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Old 02-24-2018, 02:48 AM   #91
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For a book said to be about passing, there are many things that are overlooked or skimmed over. But it's worth noticing something Bookpossum posted on the first page:
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[...] Apparently Larsen originally intended to call the book Nig, but it was changed because the publishers were concerned about the outrange caused by a book they had published called Nigger Heaven. (This was in the Introduction by Emily Barnard in the Penguin edition.) The title she used was not as outrageous, but was just as much about racism. [...]
There is quite a difference in the implications between "Nig" and "Passing", and the more I look at this book and the many (modern) assessments of it, the more I am inclined to think that it has become belatedly of academic interest because:

* The title is Passing and it was written and set in 1920s Harlem,

* It is ambiguous, allowing a reader to impose almost any interpretation over the text that they want.

What a boon to modern academia, a book that can be "studied" that will support any intended purpose. It will not be the first book to have suffered (or benefited from) this. But I think a dispassionate look at the text shows that much of what has been attributed to the text has actually been imposed on it from the outside. By saying nothing the book can be said to be saying anything. (There is a corollary from science: a theory that can explain anything explains nothing.) In reality this short novella has many weaknesses and omissions, however you decide to interpret it, and is obviously an early work of a author; it is a book of unrealised potential. (Forgivably so, so early in her career, and so all the larger shame that she decided not to continue that career).
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Old 02-24-2018, 05:30 AM   #92
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It was her second novel, the first being called Quicksand, as I think Catlady pointed out a while back in the thread. Perhaps the ambiguities are more because we don’t know the times, the place or the sorts of people of whom she writes. Apparently it was well thought of at the time. But it is true she did not write much - a handful of short stories apart from the two longer works. It doesn’t seem to be known why she stopped writing, but her personal situation changed, and that may well have had an influence.
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Old 02-24-2018, 07:12 AM   #93
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Quicksand may have been the first, but at only 46,000 words it is also just a novella. Wikipedia notes only 8 short stories. So although we must assume there was other writing prior to these publications, that is still not much experience, hence I am inclined to be forgiving of the novel's weaknesses.

Wikipedia notes of Passing:
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Sales of the book were modest: Knopf produced three small print runs each under 2,000 copies. While early reviews were primarily positive, it received little attention beyond New York City.
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In modern scholarship, Larsen is recognized as one of the central figures in the African-American, feminist and modernist canons, a reputation that is based on her two novels (Passing and Quicksand) and some short stories.[39] As of 2007, Passing is the subject of more than 200 scholarly articles and more than 50 dissertations,[39][40] which offer a range of critical interpretations.
The book was only 35k words. You can bet that those 200 articles and 50 dissertations come to a lot more than that. Hence my presumption in suggesting that most of the novel's influence has been imposed on it in recent times.


ETA: I agree that there are some things we may be missing because of our isolation from that time and place - but the more I see of modern interpretation (by presumed knowledgeable scholars) the more it seems those ambiguities actually exist. So it would seem we are left with wondering if the ambiguities were intentional (the work of an artist in full control on their work) or accidental (the work of an artist still learning what they can and cannot get away with). Given the various omissions from the work, I am inclined to think the latter is more likely.

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Old 02-24-2018, 10:06 AM   #94
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I find it interesting that although Irene is the POV character, the original title, Nig, seems to focus the story on Clare. I don't know what to make of that, but presumably it means something.

Going back to the ending--I keep trying to find the ambiguity, but I just can't. Irene pushing Clare is the only interpretation that makes sense, both in the way Irene's actions and reactions are written in the last scenes, and in terms of the structure of the book. From the moment Clare enters Irene's world at the restaurant, Irene wants to eliminate her. First it's by trying to ignore her, then it's by considering how to sabotage her marriage to Jack, and then it's by pushing her away--literally. It's a progression and an escalation with only one possible outcome. Seeing it as accident or suicide instead of murder takes away the power of the scene, and of the story itself.
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Old 02-24-2018, 11:00 AM   #95
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[...] Going back to the ending--I keep trying to find the ambiguity, but I just can't. Irene pushing Clare is the only interpretation that makes sense,[...]
I think there is every chance that your interpretation is correct (as intended by the author) because there are many strong hints to suggest that Irene pushed Clare. But there are also the two glaring problems: how did she manage this without it being obvious to a room full of people that were watching them? And related but separate, where is Clare's scream? We're told so explicitly about the sounds that the absence of anything from Clare is strange - unless the "gasp of horror" is from Clare and that's all she feels like saying as her friend pushes her out the window.

