Security in a Middle-Class Afro-American Society
There have always been struggles of the black minority in a predominant white society. Living in this stereotypical and racist society makes the attempt of surviving for the colored particularly strenuous and hard. In Nella Larsen’s social novel, Passing, there are many instances of survival among the colored community within the predominant white society. Ignoring the want of freedom, Irene strives for security and proper image, in order to maintain a sense of acceptance in this middle-class environment. The acceptance in the society and the search of identity in the novel touches on many issues that continue to plague the female protagonist along with her double-sided life which consists of her surface and reality. It also plagues the way Irene behaves with her family and her envious thoughts upon Clare’s freedom and dangerous lifestyle.
Observed as a complex character, in many segments in Passing Irene sets an exceptionally sophisticated surface, but hides her deep true reality. For her to feel a sense of stability and security, her actions around different sorts of people differ from what is truly her. During the first encounter with Jack Bellew, Clare’s husband, “Irene’s lips trembled almost uncontrollably, but she made a desperate effort to fight back her disastrous desire to laugh again, and succeeded” (Larson, 29). Even though she had every intention to educate Jack, from his ultra-racist views, she repressed her emotional outburst and acted friendly instead, in order to maintain her proper “passing” image. Irene Redfield’s fear of overstepping the bounds of dignity causes her to repress her emotions in a harmful way. As one of the novel’s protagonists, Irene commits herself to her racial uplift and wishes to live a secure life in the society. The beautiful, idealized white image of Clare has denied Irene when she begins to suspect that Clare is trying to seduce her husband Brian and that the two plan to betray and abandon her. As she hosts a tea party at her house just after the agonizing news, she tries her very best to hide her emotions of betrayal and rage and maintains her polite, respectable, and high reputation. However, being so agitated and not being able to control her melancholy feelings, she suppresses the “rage boiled up in her” (74). “It hurt. It hurt like hell. But it didn’t matter, if no on knew. If everything could go on as before. If the boys were safe….” (76) Irene’s disguised emotion stresses her repression and reinforces the theme of “passing” as a theme in the novel and suggests other problematic situation. She makes use of this generous person act as a scapegoat for her desires to feel safe, sacrificing her true-self.
In Passing, Irene is portrayed as an emotional dictator among her family because of the fear she has of losing her middle-class security. Irene is constantly worrying and keeping an eye on her children, for them to grow and develop into ideal gentlemen. She says,
“It’s about Junior. I wonder if he isn’t going too fast in school? We do forget that he’s not eleven yet. Surely it can’t be good for him to—well, if he is, I mean. Going too fast, you know (44).
Furthermore, she even wanted to send her children to a school in Europe. The reason being, she noticed other children, a little more aged, speaking about subjects such as sex in front of them. Irene thinks she can insure her sons a happy childhood by keeping “the race problem” hidden from them. However the huband opposes her idea of restraining the children from these facts. Brian asks,” ‘What was the use of our trying to keep them from learning the word ‘nigger’ and its connotation? They found out, didn’t they? And how? Because somebody called Junior a dirty nigger'”(83) . Observed in the scene where he refuses to avoid discussing sex with Ted and Junior, he insists on telling his sons the facts of life, including the ugly fact of racism. Another issue raised was the fact that Irene continuously tries to persuade Brian into doing the things she wants in order to feel safe. Brian insisted on going to Brazil because of his knack to experience a more adventurous, freer, and less racist society. Irene opposes this notion to “get away”, and prevents him from expressing his desires because she believes she had made too many sacrifices in order for her and her beloved ones to live in this middle-class environment. She could not give up the life she had, to go away and start up a new one
In Passing, Irene and Clare are oppressed by the other’s desire and although their relationship is complicated by issue of race and security, the demands of adaptation in an unwelcomed environment dictates the lives of the two women. Because maintaining a well-kept “status” is the dominant factor in the lives of the two female protagonists, Irene accuses and envies Clare of her “deliberate courting of attention” (58). While Clare claims Irene as her link to blackness and envies Irene’s sense of security, Irene, on the contrary, is troubled with the inconsistency of the thoughts towards Clare. Irene shows a great dismay of the fact that Clare goes against the beliefs of security and the ethnic background. At the same time, however, she is also captivated by the boldness of her personality and most importanly, by her physical appearance.
Clare, it seemed, still retained her ability to secure the thing that she wanted in the face of any opposition, and in utter disregard of the convcenience and desire of others. About her there was some quality, hard and persistent, with the strength and endurance of rock, that would not be beaten or ignored. She couldn’t, Irene thought, have had an entirely serene life. Not with that dark secret for ever crouching in the background of her consciousness. And yet she handn’t the air of a woman whose life had been touched by uncertainity or suffering. […] Clare – she had remained almost what she had always been, and attractive, somewhat lonely child- selfish, wilful, and disturbing (57-58).
This quote explains the relationship between Irene’s suppressed feelings and opinions directed to Clare.
In conclusion ignoring all minimal desires such as; freedom, easier living, affection, pleasure, etc. Irene focuses mainly upon keeping her status in her middle-class society constant. She needs security and stability for her to reside sanely in a middle class environment. Irene is unable of handling a great deal of pressure. If anything upsets her, she usually stays quiet, instead of expressing her opinion on the matter. Observing Irene’s actions and behavior, Irene’s desire for a neutral life is actually causing the instability which surrounds her.