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Old 02-15-2018, 08:07 AM   #16
latepaul
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I want to say in my own defence, it wasn't that I couldn't take a good guess at what was meant by things like "having" and "sheba" it was that I wasn't sure, and at the same time these details felt important. In a book about race the ethnicity of characters, even in an anecdote, seems important.

So I was left feeling uneasy and like I may be missing the point. That feeling - which isn't the author's fault - hurt my enjoyment of the book.
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Old 02-15-2018, 08:10 AM   #17
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I want to say in my own defence, it wasn't that I couldn't take a good guess at what was meant by things like "having" and "sheba" it was that I wasn't sure, and at the same time these details felt important. In a book about race the ethnicity of characters, even in an anecdote, seems important.

So I was left feeling uneasy and like I may be missing the point. That feeling - which isn't the author's fault - hurt my enjoyment of the book.
The Penguin Classics edition has footnotes explaining a lot of the references that today we may not understand.
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Old 02-15-2018, 08:10 AM   #18
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I assumed "sheba" was a reference to the Queen of Sheba: in Christian contexts she is generally assumed to be black (see here).

The ending is deliberately vague. My ordering of the possible solutions (in most likely to least likely) are:

Clare fell (accidentally stepped back during the confrontation)
Irene gave Clare are subtle push
Clare jumped
Jack pushed Clare
Yes, I agree with your possible solutions and their order. But we just don't know.

On the question of any attraction between the two women, I shall be interested to hear what others think about this possibility. It could be something that women sense more than men do - I don't know.
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Old 02-15-2018, 12:13 PM   #19
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Starting with the end: I didn't think it was ambiguous at all; Irene pushed Clare. After I'd finished the book, I went looking for commentaries and analyses, and was taken aback that others found ambiguity. I read the end again, and again it's clear in my mind that Irene pushed Clare. I will allow that a reader can make a case for uncertainty, just as a reader can make a case for Irene's sexual attraction to Clare, but I think such an analysis is forced. I think Irene was just the sort of character who would refuse to admit, even to herself, that she did actually push Clare. She's fundamentally dishonest. Her life is a lie just as much as Clare's is.

Irene seems to want to exist in a little bubble--she has a husband who provides her with a nice upper-class life, she won't abide any discussion of sex and violence and racism, she passes when passing is convenient, she avoids confrontation. I don't see her fascination with Clare as having any sexual component; I think it was simply Irene saw Clare's life as the road not taken, the life Irene might have had if she'd been willing to take chances.

We don't get much of what drives Clare--while Irene wants to protect her comfortable life, Clare seems not to care about blowing up her own life, or anyone else's. I wish we'd learned more about her--actually, I would have preferred to learn more about many of the characters, instead of just the snippets. Why did Brian (Irene's husband) hate America and his life so much? He, like all the black characters in this book, seem to be in their own safe upper-class world. What was he really looking for?

The character I especially would have liked to know more about is Irene's maid.

I kept thinking of Fannie Hurst's Imitation of Life as I was reading. If you haven't read it, or seen one of the movie adaptations, it's about two women, one white, one black, and their two daughters; the black woman's daughter is light-skinned and from childhood tries to pass as white, which means that ultimately she must reject her mother. It was written in 1933, so it's more or less contemporaneous with Passing. I wish Passing had a bit more of the emotional wallop that Imitation of Life has.
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Old 02-15-2018, 12:36 PM   #20
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I forgot to mention something. Even though Irene is generally passive and avoids confrontation, the scene at the party when she suddenly breaks the cup seems to foreshadow the pushing of Clare through the window. Irene sees Clare as a threat to her existence, she's enraged, and it just happens, without conscious thought.
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Old 02-15-2018, 03:07 PM   #21
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I'm really short of time today and tomorrow, so most of my comments will have to wait until the weekend. BUT, a couple of quick thoughts.

1.) This is ALL about race. The title alone tells us. And race in a way that I doubt anyone outside of the US can directly understand, and frankly, even those of us who are (or were, in my case) Americans but are northern WASPs, have only the most limited understanding of. "Passing for white" made you a pariah to both whites (if discovered) and blacks, leaving you isolated and alone.

2.) The least important thing is whether she jumped or was pushed.

