Nella Larsen (1891-1964)

    Contributing Editor:
    Deborah E. McDowell

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    As students become rightly more attuned to representations of gender, race, and class in literary and cultural texts, the subtleties of Nella Larsen's Quicksand and Passing create interesting problems. Such problems derive from the general tendency of readers to elevate one social category of analysis over all others, often ignoring the interactive working of each on the other: race on gender, gender on class, etc. Readers attentive to class will find the narrow class spectrum of these novels off-putting, for they can seem on the surface to be mere apologies for the black middle class, showing little awareness of and bearing on the poverty that the masses of blacks suffered in 1920s Harlem.

    While attention to irony, point of view, and rhetorical strategy is essential to reading any text, with Nella Larsen, it is especially so. In Passing, for example, understanding that Irene Redfield, from whose perspective much of the novel is told, is an unreliable narrator, is key to understanding the novel. Equally important is the function of Clare and Irene as doubles, a strategy that undermines Irene's authority as the center of racial consciousness, clarifies the points in the narrative's critique of the black middle class, and uncovers the issues of sexuality and class that an exclusive focus on race conceals.

    It is useful to read Fannie Hurst's Imitation of Life and to show the two film adaptations of the novel.

    Students respond to the heightened attention to color and clothing and atmosphere in Nella Larsen's novels and wonder if her concentration on mulatto characters indicates an unmistakable "privileging" of whiteness.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    It is important to provide information about 1920s Harlem and the literary and cultural confluences that shaped the Harlem Renaissance. It is critical that the movement be defined not by its "unities," but rather, by its "contraries" and be seen as the site of a class-based contestation over the terms and production of black art. The aesthetic theories, produced by such writers and intellectuals as Johnson (Introduction to the Book of American Negro Poetry ), Alain Locke ("The New Negro"), Langston Hughes ("The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"), W.E.B. Du Bois ("Criteria of Negro Art" and "The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed?"), Jessie Fauset (reviews in The Crisis ), and Zora Neale Hurston ("What White Publishers Won't Print") are all essential readings. None of these attempts to articulate the terms of an emerging "black art" can be divorced from a discussion of the production and consumption of the texts, especially the system of white patronage during the period, which necessarily affected and at times constrained artistic freedom.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    The most obvious tradition in which to situate Larsen's novels must be the novel-of-passing, which problematized questions of race. Deemphasizing "biology," the novel-of-passing provided convenient ways to explore race as a construct of history, culture, and white supremacist ideology. Equally important is the tradition of the novel of manners, as well as the romance.

    Original Audience

    I note the fact that the audience for Nella Larsen's writings, as for all black writers during the Harlem Renaissance, was primarily white, though a small group of black middle-class intellectuals read them as well.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Jessie Fauset's "Plum Bun & Comedy, American Style"

    James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an ex-colored Man

    Charles Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars

    Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. The metaphor of passing accrues several layers of meaning. What are they? How do they relate to each other?

    2. Whose story is this? Clare's or Irene's?

    3. What does this passage mean: "[Irene] 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."

    4. It has been suggested that Passing uses race more as a device to sustain suspense than as a compelling social issue. What is the relation of race to subjective experience in the text?

    5. What is the significance of narrative endings in Larsen? Why does Passing refuse to specify how Clare is killed and who is responsible?


    Carby, Hazel. "The Quicksands of Representation." In Reconstructing Womanhood. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.

    Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press.

    --. Voices of the Harlem Renaissance.

    Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue.

    McDowell, Deborah E. "The 'Nameless, Shameful Impulse': Sexuality in Nella Larsen's Quicksand and Passing." In Studies in Black American Literature, Volume III, edited by Joe Weixlmann and Houston A. Baker, Jr. Greenwood, FL: Penkeville Publishing, 1988.

    Tate, Claudia "Nella Larsen's Passing: A Problem of Interpretation." Black American Literature Forum 14 (Winter 1980).

    Wall, Cheryl. "Passing for What? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen's Novels." Black American Literature Forum 20 (Spring/Summer 1986).

    Washington, Mary Helen. "The Mulatta Trap: Nella Larsen's Women of the 1920s." In Invented Lives. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1987.

    Youman, Mary Mabel. "Nella Larsen's Passing: A Study in Irony." College Language Association Journal 18 (1974).