Teaching Nella Larsen’s Passing
I have taught Nella Larsen’s Passing many times in my Introduction to American Literature and Introduction to Literature courses. The reasons for teaching Larsen are plenty: the novella is slim and segmented into three parts, each of which fits nicely into a class session; the ambiguous ending is perfect for practicing literary argumentation; Larsen was forgotten for several decades and students appreciate thinking about how texts can be forgotten and recovered; and finally, the novella is host to themes of race, sexuality, beauty, desire, class, and gender that make for energetic and rich classroom discussion.
I teach at a predominately white institution where the decision to teach Passing has come with its own challenges. At first I found it difficult to convince a fair number of my students to engage in conversations about racial passing. Many couldn’t comprehend what it meant to pass, and once they did so they understood passing as a relevant issue in the 1920’s (when the book was published) but did not find validation in discussions of race in the contemporary climate. Therefore, when I made the move to transition from textual to real life application, the class fell flat. Those who did make the connections to their daily lives wrote so in short assignments but didn’t speak in class, and those who didn’t make the connections did speak and felt their experiences as proof of a post-racial society.
It was this failure to connect real life to text that let me know I was on the wrong track with this group of students. After all, one of my primary goals as an educator is to help students see that literature is a living, breathing thing that reaches across the boundaries of time. Many of my students said that they had never before been asked to think about race, a luxury Peggy McIntosh writes about in her widely cited article, and had not noticed issues of privilege all around them. After hearing this I realized I’d botched the way I taught the novella. I’d imagined my students’ experiences to be much different than they were, and decided to spend more time on our foundational discussions of the text to lead them more slowly into these conversations.
Here’s a set up of how I’ve come to teach Passing after adjusting for my classroom make-up. If you haven’t read Passing there are several spoilers, so be warned.
DAY 1: I find it useful treat the first class as a touchstone that introduces students to some foundational ideas. That way, those unfamiliar with passing can gain an understanding of it, and those who are familiar with the idea can build upon their pre-existing knowledge.
On the first day of longer works I tend to distribute a 1-page handout with nuts and bolts information about the text. This includes biographical information about the author, critical responses to the text, and any relevant historical context. For Passing I include a brief overview of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Rhinelander Case, and the Harlem Renaissance.
As a group we discuss passing as a broad concept of hiding a part of one’s identity to claim another. Students often make initial connections to how they feel when they move from high school to college or how they feel while hiding their sexuality when they go back to their hometowns. There may be certain things about their former selves they hide, suppress, and eliminate as they move back and forth between their two worlds. Many express discomfort and frustration with the disconnect between their old and the new selves. The next step is to take this foundational understanding and explain how the experience of passing as another race, particularly in the time during which the novella is set, is a much different lived experience than the versions of passing we have identified.
I give students a visual of racial passing, which, I’ve found, is the most illuminating moment for students. Those who could not understand how a black woman could pass for a white woman are able to see celebrities who could pass and can then imagine Clare and Irene as they read the novella.
I present an overview of how we will be talking about race in the classroom, which is something that is not biological but socially constructed. This is often a new concept for many students, and I ask them to imagine one of the celebrities from the Atlanta Black Star article – Rashida Jones, perhaps – being dropped onto a remote island somewhere. If she was separated from everything that assists us in categorizing her race like family, values, language, religion, etc., how would we be able to determine her race? There is nothing in a person’s DNA that determines race, therefore we would have no idea what race to assign.
Next, we discuss privilege. This is a really important part of the first class, and one I mistakenly used to address by discussing only white privilege. I found that those discussions were tense and defensive, and that they actually excluded a large portion of what makes Passing so complex, which is not only the privileges of whiteness, but privileges of sexuality, gender, and class. As a group I ask students to brainstorm types of privilege and I put them on the board. They usually come up with a good variety: being rich, white, adult, male, beautiful, fit, without disability, practitioner of a majority religion. They’re asked to write down what privileges they have and how they think that affects their lives in college. They do not have to share these short written responses, but many do, and this begins the real life to text connection I hope to make throughout the rest of our discussions.