I think it comes down to which parts you believe were intentional and which parts you believe were mistakes (or unlikely scenarios) by the author.

You pointed out at the the third-person telling could be more reliable than first-person, from which we might gather that we are expected to believe the hints we are given. But I'm not convinced that this inexperienced writer made the third-person choice deliberately for that purpose - as the distinction is quite subtle.

Whereas I (perhaps inappropriately) gave the writer credit for making me distrust Irene's PoV very early on, which means I was already set up to distrust the hints at the end. As a result I see the "glaring problems" mentioned in the first paragraph as being the way the author has given us to see past Irene's misleading hints. I don't even think there was an affair between Clare and Brian. (Is this any less subtle than the third-person thing? I think so, but )

I am now more confused than I was when I first read it, because I now see that suicide is the only thing that makes sense out of their being no scream, but I never saw Clare as suicidal. So if the author made an error in this aspect, or expects us to believe Clare fell with no vocal objection, then maybe she also expects us to believe that Irene could have pushed Clare with no one noticing (even though they were all watching). Just how forgiving do I have to be, and of what?
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Old 02-24-2018, 01:15 PM   #96
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I think there is every chance that your interpretation is correct (as intended by the author) because there are many strong hints to suggest that Irene pushed Clare. But there are also the two glaring problems: how did she manage this without it being obvious to a room full of people that were watching them? And related but separate, where is Clare's scream? We're told so explicitly about the sounds that the absence of anything from Clare is strange - unless the "gasp of horror" is from Clare and that's all she feels like saying as her friend pushes her out the window.

I think it comes down to which parts you believe were intentional and which parts you believe were mistakes (or unlikely scenarios) by the author.

You pointed out at the the third-person telling could be more reliable than first-person, from which we might gather that we are expected to believe the hints we are given. But I'm not convinced that this inexperienced writer made the third-person choice deliberately for that purpose - as the distinction is quite subtle.

Whereas I (perhaps inappropriately) gave the writer credit for making me distrust Irene's PoV very early on, which means I was already set up to distrust the hints at the end. As a result I see the "glaring problems" mentioned in the first paragraph as being the way the author has given us to see past Irene's misleading hints. I don't even think there was an affair between Clare and Brian. (Is this any less subtle than the third-person thing? I think so, but )

I am now more confused than I was when I first read it, because I now see that suicide is the only thing that makes sense out of their being no scream, but I never saw Clare as suicidal. So if the author made an error in this aspect, or expects us to believe Clare fell with no vocal objection, then maybe she also expects us to believe that Irene could have pushed Clare with no one noticing (even though they were all watching). Just how forgiving do I have to be, and of what?
Considering the way Larsen was skimpy on details and specifics throughout the book, aren't you giving excess weight to the lack of a scream? Is it really a fact that a person being pushed would scream? I have no idea if there's evidence to support that; it seems just as likely that a person would be so startled by a sudden push that she might not have time to comprehend that she had gone through a window, not have time to think to scream. The text doesn't say, but my assumption is that Clare had her back to the window--she was, after all, looking into the room, at Jack. She'd have to turn around to jump. That would be seen; that would be obvious to all.

That makes suicide extremely unlikely. Accident is also unlikely--she would have had to back away from Jack, and everything we know about her is that she does not back away from confrontation or danger. Recall an early description of Clare:

Quote:
... there was about her an amazing soft malice, hidden well away until provoked. Then she was capable of scratching, and very effectively too. Or, driven to anger, she would fight with a ferocity and impetuousness that disregarded or forgot any danger; superior strength, numbers, or other unfavourable circumstances.
Would that woman have backed away from Jack and toppled out a window? Especially when the superior numbers would have been on her side?

