Nella Larsen

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Masks Symbol Icon

At several points throughout the novel, Larsen describes Clare’s face as an “ivory” mask. Larsen uses this description particularly when Irene feels that Clare is using her social grace to obscure her true feelings, or thinks that Clare is secretly mocking her while maintaining a façade of congeniality. The idea of masking complements the overall themes of passing throughout the book, as both masks and passing suggest alternative identities and hidden realities. Moreover, masking is racialized in the book: Clare’s face is described as an “ivory” mask, suggesting that Clare’s whiteness is a sort of costume. Larsen uses the idea of masking to suggest the performative nature of race—by describing Clare’s whiteness as theatrical, Larsen calls into question biological or genetic conceptions of racial difference.

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Masks Symbol Timeline in Passing

The timeline below shows where the symbol Masks appears in Passing. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 2, Chapter 3
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
...fact that Clare is coming to the Negro Welfare League dance. Brian smiles contemptuously to mask his annoyance. (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 1
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Beauty and Race Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
...again of her suspicion of infidelity. Irene thinks that Clare’s white face looks like a mask, hiding her true self, while Brian, smiling, seems to be an open book. Irene looks... (full context)