Passing

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Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Beauty and Race Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Humor Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Passing, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon

Passing offers the reader two different models of motherhood in the characters of Irene and Clare, who each experience parenthood very differently. For Irene, parenting is a kind of security, and an important aspect of her identity. Parenthood offers her a purpose and a way to structure her life. Irene tells Clare that she takes “being a mother rather seriously,” and that she is “wrapped up in [her] boys and the running of her house.” In this respect, Irene shows the reader a more traditional model of motherhood, in which children are a mother’s primary focus, and motherhood is an important aspect of female identity.

Irene associates motherhood with the idea of security. Motherhood provides Irene with (a presumed) insurance that Brian will not leave her, and she frequently falls back on that sense of security when she and Brian fight. Moreover, Irene thinks it is her duty as a parent to provide security to her children, and to insulate them from the racism of the outside world. Brian, meanwhile, disagrees with Irene’s impulse to protect their children from racism, thinking he should prepare his children for life in a country where they will undoubtedly suffer at the hands of racist individuals and systems. Irene’s disagreement with Brian highlights that Irene thinks of her motherhood as security—both in that she feels she should provide security to her children, and that it gives her security as well. Irene seems to see the family as a space that racism should not be allowed to penetrate, even if it means keeping the harsh realities of the world from her children.

Clare, on the other hand, offers a radically different model of motherhood than Irene’s. For Clare, motherhood is not an important aspect of her identity, and rather than using it to structure her life, she tries to find ways to build her life in spite of it. During the same conversation where Irene says that she takes being a mother seriously, Clare asserts that “children aren’t everything,” suggesting that she does not see motherhood as her main purpose. Larsen emphasizes the fact that Clare sees motherhood as a minor part of her life by never actually introducing the reader to Clare’s daughter Margery, keeping her on the sidelines of Clare’s presence in the novel. The lack of importance that Clare places on motherhood shows how she departs from the traditional domestic, maternal female role.

Moreover, Clare often resents her role as a mother, as Margery keeps her from leaving John and returning to her life in the black community. Rather than using motherhood to create a family space insulated from racism, Clare’s motherhood keeps her in a marriage that forces her to suffer racism every day. After Irene reminds Clare that she cannot leave her husband because of what it would mean for her daughter, Clare declares that she thinks motherhood is “the cruelest thing in the world. What Irene sees as security and responsibility, Clare views as restraint and lack of freedom. Although Irene expresses disapproval for Clare’s version of motherhood, and believes that it is selfish, she also begins to imitate certain aspects of Clare’s version of motherhood. For example, Margery goes to boarding school in Switzerland, and Irene thinks about proposing to Brian that one of their children should go to school in Europe as well.

As with the other aspects of the novel, Larsen does not condemn or valorize either Irene or Clare’s way of being a mother, leaving out moralistic prescription. However, Larsen does seem to be critical of Irene’s sense that her own form of motherhood is more selfless and altruistic than Clare’s, since Irene uses her motherhood as a way to gain control over her life, including her relationship with Brian. This suggests that being a mother, even a devoted mother like Irene, does not necessarily mean being selfless. In fact, Irenes self-righteous sense of her motherhood as selfless is part of what blinds her to her own manipulations.

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Motherhood, Security, and Freedom ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Motherhood, Security, and Freedom appears in each Chapter of Passing. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Quotes in Passing

Below you will find the important quotes in Passing related to the theme of Motherhood, Security, and Freedom.
Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

It’s awful the way it skips generations and then pops out. Why, he actually said he didn’t care what color it turned out, if I would only stop worrying about it. But, of course, nobody wants a dark child.

Related Characters: Gertrude Martin (speaker), Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

Gertrude says this as she, Irene, and Clare discuss their marriages and children over tea in Chicago. Both Gertrude and Clare are married to white men and have light-skinned children, while Irene is married to a black man and has one son who has light skin and one who is dark. Gertrude and Clare both admit to their anxiety during pregnancy about the possibility of having dark-skinned children.

Gertrude’s husband, unlike Clare’s husband, knows that she is black, and so Gertrude does not need her children to be light skinned in order to keep her own race a secret. Moreover, Gertrude clearly states that her husband did not care what their children looked like. Still, Gertrude clearly expresses a preference for light-skinned children, and she even actively disparages dark children, calling the way skin pigmentation can skip generations “awful” and saying harshly “nobody wants a dark child.”

Although it’s possible that Gertrude simply wants light-skinned children so that they may experience more privileges by passing as white, Gertrude’s negative language suggests that her preference comes from deeply internalized racism. The racist beauty standards of American society have so influenced Gertrude’s thinking that she thinks of blackness as aesthetically unappealing.

