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Portrayal of Rites of Passage in the Novel Passing by Nella Larsen: Critical Analysis

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In the novel Passing by Nella Larsen the audience experiences what is called, the rites of passage. They have a sense that they are attempting to be something that they are not meant to be by constructing an illusion that they believe influence other people that they posses an identity. The Rites of Passage is what each adolescent goes through in their life, along with adults in certain aspects. In this novel I was able to look at the underlying message and challenges that connect with the two main characters and how they will either conquer or relinquish their feelings.

The repression of sexuality for black authors, specifically for female black authors who want to write about any kind of sexuality. Because of this time period, not only those of the black culture, but females African Americans were experiencing a lot of discrimination when writing about sexuality. Not only were woman of the white culture not looked at as novelist, but imagine being a minority woman. This era was when women especially were used as sexual objects that men felt as if they oversaw their every move. There were many black female novelists who wanted to break free of the clique objectifications of woman and rape. Larsen was thought to attempt to write about sexual desires for the culture of black woman without making it seem desperate and more respectful. For example, in the novel, passing, Irene is known to be sexually suppressed and more contained with her feelings. In the novel it explains how Irene Redfield and her husband do not even sleep in the same bedroom, they have separate rooms and have a very unstable marriage. This drives the audience to start thinking about how Irene’s confused and unsure of her own sexuality and the connection to her feelings about Clare. Which brings us to the idea of, rites of passage, because in a way Irene is enlightened by her sexual desires towards Clare.

In the novel, Irene describes Clare with more than just ordinary diction. Irene uses stimulating and sensual diction to entice the audience to think about the homosexuality in this novel. There are a lot of undertones throughout this novel that rely on Irene’s fascination with Clare’s beauty. This kind of homosexuality was a bold move for Larsen in a novel, which is why it is more of a hidden aspect of the book and why many of the audience don’t always comprehend this aspect. The books analysis of a rites of passage is not only in the theme of identity for culture but many different levels of themes.

One way in which the novel hints at this hidden theme is through the marriage of Irene and Brian. Through their marriage we can see hints about how Irene might be feeling and thinking about a certain childhood friend. For instance, we see how their relationship is completely sexless considering they live in two separate bedrooms and are co parents to their child more than a father and mother. This gives the author the ability to play around with how the audience sees the main characters.

Throughout the novel we see many developments and hints at what Larsen wanted us to see between these two characters. For example, at the Drayton Hotel on the rooftop when Irene gets a first glance at Clare, she depicts Clare as this, “a sweetly scented woman in a fluttering dress of green chiffon whole mingles pattern of narcissuses, jonquils, and hyacinths was a reminder of pleasantly chill spring days.” In this quote I didn’t realize what jonquils and narcissuses were until I researched them. These are flowers that are used as a symbol for her love for Clare that she connects to the physical appearance more than the character of the person. Which goes very well for when Larsen uses this simile, “from the very beginning of their re-encounter, Irene is drawn to Clare like a moth to a flame.”

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Something that was also hinted at throughout the novel was the fact that not only are the two main characters struggling with their homosexuality, but how Irene’s husband Brian is dealing with his own turmoil. Brian is known to want to travel frequently to Brazil, and not just for the scenery or food. Instead Brian enjoys the leniency that the natives have on homosexuality rather than being around the friendly United states. The queer thoughts of Brian are almost a screen play for Irene and her own passing in the novel. For Irene she becomes intensively jealous of Clare and Brian’s relationship and becomes convinces they are having an affair. Although in the beginning this may seem like a crazy and absurd thought, it makes sense when you put yourself in the shoes of Irene. For her, this imagination is almost a teaser, and makes her erotic feelings for Clare seem more taunting and arousing.

In this novel there is a lot of jealousy that arouses from not just another’s riches or class, but instead the love that one cannot share. Irene has jealousy that is stemming off of what she adores about Clare, like her charisma. Irene has all these feelings and interests for Clare and they are not always a good thing. For example, in the novel they both attend the Negro welfare League Dance and when Irene sees Clare she feels so drab and ordinary compared to how she sees her. She describes Clare as being a unique, refreshing, magnificent woman who has opened her sight. In this novel there are two different aspects to this novels version of jealousy or shall we say Irene’s version. She shows not only her insane amount of warmth but also her bitterness towards Clare on the journey to maybe one day be able to express these feelings. With all of these feeling taking over her thoughts she lets them get ahold of her and eventually starts to think that her husband Brian might be influence by the same sexual desires that are consuming her. This fear of losing her family, what she had even before connecting back with Irene and then what she had built for herself. As a middle class African American woman her life is not easy, and deciding weather or not she should expose Clare for the life she has been living.

“She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. Clare, herself, or the race. Or, it might be, all three. Nothing, she imagine, was ever more completely sardonic,” (Shmoop).

Larsen uses this as the main source of conflict throughout passing and tries to involve the reader in Irene’s decision. Should she go off and expose Clare to whom she really is? If it was me, there is no doubt I would go off and expose her for who she really is. Fortunately, though for Clare, I am not able to speak with Irene about her twisted thoughts and give her the security that she desires. Irene strives to have comfort and security, but it is the vulnerability that Clare offers that pulls her in. And although her feelings do have a factor in her not calling Clare out, it is also the loyalty to her race that drives her away from the idea.

Even though the novel is primarily about Irene and her jealousy of Clare and of Brian, we are able to get a look into Clare’s jealousy of Irene as well. Irene lives a lifestyle that many wish they could thrive in, instead of being put into this “box” that society puts them in. Irene is thriving in this life of being able to enrich her culture, connect to her community, and live a life that is accepting of who she is. Of course society isn’t kind or always fair to people in the black culture, especially the woman, but there is no need to mope around and dwell on what society is saying. When we get the first experience of Clare and Irene getting together we see the contradiction of their feelings of both their lifestyles. When Clare visits Irene she is the first to express her loneliness and the way in which she was isolated. Yet, while Irene tries to one up her by expressing how she felt, Clare is quick to backfire,”How could your know? How could you? You’re free. You’re happy,” (Larsen). This was one of true moments we sneak away from Irene’s inner war and turmoil to really understand Clare. She, like Irene, only wants to be understood and heard for once.

Of course in this novel there is not escape on the discussion of race. This book revolves around races and is an endless spinning door where different themes go in and out. In Passing this book speaks over whiteness and how Larsen chose to use the characters trials with race and whiteness in the 1920’s. These characters that Larsen has developed are explaining what some still experience today. Clare, for example, is living a life in which she identifies as a woman who is of the white culture. Yet, Clare is not white, but only passing as white because she only half black and half white. The skin tone in which Clare has is able to give her the ability to choose what life style she wants, one of the white or black culture. Irene, is a character who chose to stay true to her culture of being half black and lives a life of less luxury than Miss Clare, but Irene still used her skin tone at certain moments to get ahead. Society at this time gave those

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Portrayal of Rites of Passage in the Novel Passing by Nella Larsen: Critical Analysis. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 30, 2023, from
“Portrayal of Rites of Passage in the Novel Passing by Nella Larsen: Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
Portrayal of Rites of Passage in the Novel Passing by Nella Larsen: Critical Analysis. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 Sept. 2023].
Portrayal of Rites of Passage in the Novel Passing by Nella Larsen: Critical Analysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2023 Sept 30]. Available from:
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