After reading Passing by Nella Larsen, I was left with a strong sense of disappointment in Irene Redfield. At first, I felt somewhat compassionate towards her, especially after her first encounter with Clare’s husband, John Bellow. As Clare insisted upon making herself a part of Irene’s circle by inviting her over for tea, Bellew appears and refers to Clare as “Nig.” It is said in a joking manner, they explain and is based on the fact that Clare’s complexion is becoming darker as she ages. Because Bellew is not aware that his wife is indeed of mixed race, he jokes that she is turning into a nigger.
Clare asks Bellew what the difference would be if he were to find out that she was “two per cent coloured?” Bellow replies, “I draw the line at that. No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.” It is then implied that Irene becomes furious by this statement… “but was held by some dam of caution and allegiance to Clare.”
Later on, my compassion for Irene turned into frustration when I realized that she allows several of the other characters to take advantage of her or disregard her feelings which causes her to become extremely anxious and paranoid with the way in which she, as well as others perceive her. Irene was more relatable to me than Clare, she lived a simple life with her husband and their two sons, but they were not as happy as they seemed, yet they sacrificed to do what would advance them in society at that time.
She also had some issues with him cheating in the past which resurfaced and it was not clear whether Clare and Brian had actually had an affair, nor did she confront either of them of her suspicion. She internalized a lot of the issues and pretended that everything was okay, even when she was going mad. Irene only passed as white when she felt it was necessary or to her advantage. She wanted to fit in and considered herself remaining true to herself by hosting events and networking. She always conducted herself with grace and was depicted as affluent and appeared levelheaded – she essentially became a prisoner of her own mind.
Larsen gave us a look at Irene by applying W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of double consciousness; we constantly see Irene through her relationships with others – this theory is used in the novel as an opportunity for Irene to bolster her own sense of worth.