We know for certain that Irene was right there to be grabbed. Maybe she did and Irene shook her off.)


I don't think Larsen wanted the reader to like these women, and that makes any message carried by the story all the more ambiguous (and things were bad enough before that realisation).

Last edited by gmw; 02-17-2018 at 02:45 AM. Reason: typo
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Old 02-17-2018, 05:55 AM   #62
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—-I see that last tableau to be three people in very close proximity: Clare, Irene and Jack Bellew. —-

If this book was all about race the ending would have been Jack pushing Clare, but I think most of us see that as the least likely solution. If Irene pushed Clare then ending the book in this manner becomes a cop-out, this is Irene's story and how can we stop right when she's been driven out of her passivity? But, as an accident, it gives the author a convenient place to close the narrative, having said what she came to say.
Interesting, I saw the last tableau differently: Jack frozen across the room, so he would not have pushed Clare. Or even caused her to step back. It seemed to me that Clare wanted to be found out, getting more reckless about Jack’s whereabouts when she went on her jaunts. Clare didn’t even consider the effect her behavior could have on her child. Irene though, her I imagined right next to Clare, and Brian a few feet away... hence Irene’s worry about Brian when she finds him afterwards, if he might have noticed something Irene did.

The ending was abrupt, and did not pick up the opportunity to get into the race question more. But that might be because of the era it was written.

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I noticed that Irene makes a reference to the “Rhinelander”case.—-
Thank you for this info, I’m off to read up

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Old 02-17-2018, 07:20 AM   #63
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Interesting, I saw the last tableau differently: [...]
I am prescient. Posted two weeks before discussion started:
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[...] I expect Passing to generate a lot of discussion. There is so much ambiguity in this text that I doubt whether any two people will see it the same way. [...]


Okay, so it wasn't that hard to guess, but still...
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Old 02-17-2018, 07:54 AM   #64
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THowever, if we accept Clare and Irene as standing separate to everyone else then the only way that other group will not see Irene push Clare will be if Irene is between Clare and the group, and has her back to the group, in which case it becomes difficult to read those paragraphs from Irene's perspective (she won't see "Brian stepping out" if her back is to the group), and that would be inconsistent with how the story has been told.
On this point, I see that paragraph being from the omniscient narrator, not Irene.

I don't think the ending was intended to be ambiguous. Irene pushed Claire.

"... She couldn't have her free."
"What happened next, Irene Redfield never afterwards allowed herself to remember. Never clearly"."
"a sound not quite human, like a beast in agony. “Nig! My God! Nig!”"
"Irene wasn’t sorry. She was amazed, incredulous almost.
What would the others think? That Clare had fallen? That she had deliberately leaned backward? Certainly one or the other. Not—"
“It was an accident, a terrible accident,” she muttered fiercely. “It was.”
"But there would be questions. She hadn’t thought of them, of afterwards, of this. She had thought of nothing in that sudden moment of action."
"What if Clare was not dead?"

Irene is trying to hide the truth from everyone, including herself. The fear that the thought that Clare might not be dead inspires is because a merely injured Clare could accuse her.

Clare is by the window, Irene in front of her, between Clare and everyone else. Bellow is nearest, between them and the rest of the group.


As for the rest, I don't feel qualified to comment.
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Old 02-17-2018, 07:56 AM   #65
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Thank you for this info, I’m off to read up
I personally think that essay reveals very interesting details about the novel. Nisetich discusses the contradictions in Irene’s attitude (and I think she is certainly an unreliable narrator) and the way she herself uses “Passing” for her own ends despite the fact that she holds the binary “one drop” position to the racial question.
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Old 02-17-2018, 08:19 AM   #66
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On this point, I see that paragraph being from the omniscient narrator, not Irene. [...]
Except the narrator has not been omniscient - and isn't through the rest of this scene.

I've been discounting suicide by Clare, but I notice that the sounds following Clare's fall are described to us quite explicitly - so where is the scream? Is the "gasp of horror" from Clare or from the others? I have been assuming it was the others, beyond Bellew. But surely if Clare was pushed, or if she slipped accidentally, there would have been some sort of scream or something. A mere gasp of horror seems insufficient. The only explanation I can think of for silence on Clare's part would be suicide.

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I personally think that essay reveals very interesting details about the novel. Nisetich discusses the contradictions in Irene’s attitude (and I think she is certainly an unreliable narrator) and the way she herself uses “Passing” for her own ends despite the fact that she holds the binary “one drop” position to the racial question.
And despite having proven that even Irene herself cannot spot a part-Negro passing as white - when she failed to recognise Clare in chapter 2 (part 1).
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Old 02-18-2018, 10:39 AM   #67
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I'm posting my thoughts without reading (yet) much of what has gone before, so as not to be overly influenced by the opinion of others. I reserve the right to change my mind later .

