_Passing_ questions

These questions also appear on a document in our class’s shared Google Drive folder. Please feel free to comment here or on that document.

  • Why does Irene focus so much on Clare’s beauty?
  • Why does Irene want to protect Clare?
  • Why aren’t Brian and Irene intimate?
  • What happens at the end of the novel?
  • Are we supposed to be convinced Brian and Clare are having an affair?
  • In what way is Irene an insider?
  • How is Irene’s insider status related to what McDowell says about Larsen’s literary career?
  • Why is the novel focalized—not narrated—by Irene?

In narratives, it is often useful to decide whether there is a difference between who speaks and who sees In a familiar mode of third-person narration, narratives such as “The Story of an Hour” and “A Cross Line” are told by a speaker situated above and beyond the story’s events–someone who knows and sees everything in all the characters’ minds. In first-person narration, of course, the speaker and seer are typically the same entity–Whitey in “Haircut,” for example, is both seer and speaker. But in Passing, the responsibilities for speaking and seeing are divided up; a third-person narrator speaks while the character Irene sees. Irene’s point of view dominates most of what the narrator chooses to relate in language. The narrator can always choose to omit what Irene sees (as she does at 12–Irene sees a man collapsing on the sidewalk but doesn’t care enough to get a closer look). The narrator can criticize Irene without Irene’s knowledge (as she does at 61, when the narrator separates from Irene and informs the reader of information Irene doesn’t herself understand). But most of the time, the narrator allows her voice to be focalized through Irene, so that Irene’s perspective presents itself as something for the reader to read through, read around, and ultimately interpret.

But why would Larsen shape her novel this way? Why isn’t Irene simply a first-person narrator who both speaks and sees? McDowell, in “Black Female Sexuality,” calls Irene “a classic unreliable narrator.” But this simply isn’t true. By creating a distinction between her narrator and Irene, Larsen can accomplish some important ideological work. Specifically, I’d say, Larsen’s satire depends upon the contrast between the narrator’s arch, savvy, cynical perspective and Irene’s self-satisfied snobbery. I agree with McDowell that Irene’s lack of self-awareness makes that satire possible, but if she were an unreliable narrator the novel would lose a good bit of its economy of length and phrasing, because Larsen would have to establish the urgent problem of Irene’s ideological limitations by other means. Characters might have to comment on Irene’s snobbery, for example, or we might have to see her interacting with people other than Brian, Irene, and Hugh in order to get the picture.

  • Which are the tropes in the novel with the most ideological significance?