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 perspective, often uses the word “mocking” to describe Clare’s laughter. Despite this, very little other evidence suggests that Clare is making fun of Irene. In these instances, Irene shows that she has intense anxiety surrounding jokes and laughter, and constantly feels like she is on the outside of them.
Missing each other’s humor, moreover, goes both ways for Irene and Clare. In another instance, Irene laughs after Clare talks about her upbringing by her racist aunts. Clare, however, does not, telling her “it was more than a joke, I assure you,” suggesting that she has a lot of pain associated with that part of her life. Rather than creating connection between people, or lightening the mood, the humor in Passing alienates characters from one another and exposes the gaps in understanding between them. The reader can see this in Brian and Irene’s disagreement about whether their son should be making jokes about sex, which sparks a fight between them.
Though jokes in Passing vary in degree and situation, they consistently miss their mark, and in doing so, they expose a lack of awareness between the characters. The reader can see this in a range a scenes, from Irene’s quiet assumptions that Clare is mocking her to the brutally painful scene at Clare’s tea party. In the tea scene, John Bellew tells Gertrude and Irene (who he does not know are black) about a racist joke he has with Clare (who he also does not know is black). As he does so, he calls Clare racist slurs and expresses vitriolic, belligerent racism, using the word “nigger” repeatedly. What John intends as a joke is deeply unfunny, uncomfortable, and downright scary because of the latent violence in his speech. It deeply upsets the women, especially Irene. Despite this, Gertrude, Clare, and Irene laugh, though for different reasons. While Gertrude and Clare laugh for fear of otherwise exposing their own blackness, Irene laughs because of the moment’s dramatic irony. Everyone except John knows that he as he spews his hate, he is surrounded by black women— and, in fact, is married to one. There is a joke in the scene—it’s just the one that Larsen is making, not John. After the incident, Irene describes the situation as a joke on all of them, not just John, suggesting how humor is a moving target, and who and what gets mocked is not always easy to control.
In short, Larsen presents the uncontrollability of humor of a source of anxiety for the book’s characters, especially Irene. Instead of being sources of pleasure, and laughter, jokes are volatile and highlight the characters’ lack of control within their narratives.
Humor Quotes in Passing
He roared with laughter. Clare’s ringing bell-like laugh joined his. Gertrude, after another uneasy shift in her seat, added her shrill one. Irene, who had been sitting with lips tightly compressed, cried out: “That’s good!” and gave way to gales of laughter. She laughed and laughed and laughed. Tears ran down her cheeks. Her sides ached. Her throat hurt. She laughed on and on and on, long after the others had subsided.
Oh no Nig…nothing like that with me. I know you’re no nigger, so it’s all right. You can get as black as you please as far as I’m concerned, since I know you’re no nigger. I draw the line at that. No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.
Well, what of it? If sex isn’t a joke, what is it? And what is a joke? …The sooner and the more he learns about sex, the better for him. And most certainly if he learns that it’s a grand joke, the greatest in the world. It’ll keep him from lots of disappointments later on.
“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.