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Married to a successful physician and prominently ensconced in Harlem's vibrant society of the 1920s, Irene Redfield leads a charmed existence-until she is shaken out of it by a chance encounter with a childhood friend. Clare Kendry has been "passing for white," hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband. Clare and her dangerous secret pose an increasingly powerful threat to Irene's security, forcing both women to confront the hazards of public and private deception. An important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen was the first African-American woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Her fictional portraits of women seeking their identities through a fog of racial confusion were informed by her own Danish-West Indian parentage, and Passing offers fascinating psychological insights into issues of race and gender.
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Editorial Reviews

Richard Bernstein
...the genius of this book is that its protagonists, especially its Anna Karenina-like central figure, Irene Redfield, are complex and fully realized and individually responsible as well. Larsen's treatment of race in this sense was both candid and tough-minded. She understood the power of its impact, but she never let her characters escape from the weight of their choices.
New York Times
From the Publisher
“A work so fine, sensitive, and distinguished that it rises above race categories and becomes that rare object, a good novel.” —Saturday Review of Literature
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781604599947
  • Publisher: Wilder Publications
  • Publication date: 2/25/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 82
  • Sales rank: 339,149
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was the author of two novels and several short stories. She received a Guggenheim fellowship to write a third novel in 1930 but, unable to find a publisher for it, she disappeared from the literary scene and worked as a nurse.

Thadious M. Davis is G. C. Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, the author of an acclaimed biography of Nella Larsen, and the editor of Larsen’s Quicksand for Penguin Classics.

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Read an Excerpt

It was the last letter in Irene Redfield's little pile of morning mail. After her other ordinary and clearly directed letters the long envelope of thin Italian paper with its almost illegible scrawl seemed out of place and alien. And there was, too, something mysterious and slightly furtive about it. A thin sly thing which bore no return address to betray the sender. Not that she hadn't immediately known who its sender was. Some two years ago she had one very like it in outward appearance. Furtive, but yet in some peculiar, determined way a little flaunting. Purple ink. Foreign paper of extraordinary size.

It had been, Irene noted, postmarked in New York the day before. Her brows came together in a tiny frown. The frown, however, was more from perplexity than from annoyance; though there was in her thoughts an element of both. She was wholly unable to comprehend such an attitude towards danger as she was sure the letter's contents would reveal; and she disliked the idea of opening and reading it.

This, she reflected, was of a piece with all that she knew of Clare Kendry. Stepping always on the edge of danger. Always aware, but not drawing back or turning aside. Certainly not because of any alarms or feeling of outrage on the part of others.

And for a swift moment Irene Redfield seemed to see a pale small girl sitting on a ragged blue sofa, sewing pieces of bright red cloth together, while her drunken father, a tall, powerfully built man, raged threateningly up and down the shabby room, bellowing curses and making spasmodic lunges at her which were not the less frightening because they were, for the most part, ineffectual. Sometimes he did manage to reach her. Butonly the fact that the child had edged herself and her poor sewing over to the farthermost corner of the sofa suggested that she was in any way perturbed by this menace to herself and her work.

Clare had known well enough that it was unsafe to take a portion of the dollar that was her weekly wage for the doing of many errands for the dressmaker who lived on the top floor of the building of which Bob Kendry was janitor. But that knowledge had not deterred her. She wanted to go to her Sunday school's picnic, and she had made up her mind to wear a new dress. So, in spite of certain unpleasantness and possible danger, she had taken the money to buy the material for that pathetic little red frock.

There had been, even in those days, nothing sacrificial in Clare Kendry's idea of life, no allegiance beyond her own immediate desire. She was selfish, and cold, and hard. And yet she had, too, a strange capacity of transforming warmth and passion, verging sometimes almost on theatrical heroics.

Irene, who was a year or more older than Clare, remembered the day that Bob Kendry had been brought home dead, killed in a silly saloon-fight. Clare, who was at that time a scant fifteen years old, had just stood there with her lips pressed together, her thin arms folded across her narrow chest, staring down at the familiar pasty-white face of her parent with a sort of disdain in her slanting black eyes. For a very long time she had stood like that, silent and staring. Then, quite suddenly, she had given way to a torrent of weeping, swaying her thin body, tearing at her bright hair, and stamping her small feet. The outburst had ceased as suddenly as it had begun. She glanced quickly about the bare room, taking everyone in, even the two policemen, in a sharp look of flashing scorn. And, in the next instant, she had turned and vanished through the door.

Seen across the long stretch of years, the thing had more the appearance of an outpouring of pent-up fury than of an overflow of grief for her dead father; though she had been, Irene admitted, fond enough of him in her own rather catlike way.

Catlike. Certainly that was the word which best described Clare Kendry, if any single word could describe her. Sometimes she was hard and apparently without feeling at all; sometimes she was affectionate and rashly impulsive. And there was about her an amazing soft malice, hidden well away until provoked. Then she was capable of scratching, and very effectively too. Or, driven to anger, she would fight with a ferocity and impetuousness that disregarded or forgot any danger; superior strength, numbers, or other unfavorable circumstances. How savagely she had clawed those boys the day they had hooted her parent and sung a derisive rhyme, of their own composing, which pointed out certain eccentricities in his careening gait! And how deliberately she had—Irene brought her thoughts back to the present, to the letter from Clare Kendry that she still held unopened in her hand. With a little feeling of apprehension, she very slowly cut the envelope, drew out the folded sheets, spread them, and began to read.