3.) The longing for the culture, relationships, and community that can never be replaced, and for which her new life is no substitute, is central to the characters. A very early quote is completely telling:
Quote:
"You can’t know how in this pale life of mine I am all the time seeing the bright pictures of that other that I once thought I was glad to be free of.... It’s like an ache, a pain that never ceases....”
(emphasis mine, and the use of the word "pale" is appropriate and intentional)

More later, but I need to hit the road for a couple of days and can't check in until I get back.

Last edited by CRussel; 02-15-2018 at 03:09 PM.
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Old 02-15-2018, 03:07 PM   #22
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My stream of consciousness thoughts...

I hate books that start with a flashback. It always seems to break my concentration. The book I read after this had a flashback within a flashback. Ugh.

Also, while some of the footnotes were helpful, the vast majority of them only served to pull me out of the narrative. Did I really need to know who such-and-such was based on in real life? Or what building she was basing a fictional building on?

I didn't have much connection to Irene and after some of her thoughts about Brian, I took an active dislike. She was very controlling and selfish.

I didn't get any of the sexual tension between Clare and Irene, mostly just Irene's growing jealousy of and fury towards Clare as she began to suspect an affair and as she realized what Mr. Bellow might do if/when he found out about Clare. I can understand her anger about the dangers involved and concern about an affair but the way she went about resolving things, by not doing anything, was more than useless.

I think this is the quote that finally turned me against her:
Quote:
She wanted only to be tranquil. Only, unmolested, to be allowed to direct for their own best good the lives of her sons and her husband.
Basically, she doesn't think he is capable of making rational decisions about what is good for them as a family and needs to be controlled. As she realizes later, she doesn't love him only the security he gives her as long as he does what she wants.

For the ending, it was ambiguous for me. Obviously we were meant to think she could have nudged Clare out, but nothing was said and supposedly Irene couldn't remember either so we don't really know. (Was this an example of an unreliable narrator? Or was this just the truth?) Like others, I felt like this was the easy way out of this story. No real resolution for Irene/Brian and certainly an awful ending for Clare's daughter.
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Old 02-15-2018, 03:35 PM   #23
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I was surprised that I enjoyed reading this book, it didn't do too much world-building, so it felt like just barely scraping the surface. Or maybe read like Irene's diary. I would have loved to read a full length novel, with more depth, and was disappointed to read that there isn't much else by the author either.

Racial issues are not a part of Scandinavian culture, so it can be a bit difficult to grasp. This book brought out some of it, the constant worry and subtle nuances. I read it as if Irene has been deeply formed by racial issues, starting with school and Clare moving to another neighbourhood and her aunts, and the constant worry has shaped her and her insecurities.

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Starting with the end: I didn't think it was ambiguous at all; Irene pushed Clare. - - - I think Irene was just the sort of character who would refuse to admit, even to herself, that she did actually push Clare. She's fundamentally dishonest. Her life is a lie just as much as Clare's is.

Irene seems to want to exist in a little bubble--she has a husband who provides her with a nice upper-class life, she won't abide any discussion of sex and violence and racism, she passes when passing is convenient, she avoids confrontation. ---
I was about to say something to this extent, but Catlady already said it so well. I guess theoretically I could reason that the fall was an accident and a defence attorney might get her acquitted, but the reality is probably that Irene "helped" Clare stumble. Nicely solving her (imaginary?) problems...

I wished there was a "three months later" chapter, with info on what happened to Clare's daughter, was she thrown out for being mixed race?

The book left lots of questions. What happened with Brian - what was the thing that he wanted to do (move to South America?). Will Irene ever realise her life isn't fulfilling?

Last edited by June; 02-15-2018 at 03:39 PM.
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Old 02-15-2018, 03:52 PM   #24
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I'm really short of time today and tomorrow, so most of my comments will have to wait until the weekend. BUT, a couple of quick thoughts.

1.) This is ALL about race. The title alone tells us. And race in a way that I doubt anyone outside of the US can directly understand, and frankly, even those of us who are (or were, in my case) Americans but are northern WASPs, have only the most limited understanding of. "Passing for white" made you a pariah to both whites (if discovered) and blacks, leaving you isolated and alone.

2.) The least important thing is whether she jumped or was pushed.

3.) The longing for the culture, relationships, and community that can never be replaced, and for which her new life is no substitute, is central to the characters. A very early quote is completely telling: (emphasis mine, and the use of the word "pale" is appropriate and intentional)

More later, but I need to hit the road for a couple of days and can't check in until I get back.
1. I don't agree that it was all about race. I think it was about pretense. Clare was passing in a racial way, but so was Irene in another way--Irene was pretending her life was all smooth and shiny, when it was full of cracks. And the husbands--Brian was living a life he hated but staying in it, and I suspect Jack, in nicknaming his wife Nig, had an idea that she was black but pretended otherwise--it didn't matter as long as no one knew. The facade became more important than the reality.