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Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

“Children aren’t everything…There are other things in the world, though I admit some people don’t seem to suspect it.” And she laughed, more, it seemed, at some secret joke of her own that at her words.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew (speaker), Irene Redfield, Margery
Page Number: 240
Explanation and Analysis:

Clare says this to Irene as she and Irene discuss the fact that Clare is leaving New York in March. Clare laments her impending departure and wonders if she can find a way to stay. Irene, not wanting Clare to stick around, reminds Clare that she will finally be able to see her daughter Margery, who has been at school in Switzerland for a long time. Clare, however, who has very different views of motherhood than Irene does, waves off this notion, telling Irene “children aren’t everything” and then laughing. Irene bristles after hearing this, believing that Clare is making fun of her.

This scene highlights the two women’s extremely different experience of parenting—Clare does not especially enjoy motherhood, and thinks of her identity as separate from her role as a parent. For Irene, on the other hand, her children are her entire world. Clare’s laughter and Irene’s woundedness at Clare’s mocking tone show how differently the two women view parenthood. While Clare feels that she can joke about it, Irene thinks parenting is serious, and therefore cannot be made humorous.

Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

Brian. What did it mean? How would it affect her and the boys? The boys! She had a surge of relief. It ebbed, vanished. A feeling of absolute unimportance followed. Actually, she didn’t count. She was, to him, only the mother of his sons. That was all. Alone she was nothing. Worse. An obstacle.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield, Brian Redfield, Brian Junior (Junior), Theodore (Ted)
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Irene contemplates the potential consequences of Brian and Clare’s alleged affair. She wonders what the affair would mean for her and her children. Upon remembering that she is tied to Brian through their shared offspring, Irene first feels a strong sense of relief. Then, however, this relief dissipates, replaced by a feeling of unimportance. Irene thinks that, to Brian, she is nothing more than the mother of his sons. This passage suggests that, through fulfilling the traditional feminine role of an extremely careful and devoted mother, Irene has lost something of her selfhood, at least in the context of her marriage to Brian. Rather than being connected because of who they each are as people, Irene feels connected to Brian only because of Junior and Ted. This suggests one drawback of motherhood for women: it can potentially eclipse other aspects of life, leaving them hollow.

Part 3, Chapter 4 Quotes

“I want their childhood to be happy and as free from the knowledge of such things as it possibly can be”….

“You know as well as I do, Irene, that it can’t. 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.”

Related Characters: Irene Redfield (speaker), Brian Redfield (speaker), Brian Junior (Junior), Theodore (Ted)
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

This dialogue takes place as Irene and Brian fight over how best to address racism with their children. Ted has just asked Brian why black people are being lynched and why white people hate black people. This discussion is timely—racist violence and hate crimes were on the rise throughout the country in the 1920s. Irene, however, does not want to address the problem with Ted and Junior, while Brian insists that they must.

Irene wants Ted and Junior’s childhoods to be happy and insulated from the racism that they, being black boys, will inevitably face. Irene consistently values security and the illusion of control over the truth throughout the book, and this is particularly apparent in how Irene parents and in how she screens her own emotions and desires from view as she narrates the story. Brian, on the other hand, insists that they have to address racism with their children, since it will inevitably be a part of their lives. He cites one occasion when they tried to prevent their children from learning the significance of the word “nigger,” and then someone called Junior a “nigger” anyway. This poignant example shows how painful it is to navigate racism when parenting black children in a world that is so hostile to black people. It also shows the pitfalls of Irene’s tendency towards denial.

Drearily she rose from her chair and went upstairs to set about the business of dressing to go out when she would far rather have remained at home. During the process she wondered, for the hundredth time, why she hadn’t told Brian about herself and Felise running into Bellew the day before, and for the hundredth time she turned away from acknowledging to herself the real reason for keeping back the information.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield, Brian Redfield, Felise Freeland
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote describes how Irene’s mind wanders after her fight with Brian over their parenting choices. Irene’s thoughts stray into ruminating, again, about running into John Bellew with Felise. Irene’s mental state is clearly deteriorating by this point in the book. Whereas before Irene loved to socialize, she now dreads getting dressed and leaving the house.

This description of Irene’s thought process also highlights how deeply unreliable Irene’s perspective is; here, Irene admits to the reader her own tendency to omit thoughts that make her uncomfortable. While the narrator notes that Irene “turned away from acknowledging to herself the real reason” that she didn’t tell Brian about her run-in with John, the book—like Irene—never specifies what those reasons are. However, the reader can probably guess what those reasons might be (complex feelings of contempt and jealousy for Clare, and possibly attraction as well), Irene cannot face her own emotions. This quote reveals Irene to be someone who is deeply repressive of her own impulses and desires.