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Table of Contents

Part 1 Encounter 1
Part 2 Re-encounter 37
Part 3 Finale 66
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[Nella Larsen] offers characters so honest and desperate to be whole that we cannot help but champion their humanity.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 65 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 65 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 11, 2010

    Very good; thought provoking

    This classic novel takes on the age-old question of African-Americans passing for white, and the consequences of that decision. The two main characters make different decisions and expereince different ends.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 3, 2010

    Very Very slow book

    This was really hard to get through. It seemed to me to jump from place to place

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2007

    A reviewer

    It's unfortunate that most people have never even heard of Nella Larsen let alone read her two indispensible novels, 'Quicksand' and 'Passing.' She was an incredibly talented writer and deserves to be compared with Virginia Woolf when it comes to complex characterizations. 'Passing' is a short novel but contains great thematic depth. This is a novel concerned not only with racial identity but also issues dealing with gender and sexuality. 'Passing' is a novel that left me spellbound with its vivid descriptions and provocative ideas. The two central characters, Irene and Clare, are very strongly written as they offer a keen insight into what it meant to be 'black' in 1920's America. The ending, in particular, is masterful because of its ambiguity. Highly recommended.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2002

    a classic from the Harlem Renaissance

    This book is required reading for anyone who is interested in black literary history or who wants to read work by women writers from the Harlem Renaissance. It's a fairly easy read, in that it's only around 100 pages, but it's quite a page turner and really pushes the reader to think about complicated issues of race and gender.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 10, 2011

    Required reading by My UHD Professor, Chuck jackson

    He takes his classes seriously and recommends things that we can discuss. this book was good. I'm not really an avid book reader, but this might just do the trick

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 10, 2011

    so so

    this book was way to wordy and it ended in what seemed like the middle of the story. overall it had a good concept though.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 17, 2010

    A Glimpse of Race Relations in the 1920's

    I am working on a novel in which one of the characters is passing. My character begins his duplicitous life in the late 1920s, the era Larsen wrote about in Passing. I read Passing for background on what my character might have encountered in this era in America. I found Nella Larsen's prose insightful and engaging. The intoduction and notes by Thadious M. Davis provided more insight and context for today's reader. I recommend the book to anyone who is intested in African American culture from the African American perspective. Again, Larsen and Davis offer an insightful and engaging persepective of this complicated life choice that is also entertaining.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2001

    Not what I expected

    Reading this book is like driving on a road with speed bumps. There is always something that kills the story line. There was definately something missing. If you don't like endings that don't have an ending this is not the book for you. However, I found that the ending was appropriate. Irene and Clare are the extreme cases of what is inside all people. I really thought it was going to be better.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2014

    A Unique Story About Racism  Nella Larsen was an American writer

    A Unique Story About Racism 
    Nella Larsen was an American writer during the Harlem Renaissance, which was a period with high racial tensions. Nella made it possible to connect with the issues of racism and sexism through her unique characters and plot. The idea of "passing" over as a white person and hiding one’s true identity is the main focus of this novel. 
    In the fictional novel, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry are childhood friends, who are both half- black but are able to pass as  white, split up after the death of Clare's father. They meet later in life in Chicago and learn about each other's lives'. Clare has completely passed as a white and even married a white racist and Irene lives in Harlem and is married to a black doctor. Irene wants nothing to do with Clare but with her charms she is able to convince Irene for them to be friends again. The two become fascinated with each other’s lives’ and this all leads to a very tragic ending. 
    The novel is very memorable and thought-provoking. It provides digs deeps into the issues and effects of racism on an individual, a family and society as a whole. I was able to understand Irene as well as Clare, their behavior, and the fascination and jealously they had towards each other. I felt sympathy but also respect towards Irene because of the struggles that come with embracing her black heritage.
    The novel overall is a quick read that left me shocked and surprised as tragedy unfolded in the end.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2013

    Awesome account

    A subtle account of some of the choices blacks made to survive in America.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2012

    A quick read with substance

    By a woman author from the Harlem Renaissance, Passing is a story about the importance and risk inherent in transcending social constructs (what you should be depending on your sex, race, marital status, etc.). Although the era in the story has passed, many of the conflicts affecting the characters are issues we continue to face today but dont usually discuss. Nelsons takes these on in an honest voice that conveys urgency but lets you reach your own conclusion, when you are ready.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2012


    Not a long story but one that will live in your mind long after asking, "why?" I felt like the ending was abrupt. I still don't think I know what happened officially.....

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2012


    This book explores a world that most of us are so far removed from. Its a quick read but a story you will never forget. All women should read this.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2012


    The book was ok. It was very descriptive although a little too wordy at times. The story line was creative. Good, quick read.

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  • Posted September 12, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    A Classic from the Harlem Renaissance

    Nella Larson's Passing is a must-read if you're interested in studying African American Literature, or if you're interested in reading about a fascinating and controversial subject (light skinned African Americans passing for white), especially considering the context of the roaring 20s, the Harlem Renaissance, and some of the timely debates between well known African American authors like W.E.B. Du Bois, George Schuyler, and Langston Hughes. I didn't know what the term "passing" meant until I read this book, and I thought Larson did a good job of creating a realistic setting, with vivid characters and constant conflict, to show the reader this controversial topic. Moreover, Larson created a lot of sexual tension and symbolism with words like "coffee," "cream," and "spreading," and she incorporated concepts like an "ivory mask" and a "having" way. Yet, there was something about Larson's writing style that annoyed me. Perhaps it was her wordiness and all her little asides. For example, "[t]he letter which she just put out of her hand was, to her taste, a bit too lavish in its wordiness, a shade too unreserved in the manner of its expression. It roused again that old suspicion that Clare was acting, not consciously, perhaps--that is, not too consciously--but, none the less, acting" (52). Thus, Larson gets a "passing" rating.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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