DAYS 2 & 3: In the next few classes we really dive into the text. We go through close reading sections that touch on key themes and literary techniques.
Beauty: Before she recognizes her, Irene describes Clare as the quintessential image of white beauty, and in this way the novella enacts the slipperiness of racial identity from its start. Even Irene, a woman who choses to pass, cannot recognize another woman who is passing. I point out how whiteness is used as the ideal beauty and the point of comparison from the beginning of the novel.
Point of View: Larsen uses third person limited narration from Irene’s perspective, which begs the question of Irene’s reliability as our narrator. The class typically picks out moments in the text where Irene may be unreliable, such as the moment above where she describes Clare one way when she thinks she’s white and another when she knows Clare is passing as white. Throughout the book Irene’s descriptions of Clare vacillate from vexation to desire, and I point out how Larsen’s choice of 3rd person limited allows for us as readers to experience the same back and forth opinion of Clare that Irene experiences.
Marriage and Class: Clare and Irene’s identities are closely linked to their husbands. Clare’s racist husband secures her identity as a white woman, and Irene’s doctor husband secures her identity as an upper-class woman. Both women’s status in class and society depend upon their husbands and in class we discuss the privileges of marriage even though neither are in particularly happy unions. Unlike Clare who assumes she has the wherewithal to withstand single life (if only in her fantasy), Irene believes her status and safety are tied to her association with her husband. Conversations of marriage may also veer into conversations of ideal motherhood and how Irene and Clare each view their children and roles as mothers.
Sexuality: It doesn’t take much to get students to notice the sexual undertones in the novella. Irene desires Clare, and there can be much discussion around what kind of desire this is. Does Irene want to be Clare? Is Irene attracted to Clare? A quick close reading of Irene’s passionate descriptions will reveal these sexual undertones. In addition, we look at the sexual relationship (or lack thereof) between Irene and Brian. The two are in a sexless marriage and Irene is afraid Brian is going to go to Brazil, an area more accepting of homosexuality. At one point, Brian says that sex is a joke, which clues us into how he feels about sexuality and his marital experience. We discuss the possibility of Irene and Brian passing for heterosexual when they are homosexual, and mine the connection we can make between passing as a sexual phenomena and a racial one.
Race: Looking at how the characters in the novella define race can reveal how fluid this category is and highlights the hierarchy of skin color and categorization. Jack Bellew claims to hate African Americans yet he is unknowingly married to an African American Clare; Irene describes Clare as a white woman before realizing she is an old friend from her neighborhood growing up; author Hugh Wentworth fixates on his inability to figure out who is passing at the Negro Welfare League dance; and Irene feels allegiance to her race but also feels it as a burden. Larsen also differentiates characters by skin color and noticing which characters she assigns to darker and lighter shades can draw attention to hierarchical variation within the category of blackness.
DAY 4: This is the day I look forward to all semester. The novella’s ending is incredibly ambiguous, and there are at least three interpretations of the ending that can be validated through textual evidence.
I always find this blog post helpful when preparing for this day. Clare somehow falls to her death out of the window at a party. Was she pushed? Did she fall? Did she jump? The narration in this section, since it’s from Irene’s perspective, is fragmented and frantic, and there is no single obvious interpretation. Before this class I tell my students to make a decision about what happened at the end of the novella and bring in two pieces of evidence that support that reading. When they come to class they have to argue their choice and convince the other sides why their option should be considered the “real” ending. This results in a passionate and energetic discussion and I find my students wanting to prove why their choice of ending is the correct interpretation. In closing, I ask students to consider why Larsen may have chosen this ambiguous ending for such a short text, and what that ambiguity and lack of closure might imply about passing and racial identity.
CLOSING THOUGHTS: As you can see, there is much to discuss when teaching this short book. It’s a great text to teach leading into an analysis paper since there are many loose ends and ambiguities to explore. I could also imagine teaching the novella to an upper-level course and being able to explore many of these issues more in-depth with added layers of critical theory, but it does work well as a starting block to introduce students to major themes in literature across time periods. As I discovered, teaching Passing to students unfamiliar with racial passing is a fruitful practice as long as students are provided the foundational tools needed to make real life to text associations.