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 Irene’s 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 soon as she is out of the heat. This shows, somewhat ironically, how high a priority looking good is for Irene—she worries about her looks, not the fate of the man she saw faint—and thinks of how when she is not at her peak appearance, she feels “broken.”
As characters in Passing comment on what they think makes someone physically beautiful, they often link their standards of beauty to racialized physical traits. Because characters connect beauty with race so often, evaluations of physical attractiveness are deeply socially and politically charged. Certain characters explicitly profess (at least at the beginning of the book) to favor traits that they see as “white”: light skin, hair, and eyes. Take, for example, the conversation between Gertrude, Clare, and Irene over tea, when Gertrude and Clare state that they both are happy that their children have light skin. Gertrude even goes as far as to say that “nobody wants a dark child.” Though this preference is certainly linked to the privilege that black people can access when they pass as white, it also clearly uses aesthetics to devalue blackness.
Irene responds to Clare and Gertrude by saying that she prefers dark skin, and mentions that her husband and one of her own children are dark. Later, as Irene discusses Brian’s handsomeness, she thinks that he would not be nearly as handsome if not for the beauty of his dark complexion. In doing so, Irene makes it clear that she sees dark skin as aesthetically beautiful. The reader might imagine that Irene, who cares deeply about justice for black Americans and racial loyalty, also sees this preference as political.
Moreover, though Irene does not explicitly articulate it, she expresses thoughts that suggest a critique of the very idea of racialized physical traits. Irene says at the book’s beginning that white people often think they can tell race based on physicality, but then mistake the same traits for other forms of “whiteness”: Italian, Spanish, or Greek heritage. This suggests that racialized physical traits might be “fictional”—that “blackness” and “whiteness,” two qualities that society views as based in legible physical difference, cannot be neatly separated out.
However, despite Irene’s professed preference for “black” traits, she glorifies Clare’s “whiter” beauty. Irene returns again and again to Clare’s beauty, admiring her light skin and blond hair. Larsen shows Irene’s obsession with Clare’s beauty not just through her active comments about her attractiveness, but also in how the narration describes her. Because the narration is told in a very close third person from Irene’s perspective, the narrator’s mentions of Clare’s “ivory” skin and blond hair are part of Irene’s inner monologue. Irene also focuses on Clare’s dark eyes, which she thinks of as “negro eyes.” Irene often remarks on the effect of Clare’s dark eyes with her light skin, saying that the juxtaposition is the crux of Clare’s beauty. For example, as Irene and Clare talk in the Drayton, she says of her eyes, paired with the rest of her light coloring, that, “there was about them something exotic.”
The idea of beauty as exoticism recurs later in the book, as Irene talks with Hugh Wentworth at the Negro Welfare League dance. Irene and Hugh have just been talking about Clare’s beauty when Hugh changes the subject to dark-skinned black men, asking Irene whether she thinks they are especially attractive. The reader might suspect that Irene still has Clare on her mind when she says that she thinks what women feel around dark-skinned black men is “emotional excitement… in the presence of something strange…something so different it’s really at the opposite end of the pole from all your accustomed beauty.” This kind of exoticism is somewhat problematic, as it objectifies and tokenizes difference from normative standards. Still, the idea that standards of beauty, one of the many norms used to uphold systemic racism, might be totally inverted presents a challenge to that system.
Like she does with most of the other themes that Passing takes up, Larsen leaves the reader without a conclusive moralistic message about how to think about beauty and race, instead exploring the complex dynamics of a system in which beauty has been racialized and politicized.
Beauty and Race ThemeTracker
Beauty and Race Quotes in Passing
White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means: fingernails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a Gypsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro. No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn’t possibly know.
Her lips, painted a brilliant geranium red, were sweet and sensitive and a little obstinate. A tempting mouth. The face across the forehead and cheeks was a trifle too wide, but the ivory skin had a peculiar soft luster. And the eyes were magnificent! Dark, sometimes absolutely black, always luminous, and set in long, black lashes. Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about them. Ah! Surely! They were Negro eyes! Mysterious and concealing. And set in that ivory face under that bright hair, there was about them something exotic. Yes, Clare Kendry’s loveliness was absolute, beyond challenge, thanks to those eyes which her grandmother and later her mother and father had given her.
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.
Brian, she was thinking, was extremely good-looking. Not, of course, pretty or effeminate; the slight irregularity of his nose saved him from the prettiness, and the rather marked heaviness of his chin saved him from the effeminacy. But he was, in a pleasant masculine way, rather handsome. And yet, wouldn’t he, perhaps, have been merely ordinarily good-looking but for the richness, the beauty of his skin, which was of an exquisitely fine texture and deep copper color?
Irene…had the same thought that she had had two years ago on the roof of the Drayton, that Clare Kendry was just a shade too good-looking. Her tone was on the edge of irony as she said: “You mean because so many other white people go?”
She…let her gaze wander over the bright crowd below. Young men, old men, white men, black men; youthful women, older women, pink women, golden women; fat men, thin men, tall men, short men; stout women, slim women, stately women, small women moved by.
I think what they feel is—well, a kind of emotional excitement. You know, the sort of thing you feel in the presence of something strange, and even, perhaps, a bit repugnant to you; something so different that it’s really at the opposite end of the pole from all your accustomed notions of beauty.
Did you notice that cup…It was the ugliest thing that your ancestors, the charming Confederates, ever owned…What I’m coming to is the fact that I’ve never figured out a way of getting rid of it until about five minutes ago. I had an inspiration. I had only to break it, and I was rid of it forever. So simple!