Whatever happened wasn't obvious to the onlookers--murder, suicide, accident. Since all eyes should have been on Clare and Jack, whichever it is, someone should have seen it, but no one did, so that alone doesn't point to any of the possibilities (though it makes suicide least likely). Unless you mean that Irene wouldn't have acted in front of witnesses, but that assumes she acted rationally and after calm consideration, which isn't the case here.
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Old 02-24-2018, 07:27 PM   #97
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I find it interesting that although Irene is the POV character, the original title, Nig, seems to focus the story on Clare. I don't know what to make of that, but presumably it means something.
Perhaps it was in the same way that Rebecca was and wasn’t about Rebecca. Clare’s reappearance in her life changed Irene’s life for ever, as well as the lives of the various others in the story.
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Old 02-24-2018, 07:30 PM   #98
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Considering the way Larsen was skimpy on details and specifics throughout the book, aren't you giving excess weight to the lack of a scream? [...]
Quite possibly. Although when an author tells me in detail about the sounds surrounding an event I do expect them to at least mention the most obvious one. It wouldn't have been long and drawn out, it was only around 2 seconds from window to ground, but that's still a fair amount of time for an exclamation of some sort, especially...

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[...] Would that woman have backed away from Jack and toppled out a window? Especially when the superior numbers would have been on her side?
Sure, but this argues both ways. Just as Clare would be unlikely to back away from Jack, why would she submit to being pushed backwards by Irene? (And if she willingly stepped backwards, as I first thought happened, then Irene didn't have to push her.)

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Whatever happened wasn't obvious to the onlookers--murder, suicide, accident. Since all eyes should have been on Clare and Jack, whichever it is, someone should have seen it, but no one did, so that alone doesn't point to any of the possibilities (though it makes suicide least likely). [...]
It's fun to discover how much "least likely" varies in different minds. In my mind any person that is pushed or accidentally loses their balance is going to flail out with their arms trying to grab onto something (I also expect them to exclaim something), and Irene was right there to be grabbed (and so should the sides of the windows have been). Why did a fighter like Clare just meekly fall back through the gap provided?

But sure, I may be reading far too much into the few details provided. Mostly I'm trying to show how I read it differently to you, and so why I consider it to be ambiguous.

I would not be at all surprised to learn that, in the author's eyes/intention, CRussel was correct:
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[...] 2.) The least important thing is whether she jumped or was pushed. [...]
Quite possibly Larsen didn't care as much about this scene as (non-academic) readers were always going to.
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Old 02-24-2018, 07:37 PM   #99
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Old 02-24-2018, 08:04 PM   #100
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And see how much fun we are all having with it!


While it's too late for Larsen to learn from what we see here, other writers might look at this and notice that we have spent a disproportionate amount of time discussing the last scene. If the intention of the author was to talk about race and passing then we might see this book as a failure, because the readers' attention has been drawn away from that by the puzzle of the last scene. However, if the intention of the author was to present a character study of Irene and/or Clare then we might judge the book a success, because this final puzzle focuses the reader on the characters: what they meant by everything they said and did, how they would or should have reacted.
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Old 02-24-2018, 08:13 PM   #101
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I see the book as a character study of Irene and how the eruption of Clare into her life tipped her from smaller (but still life-changing) manipulations of others, especially of Brian, into suspicion, rage and murder.
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Old 02-24-2018, 08:38 PM   #102
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Ooh, that's interesting: the manipulations of Brian. There is, at least, noticeable condescension, but Irene does not appear to have been so passive in this relationship (as she is with Clare). Irene and Brian are, after all, still in New York. So either Irene is wrong about what Brian wants (a possibility) or she has managed to keep them there against his preference. I tended to think that much of Brian's behaviour was a reaction to Irene. In this regard he made me think of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, a sort of long suffering acquiescence.
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Old 02-24-2018, 09:08 PM   #103
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Sure, but this argues both ways. Just as Clare would be unlikely to back away from Jack, why would she submit to being pushed backwards by Irene? (And if she willingly stepped backwards, as I first thought happened, then Irene didn't have to push her.)
Who commits suicide by falling backwards out a window?

