Nella Larsen

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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.

Passing, Black Identity, and Race

In Passing, Nella Larsen presents black characters who “pass” as white to varying degrees, moving back and forth between different outward identities as it suits them. Some of Larsen’s characters pass only occasionally, when it is convenient and beneficial to them, but live in black communities and embrace their black identity, while others live their lives as white people, keeping their black heritage secret.

Irene is an example of a character who passes as…

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Motherhood, Security, and Freedom

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…

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Beauty and Race

Beauty is very important to the characters in Passing, whom Larsen portrays as constantly evaluating other people’s physical appearances, attending to their own, and worrying about how they look comparatively. Larsen shows, for example, Irene’s preoccupation with beauty early in the book during Irenes trip to Chicago. Irene, after seeing a man either faint or die of heatstroke, and after nearly fainting from heatstroke herself, tries to “repair” her appearance as…

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Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy

Sex and jealousy feature prominently in Passing— obviously, since one of the book’s major plot threads is Irene’s speculation that Clare and her husband Brian are having an affair. Although the themes of sex and jealousy crystallize around Irene’s speculation about the unconfirmed affair, sex, sexuality, and jealousy are thematic undercurrents throughout the book.

Irene seems to be someone who is uncomfortable with sexuality. For example, when Irene finds out that one of…

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Jokes and laughter pervade the pages of Passing, from Clare’s first giggles to the moment when Irene registers that Clare has fallen out the window, and that she will never hear her laugh again. Through her use of laughter and jokes, Larsen opens up questions about how humor works and what it can do.

For Irene, jokes, rather than being enjoyable, often have a hostile quality. Irene, or the narrator from Irene’s…

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