Putting aside the subject matter for a moment, I was firstly struck by how beautiful some of the writing is. The start of Chapter Two, for example:

"A brilliant day, hot, with a brutal staring sun pouring down rays that were like molten rain." I love that image of the sunshine. There are various other examples that I won't repeat here.

As to the story - I have had my horizons broadened by this tale. I was aware that there have been cases of white skinned people being born into black families (and vice versa), but I was surprised by the seemingly common practice of "passing" as put forward in this book. Were there really that many people living a lie at that time? And I find it a bit difficult to believe that they wouldn't be "found out" eventually, unless they completely severed their roots and moved away from their home town. As I say, this is new to me and I'm happy to be convinced either way.

I thought the fact that there may have been an affair going on between Clare and Brian, Irene's husband, was telegraphed pretty early on, and was surprised how long it took Irene to come to the same conclusion. May have been in denial, I suppose.

I found the ending somewhat abrupt, and would have liked there to been more detail on the subsequent fallout of Clare's death. And as far as who killed her? I'm with Catlady on this one. I think that Irene, on the spur of the moment, took advantage of the situation and "assisted" Clare out the window. At least, that was my initial impression and for now I'm sticking with it.

And, just as an aside, I noticed something that I'm not sure I've ever seen before, brackets used in speech:

"I'm sure I am. Completely. (Except, of course, when it's just patronizing kindness on their part.) And I know colored girls who've experienced the same thing--the other way round, naturally." - Irene speaking in Chapter Three.

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Old 02-18-2018, 01:02 PM   #68
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I was surprised by the seemingly common practice of "passing" as put forward in this book. Were there really that many people living a lie at that time? And I find it a bit difficult to believe that they wouldn't be "found out" eventually, unless they completely severed their roots and moved away from their home town.
That's the more typical narrative, I think, but the key element is no contact with one's family and former friends. And for those in a position to know, I thought the book demonstrated the conflict well, whether to be loyal to an individual or to the race, to truth or to the right to choose. It's difficult to know whether it was easier or harder for those who didn't have the option to pass.

In one of those synchronicities common to readers, I recently read a biography of Babe Ruth (the American Don Bradman, for the Aussies), largely also set in New York in the 20s. Ruth famously grew up in a reform school in Baltimore. His nickname there, suggested by his facial features, was "Niggerlips," which he resented. But, the author added, the players in the Negro League tended to believe that he was mixed race and supported him as someone who had been able to cross the color bar to play in the majors.
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Old 02-18-2018, 03:46 PM   #69
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I have no clue how common or uncommon passing was. I would hazard a guess that those who could pass might have done so on a situational basis, the way Irene did at the hotel restaurant. Whether many people would completely and permanently deny their families, who knows? Even if they wanted to, it seems that it would be hard to work out the logistics of picking up and heading off into the unknown, without any resources or connections. Especially for women.
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Old 02-19-2018, 07:47 PM   #70
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I have just reread the book as a refresher - one of the benefits of its being short! A few thoughts that have arisen from doing this with knowledge of the arc of the story:

- The first encounter between the two women took place at Irene's table "just in front of a long window whose gently moving curtains suggested a cool breeze." I hadn't remembered that when I came to the ending in front of another long window.

- I was impressed by the painfully honest and realistic portrayal of Irene. She was very judgemental and very quick to take offence. She was clearly very manipulative, wanting to organise the lives of her husband and sons. "... never acknowledging that though she did want him to be happy, it was only in her own way an by some plan of hers for him that she truly desired him to be so." She wasn't prepared to confront and deal with realities but preferred to smooth them over and pretend they weren't there. This applied to trying to have her sons protected from the ugliness and violence of racism, and to her own actions and thoughts. She was an interesting choice to have as the centre of the story.

- The climactic scene: on rereading, I now think that Irene did push, or at least offbalance Clare. It also seemed to be premeditated, with the opening of the window, and the earlier thought to herself about Clare's death being a solution to her problem. She wasn't to know that Bellew would turn up and make a scene, but she was preparing a possible way of getting rid of Clare permanently by an apparent accident. "Irene finished her cigarette and threw it out, watching the tiny spark drop slowly down to the white ground below." And in the same way, she would extinguish the spark of Clare's life, though she told herself it was an accident.
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Old 02-19-2018, 08:22 PM   #71
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I wonder how obvious Nella Larsen thought she was being? Might she have looked at this discussion and wanted to shout: "How thick are (some of) you?"