Quote:
It's fun to discover how much "least likely" varies in different minds. In my mind any person that is pushed or accidentally loses their balance is going to flail out with their arms trying to grab onto something (I also expect them to exclaim something), and Irene was right there to be grabbed (and so should the sides of the windows have been). Why did a fighter like Clare just meekly fall back through the gap provided?
We don't know if she did, as Irene doesn't give us the details of the fall. We only see fragments of how Irene chooses to remember it, and Irene focuses on her hand on Clare's arm. She leaves out most of what happened. So perhaps Clare did flail, did reach out.

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I would not be at all surprised to learn that, in the author's eyes/intention, CRussel was correct: Quite possibly Larsen didn't care as much about this scene as (non-academic) readers were always going to.
Well, I care about it because it's very like what I read in my favorite genre--suspense. It's a nice little suspense story about two women in conflict, each a threat to the other--who will prevail? I read dozens of books with this basic theme; that the conflict here is partly about racial identity gives the book greater social importance than one in which the conflict is simply about coveting a man or a lifestyle.

Regarding the author's intention, I would argue that she did not intend the reader to see ambiguity--everything Larsen has told us about the characters and the events points to Irene being the agent of Clare's death. Irene, though, pretends otherwise--and again, this pretense is completely in character for her.

How do you explain these passages:

Quote:
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—

But she mustn’t, she warned herself, think of that. ... If only she could be as free of mental as she was of bodily vigour; could only put from her memory the vision of her hand on Clare’s arm!

“It was an accident, a terrible accident,” she muttered fiercely. “It was.”
Quote:
In the midst of her wonderings and questionings came a thought so terrifying, so horrible, that she had had to grasp hold of the banister to save herself from pitching downwards. A cold perspiration drenched her shaking body. Her breath came short in sharp and painful gasps.

What if Clare was not dead?
First Irene can't even admit the word murder into her head, fiercely allowing only accident or suicide as possibilities--a case of the lady doth protest too much, methinks. And the only reason for Irene to be horrified at the thought of Clare's survival is that Clare would accuse Irene. When she finds out Clare is dead, "Irene struggled against the sob of thankfulness that rose in her throat."

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Old 02-24-2018, 09:11 PM   #104
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Perhaps it was in the same way that Rebecca was and wasn’t about Rebecca. Clare’s reappearance in her life changed Irene’s life for ever, as well as the lives of the various others in the story.
Oh, that's a good comparison, thanks.
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Old 02-25-2018, 12:36 AM   #105
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Who commits suicide by falling backwards out a window?
It's got to be easier than looking. More seriously, I have no idea.

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Originally Posted by Catlady View Post
[...] Regarding the author's intention, I would argue that she did not intend the reader to see ambiguity--everything Larsen has told us about the characters and the events points to Irene being the agent of Clare's death. Irene, though, pretends otherwise--and again, this pretense is completely in character for her.

How do you explain these passages:
It is possible to read those passages fear of being accused, or even having convinced herself that she had - even inadvertently - caused Clare to fall. By seeing her hand on Clare's arm, and then realising Clare is gone, it would easy to think yourself responsible - even if Clare had stepped back accidentally or on purpose.

Doing nothing would be in character for Irene, whereas the stretch to actually taking action is what the hints before the fall were leading us to be willing to accept. But I don't trust Irene, not even in third-person, so my explanation for those passages is simply Irene being self-centred and self-important again - everything is always about her (Irene). To again quote my favourite line of the book:
Quote:
Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?
It never occurs to Irene that "that woman" might be a Negro - no, as far as Irene is concerned, everything is about Irene, even Clare's death.
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