Lade Inhalt...

Mulatto Womanhood and Literary Traditions in Nella Larsen's "Passing"

Hausarbeit 2013 20 Seiten


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Background Information
2.1 Passing and Passing Narratives
2.2 The Mulatto Character

3. Nella Larsen and Passing

4. Irene and Clare
4.1 Differences: Two Sides of the Color Line
4.2 Parallels: Irene and Clare as Halved Selves

5. Clare – Revision of the Tragic Mulatta

6. Irene – A Moral Black Bourgeoise?

7. Conclusion
Works Cited

1. Introduction

The 1850 United States Census offered for the first time three options in the category of color: In addition to ‘white’ and ‘black,’ the option of ‘mulatto’ was introduced (Douglas and Yates 44). The idea for this inclusion was forwarded by the northern states of the U.S. as the South was not keen on acknowledging any mixing of the races: A mulatto or mulatta is a child born to one white and one black parent. During slavery, thousands of mulatto children were born to slave mothers and white free men, most often the masters of the women. Due to the one-drop rule (which classified anyone with as little as one drop of African blood as black), these children inherited the race and status from their mothers. In the 1920s, when the author Nella Larsen came to fame, the ‘color line’ between black and white Americans was drawn more sharply than ever before (cf. Kaplan xv).

As mulattoes and mulattas can be of a very light complexion, they are predestined to ‘pass’ for white. This means that they can cross the constructed color line and live as white people. There are various, widely differing, guesses as to how many mulatto and black people passed in the late 1920s: The numbers range from 5,000 people in the U.S. each year to 75,000 people in only one city per day (cf. Kaplan xv). The concept of passing created two distinct feelings. The fact that people could simply assume another racial identity created fascination, on the one hand, and terror, on the other hand.

The two protagonists of Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), Irene and Clare, are mulattas. Though they have grown up together, they have made different choices and lead different lives: Clare has passed for white for many years, whereas Irene has stayed within the black community. A detailed comparison shows that these two women do not only represent different options for mulatto people, but that they also share characteristics. As far as character types are concerned, Clare represents the tragic mulatta. Yet Larsen puts forth a revision of this literary tradition and character type. Irene exemplifies the moral black bourgeoisie, though it becomes evident that Larsen distances herself from Irene and the black bourgeoisie’s morals and ethics. Irene, in addition, also possesses tragic elements. Despite representing different character types, both Irene and Clare are the literary descendants of Iola Leroy, title character of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s novel Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted.

For a more in-depth understanding of the topic, chapter two will provide a broader framework and offer the most important facts about passing, the passing novel, and the mulatto character in American fiction. Chapter three will present background information on the author Nella Larsen and her novella Passing. These chapters will serve as a basis for the discussion of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Sections 4.1 and 4.2 will respectively analyze Irene and Clare’s differences and similarities. Chapters five and six will then explore more closely the type, tradition, and literary predecessors of Clare and Irene. The last chapter will offer a short conclusion.

2. Background Information

2.1 Passing and Passing Narratives

The term ‘to pass’ has several meanings, including ‘to move,’ ‘to give approval to,’ or ‘to identify oneself or accept identification as a white person though having some [black][1] ancestry.’ As already mentioned in the introduction, the last meaning is the one around which this paper revolves: passing as “crossing the socially constructed ‘color line’ that separates white and black Americans” (Wald, “Passing” 560). It has to be noted, however, that passing does not solely apply to race but also to a number of other concepts, such as gender or class. In this sense, passing always is the crossing of a boundary. According to Elaine Ginsberg, racial passing evolved as a practice during slavery in the U.S., when children of black slave women and white men “inherited the abject status of the mother” and tried to break loose from their fates (5).

By writing about passing, mainly black authors have explored the meaning of “race, identity, and color” and examined the social and psychological reality of African Americans (Wald, “Passing” 560). Moreover, the authors also had an ideological strategy: They “satirized the values of white supremacy, explored the protective effects of  ‘white’ identity in an otherwise harsh and alienating world […], and voiced themes of pride and self-affirmation” (Wald, “Passing” 560).

The novel of passing is a novel of protest in that it criticizes the strict binary categorization of racial identity in black or white and, as literary scholar Harryette Mullen contends, it exposes “the actual fluidity of ostensible rigid racial boundaries” (74). The novel of passing usually revolves around a half-white half-black character that decides to pass for white. Topics that are likely to be discussed in the novels are miscegenation, fear of exposure, guilt, the search for identity of the passer, and in the end, the ‘recrossing’ of the color line (cf. Little, “Novel of Passing” 548). In addressing this last point, passing novels can promote loyalty and solidarity to the black race. Passing also involves geographical movement as the passing character has to leave his or her environment behind (cf. Ginsberg 3).