2. I think it is important. I don't see any foundation for Clare to suddenly commit suicide; she's a survivor and a bit of a chameleon and I can't see her doing it on the spur of the moment. What would be the point? But for Irene, there is a reason to eliminate Clare--once Jack knows who Clare is and rejects her, Clare will turn to Brian and destroy Irene's life, so there's one solution. Irene's thought of this before, and acts on impulse when the chance comes. The act restores Irene's normal life, or so she expects. She will go back to her pretend life.

Suicide or accident would be basically a deus ex machina ending and a real cop-out.

3. Maybe, but Irene's not getting much out of community, culture, and relationships. She hasn't denied her race, but she's not paying attention to racial tensions in society or anything outside of her own small, personal concerns. She's living in an upper-class world and doesn't show any concern about anyone not in her socioeconomic stratum. So isn't she just as isolated as Clare?
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Old 02-15-2018, 05:29 PM   #25
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2.) The least important thing is whether she jumped or was pushed.
Let's say that's so for the sake of argument, I'm going to propose a sort of corollary to Chekov's gun:

You can't have a character die as the climax of your book and expect people not to care about it.
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Old 02-15-2018, 06:00 PM   #26
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Another way to think about this statement is how do each of the ways she could have died affect the overall message of the book that you walk away with?

By that I mean each one could lead to a different message/statement.
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Old 02-15-2018, 06:12 PM   #27
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A few quick comments.

I'm firmly in the "Irene pushed Clare" camp. Like Catlady, I was surprised to see that it's regarded as ambiguous. Given Irene's controlling nature and the threat that Clare represented to her settled life, I think it's the explanation that makes the most sense. I suppose you could have An American Tragedy-type situation, where Irene didn't push Clare, but it was the very handy resolution to her problem - so long as she wasn't accused.

It is implied that Irene and Brian have a sexless marriage. I'd be more inclined to think that Irene has a low or non-existent sexual drive than that she had an erotic attraction to Clare. An interesting question is when Irene and Brian stopped sleeping together; perhaps after she had her two children? That among his various purposes for Irene was as sperm donor?

I think Passing can be both about race in America explicitly, but also be a metaphor for other conditions of passing. Race in this case provided the necessary context and also was what Larsen knew.
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Old 02-15-2018, 07:04 PM   #28
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I also think it most likely that Irene pushed Clare and that the portrayal of her mental state was building up to her snapping in rage like that. Furthermore, I think that she thinks she did based on her reactions after the event and that she is surprised when she rejoins the group afterwards that they aren't accusatory towards her.

While I did read some ambiguity into it, the thought that her husband did it wasn't even one I had considered seriously. I also don't think suicide fit well with Clare's character. Accident seemed too much of a non-ending.
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Old 02-15-2018, 07:07 PM   #29
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I think that my problem with assuming Clair pushed her is that Clare has been so passive about the whole thing on the outside, it's a large leap to "I'll kill her and that will solve everything" especially when she hasn't done anything else to help herself that would have been less dangerous both physically (what if Clare had caught her hand or dress?) and socially (danger of being seen doing something)? She was so concerned about her own security, status, and her kids that I don't think she would have taken that risk. It seemed like she would rather have Brian sleeping with Clare than risk her own position.

An anonymous message to Mr. Bellow that pushes him to do something drastic would make more sense, but she didn't do that. From his own words, "he hates [negroes]", and the tirade he had in their hotel when Irene first met him makes is seem like he would not be rational if he found out the truth about Clare. In the party setting at the end he was bad enough, what would he have done if he found out in private and there wasn't anyone around to see what he did to Clare?

Irene seemed competent enough to fight for Brian and fend of Clare if all Mr. Bellow did was kick Clare out. Why risk going to jail and (possibly worse) the complete loss of face that she would risk by pushing Clare?
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Old 02-15-2018, 07:22 PM   #30
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Maybe Irene thought she was doing Clare a favor because she thought Clare could not live as a negro person once found out. Clare was going to lose the life she knew, she was going to be branded a negro, she was going to maybe be a single mother.
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