Subconsciously Selfish: Motherhood in Part One of Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ (1929)

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In an era that was bursting with independent thought and expression, at least one Harlem Renaissance author designed a story that balances the past and present for women of African descent who have immersed themselves into white culture and are cultivating a new lifestyle in the process.  For a novel so rich in exposing racial inequalities and the personal hardships of women whose core identity has become buried due to social pressures, Nella Larsen’s Passing–specifically, the details also exhibits how some African-American women in the early twentieth century were selfishly shedding a notably natural, maternal bond with their own children and redirecting their attention to advancing their own social status and reputation.  

Throughout the novel, Irene and Clare exchange a series of perspectives on their lives, their pasts, and their outlooks.  Interestingly, however, their children are commonly mentioned only as afterthoughts during these talks. The theme of selfishness presents itself just before a previous meeting between the two main characters is detailed.  In the opening flashback of this first encounter after twelve years, Irene is trying to gather some gifts she’d promised to get for her two sons while she was in Chicago and they were at summer camp. This detail doesn’t need to be unpacked too deeply because children being sent to camp is not necessarily a selfish act on the mother’s part.  What is bizarre and revealing about this moment in the story is how Irene, after failing to find her son a specific book, witnesses a stranger who “toppled over and became an inert crumpled head on the scorching cement” (1083). While not everyone is trained to address the needs of someone who might have fainted from heat exhaustion, Irene reveals a lot about herself by simply walking on and seeking out a tea to help her relax.  After taking a second cup of tea on the roof of the Drayton, she eventually remembers her unfulfilled promise to her son and compares his desire for a specific drawing-book to her husband’s desire for “invariably [wanting] something that was difficult or impossible to get” (1083). Irene is clearly burdened by her son’s wishes, which shows a disconnect between mother and son that was not commonly exhibited in the works of female authors prior to Larsen.  

Once Irene and Clare reunite in the flashback, their conversation focuses on the past at first.  This information clearly adds depth to the relationship between the two characters, but there is one notable absence from their initial exchange: neither one thinks to ask the other about their own family right away.  Conversation styles differ among all people and within all eras; however, it seems rather unnatural for each woman to offer information about their children so deep into their conversation. In fact, Larsen’s own description of Irene’s references to her son are mixed within a slew of other life events.  The reader is left wondering if Larsen herself believes children to be just as insignificant as her own character does.

Specifically, Irene displays a gaudy amount of selfishness shortly after sharing her life over the last twelve years with Clare.  Even though “Clare drank it all in,” Irene does not reciprocate by politely asking about her old friend’s family and life; in fact, she “had a very definite unwillingness to do so” (1088).  Before Irene departs, however, Clare has the opportunity to wedge her daughter’s name into the conversation, though she is forced to use the ten-year-old as incentive for a second meeting with Irene (1089).  During their second, even shorter, encounter, Clare mentions her daughter again, though the daughter is away at a lake with other children. This anecdote continues the unprecedented theme of detached motherhood.  Other critics might suggest that there is a clear parallel between the adult women characters consciously allowing their children to build their sense of independence while subconsciously struggling with their own, which is a challenge for all parents regardless of role or gender.  However, I posit that these women have never truly be invested in their children’s lives or success. Lacking within the descriptions of either woman is a longing to be reunited with their children. Neither one loses track of their busy social schedules because they are deep in reminiscence about holding their babies, nursing them, or teaching them anything.  The children–really, their absence–emerges as a symbol of each woman’s selfishness. Here, Larsen is signaling a significant change of motherhood in the black community by presenting characters of higher social status.

Before the end of part one, the final, damning encounter that summarizes this apathy toward children involves a guest of Clare’s named Gertrude Martin.  These women all knew one another from their youth, and they are sharing experiences about “passing”. The seemingly harmless exchange about gender preference for their newborns catapults rather unexpectedly after Gertrude mentions that her husband had wanted a girl.  Clare, drink in hand, states to the group that she’s “afraid” to have any more children because she “nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that [the baby] might be dark” (1096). Unlike before, this single line demands to be unpacked.  

Gertrude and Clare, the two women who have “passed” into the white mainstream of American, support one another’s thoughts about how frightful it is to bring a baby into the world because, as “passers”, there is an apparent risk of the child’s skin tone being dark. This fear of the child being dark-complected is an obvious reference to the overt challenges for blacks that they have heard about, witnessed, and projected for the future.  Embedded within that, however, is a stunning amount of shame that was not found in the literature from earlier women writers of African descent. Notably, Irene counters this shame by announcing to the group, “One of my boys is dark” (1097). To sidestep any tension, Clare says that “coloured people…are too silly about some things” and switches the focus to “deserters like [her]” and a former associate named Claude Jones (1097).

This redirection suggests that Clare is well aware of how women within the black community have varying opinions on the future of their race.  It seems, however, that the dominating theme among this novel is that children who enter the world as dark have will have a lifetime filled with strain and disappointment, which is incredibly heartbreaking, yet believable at the same time.

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