Elaine Ginsberg argues that passing has three major elements:

[Passing] is about identities: their creation or imposition, their adoption or rejection, their accompanying rewards or penalties. Passing is also about the boundaries established between identity categories and about the individual and cultural anxieties induced by boundary crossing. Finally, passing is about specularity: the visible and the invisible, the seen and the unseen (Ginsberg 2).

This way, passing questions the essentialism of race and identity politics (cf. Ginsberg 4) and threatens white identity in that it “not only creates […] a category crisis […] but also destabilizes the grounds of privilege founded on racial identity” (Ginsberg 8).

Passing narratives can be found in American literature in antebellum, postbellum, and 20th century fiction and drama. One of the first authors to represent passing in fiction was white American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe who integrated a passing character into her abolitionist work Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). In 1853, William Wells Brown published the first African American novel (and passing narrative) Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter. In this novel, however, passing is only represented as a temporary means to escape from slavery. In addition, Clotel makes use of gender passing as well as racial passing. The same statements hold true for William and Ellen Craft’s 1860 biography Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.

Other passing narratives were Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857), Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, white author Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). Throughout these works, slight deviations and revisions of the passing motif can be found. Harper’s title character Iola passes involuntarily in the beginning as she does not know of her African heritage. In Pudd’nhead Wilson, one mulatto slave and one white boy get exchanged and they involuntarily and unknowingly pass for white and black respectively. According to scholar M. Giulia Fabi, all of these novels addressed both white and black audiences (4).

During the Harlem Renaissance, people regained interest in the passing genre. NAACP leader Walter White published his novel Flight in 1926, Jessie Redmon Fauset wrote Plum Bun (1929) and Comedy: American Style (1933), and Nella Larsen authored Passing (1929), which will be of major concern within this paper. Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life came out in 1933 and was turned into two motion pictures in 1934 and 1959. Finally, Langston Hughes extensive publications on the issue of passing included the prose text “Passing” (1934) and the drama “Mulatto” (1935).

After the Harlem Renaissance, passing narratives declined in frequency and popularity. Yet, today, passing still finds use in historical novels “to interpret the past and to comment on the present” (Little, “Novel of Passing” 549 ff.). One of these latest novels on passing is Philip Roth’s 2000 novel The Human Stain. The following section will introduce the mulatto as a character in fiction.

2.2 The Mulatto Character

Mulatto and mulatta characters, along with quadroons (one-quarter African American) and octoroons (one-eighth African American), belong to the inventory of American literature across genres and time periods. The origins of mulatto and mulatta in literature can be traced back to antebellum America. They are first mentioned in “The Quadroons,” a 1842 short story by Lydia Maria Child. Over time, the mulatto character went on to be used as an instrument for a special cause (cf. Bullock 78). Abolitionist writers, for example Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Wells Brown, used the mulatto to create sympathy, pity, and support on the part of the white readership (cf. Little, “Mulatto” 512).

After the Emancipation of the slaves, Southern writers, such as Thomas Dixon, Jr.[2], depicted the mulatto as the most dangerous sort of the freedmen (cf. Bullock 79). In this period, black novelists wrote for the cause of the freed African Americans. All of them, however, agreed that the mulatto’s “duty is to ally himself with the [black] group” and work for “race betterment” (Bullock 80). An example for this is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s novel Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted.

During the Harlem Renaissance, an incline in the interest in passing and mulatto characters led to the publication of the before mentioned novels of passing and poems such as “The Octoroon” by Georgia Douglas Johnson and “Two Who Crossed a Line” (1925) by Countee Cullen.

As mulattoes have a light skin, they are likely to pass for white. Virtually all of the before mentioned passing narratives introduce mulatto characters. It is important to note that the character most often used is the tragic mulatto, which will be further discussed in chapter five. Identical to the novel of passing, the tradition of writing about the mulatto/a has gone out of fashion. Having provided the broader framework of this paper, the next chapter will deal with Nella Larsen and her novel Passing.


[1] The original dictionary entry of the Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary as cited in Pamela Caughie’s introduction to Passing and Pedagogy: The Dynamics of Responsibility read “Negro.” Out of respect, this word has been changed to ‘black.’

[2] Dixon is the author of the racist trilogy The Leopard’s Spots (1902), The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), and The Traitor (1907). Clansman was turned into a movie in 1915 under the title The Birth of a Nation.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
407 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Freie Universität Berlin
nella larsen passing harlem renaissance clare irene race blackness black womanhood white mulatto mulatta literary tradition stereotype tragic



Titel: Mulatto Womanhood and Literary Traditions in Nella Larsen's "Passing"