2- Nella Larsen’s novel Passing spends a lot of time describing clothes, interiors, and social
gatherings, both intimate and grand. Discuss how these “novel of manners” aspects of the
novel work to further the novel’s discussion of race and identity.
The aspects of novel of manners initially emanate from the title ‘Passing’. Considering the fact that the term passing is associated to something passing by or passing away. As illustrated throughout the book ‘passing’ refers to the idea of passing as white during the Harlem renaissance era represented by a highly racist society. The two main characters Clare and Irene are at times trying to pass as total whites even though they are half-black and half-white. In her illustrations, Larsen tries to describe details intuitively to help the readers comprehend all elements in her narrative in a deeper manner. This elaborative description is critical in enabling readers not to lose grip of the deeper message that is identity. Through these descriptions, Larsen furthers our understanding of race and identity in that people are unique and different regardless of how they may want to be envisioned by the society.
Clare and Irene choose to pass as white to experience varying privileges accorded to the white population. Even though they share the same traits, they utilize them in different capacities. Irene passes as white when she needs to acquire certain privileges but insists on holding on to her black culture and heritage. On the other hand, Clare attempts to fully assimilate herself into the white society going as far as withholding her identity and race from her own husband who seems to be a racist. Larsen is using description to ensure that readers deeply understand what she is referring to in the text. In terms of gatherings and occasions, she wants to illustrate the type of gatherings and occasion that the whites had and the blacks had. She is differentiating the two in a realistic way that encroached the time after the First World War and during the Harlem renaissance.
Additionally, Larsen in her novel ‘Passing’ wants to paint a clear picture of the association between the blacks and the whites. Through her descriptive tone, Larsen is able to show how the whites were arrogant and show offs demeaning all other individuals who were not white. For the blacks, Larsen is able to show their calmness and love for their culture in the way they relate to each other and look after each other. Furthermore, she shows the readers the kind of relationships that existed between the whites and the blacks even in gatherings. For instance, he illustrates the beauty of Clare who was admired by everyone but shows the loneliness that she was experiencing deep down due to not being fully content with herself. Irene though not as beautiful as Clare, was quite content with her life and accepted her true identity and this worked to her advantage making her popular among her colleagues. Clare’s discontentedness is a disadvantage that works to her own demise as she tries to fit into two identities.
In their first encounter after a long time, Clare and Irene meet at a café in Chicago and Irene is exceedingly worried that she may be identified as black and ejected from the café. Her worry is too great that she does not recognize her longtime friend Clare who at first she thinks is a white woman staring at her. The description of the café seeks out to illustrate that this was a white man’s café and blacks were not entertained in such establishments. This aspect pinpoints how racist the society was at the time if it were possible for an individual to be kicked out of a hotel for being colored. Additionally, there is the factor of members of the black society trying to pass as white to be accorded some privileges. Often times, literatures talk about the racism in the aspect of the white discriminating against the lack. However, in this context there is the aspect a black woman being discriminated by her own black community since she has no proper identity and has failed to recognize her heritage.
In this aspect, Larsen is heavily descriptive to ensure that the readers discern and grasp the context in which she is speaking. The two main characters are of the same race but have totally different lifestyles and character traits. These descriptions support the story line by emphasizing on appreciation of content and proper identification of elements. To Larsen, Clare and Irene are two unique characters who have to be separated for the reader to understand the theme behind her narration. Even in the end, the reader is forced to understand the meaning of staying true to ones identity as Clare is confronted by varying situations that lead to her unexpected death. Larsen has used this cunning concept to facilitate perception and intuition between characters and elements in the narration. Through her intuitive description, one feels as if he or she is in the narration and can be able to experience what was going on and feel the same way as the characters. Therefore, one is able to relate with the feeling of racism and the search for identity.