Bookpossum, did your re-read affect your impression of Clare? The affair with Brian?
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Old 02-19-2018, 09:56 PM   #72
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On Clare, I wondered why she would want to reunite with the people who had suspected her of being a prostitute, 12 years ago, especially as it was clearly suspected in a judging way, rather than with pity if that was the only choice she had for survival. But then there was the call of "her own people", and that was clearly strong. In her letter to Irene, speaking of their different choices, she wrote "... your way may be the wiser and infinitely happier one."

Clare was far more honest and direct than Irene could ever be. Towards the end of the book, she said to Irene:

Quote:
"Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I'd do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really 'Rene, I'm not safe."
On Brian, yes, it certainly did seem that he was having an affair with Clare. The indications which initially puzzled Irene, and comments like that of Clare above, plus the realisation of the relationship by Hugh Wentworth (at the tea party) seemed to put together a good case, as well as his extreme shock at the end of the book. Remembering that he was a doctor, it was not just the shock of seeing her dead from the fall, whatever that entailed, but the shock of loss.

However it was of course all suspicion, with nothing tangible. Alfred Hitchcock would have had a field day! In fact, I thought that the whole web of doubt and suspicion was very well done.

I actually felt more comfortable with Nella Larsen's style the second time through. The first time through it felt - I don't know, maybe a bit clunky or forced - but perhaps I had got used to it on the reread. I do agree with issybird about the need to prune the adjectives, but I felt the strengths of the book far outweighed weaknesses like that.

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Old 02-20-2018, 12:14 AM   #73
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I think that it is important to consider Nella Larsen's own life and how it may have influenced the stories that she told. She was mixed race and lived in the same space between black and white that her characters did. She grew up in a poor district of Chicago like Clare and Irene. Her mother was a Danish immigrant, and her father a Danish West Indies immigrant (possibly of mixed race too). Her father left (or died) when she was young. She lived with relatives in Denmark for a few years as a child too. It seems she felt that she didn't belong anywhere. I read one article that suggested there were members of her white family who denied her existence.

Wikipedia has a nice summary.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nella_Larsen
Quote:
The author and critic Darryl Pinckney wrote of her anomalous situation:
"as a member of a white immigrant family, she [Larsen] had no entrée into the world of the blues or of the black church. If she could never be white like her mother and sister, neither could she ever be black in quite the same way that Langston Hughes and his characters were black. Hers was a netherworld, unrecognizable historically and too painful to dredge up."
She moved to Harlem in the 1920s after she married a prominent physicist.
Quote:
As Pinckney writes:
"By virtue of her marriage, she was a member of Harlem's black professional class. She and her husband knew the NAACP leadership: W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, James Weldon Johnson. However, because of her low birth and mixed parentage, and because she didn't have a college degree, Larsen was alienated from the life of the black middle class, with its emphasis on school and family ties, its fraternities and sororities.
Both of her novels, Quicksand and Passing, feature mixed race women.
Spoiler:
In both of her novels the character of lightest skin meets a tragic ending.

Her two novels brought her fame in the Harlem Renaissance. She was a rising star. However, she ultimately left literature, followed a career in nursing and eventually vanished in obscurity. The biographer George Hutchinson says that she remained in New York but avoided contact with her friends and past world. It wasn't until the 1990s that people began to study her forgotten works and take more interest in her life.

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Old 02-20-2018, 01:11 AM   #74
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[...] Clare was far more honest and direct than Irene could ever be.
But being direct and honest is not quite the same thing as likeable. I get the impression you don't actually like her any more on re-read. I find it a strange thing to have both the main protagonists so unlikeable.

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[...] I actually felt more comfortable with Nella Larsen's style the second time through. The first time through it felt - I don't know, maybe a bit clunky or forced - but perhaps I had got used to it on the reread. I do agree with issybird about the need to prune the adjectives, but I felt the strengths of the book far outweighed weaknesses like that.
You make me think I should spend time reading it over again - because, yes, I thought it felt a bit clunky and forced.

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Originally Posted by Bookworm_Girl View Post
I think that it is important to consider Nella Larsen's own life and how it may have influenced the stories that she told. [...]
That and simply the time and place. I'm not at all familiar with the setting (1920s Harlem) and I wonder if I was reading things the wrong way. This was something @latepaul spoke of earlier on this thread, and I start to wonder if he was more right than I realised.
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Old 02-20-2018, 01:24 AM   #75
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I believe the time period and location is critical to understanding this book. In the US, we study this era in school both in history as well as reading literary works. At least we did in my high school.

Here are a few articles you may find interesting.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlem_Renaissance
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_...ican_American)
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