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Nella Larsen's 'Passing' and the fading subject.

. . . Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a Negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one's own account, without having to suffer for the race as well. It was a brutality, and undeserved. Surely, no other people were so cursed as Ham's dark children. (Passing 225)

Although many critics have accused Nella Larsen of using race as a pretext for examining other issues,(1) Passing (1929), her second novel, is profoundly concerned with racial identity. In "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism," Barbara Smith cautions critics about the danger of ignoring "that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are crucially interlocking factors in the works of Black women writers" (170). For Larsen, too, "race" is inextricable from the collateral issues - including class, gender, sexuality, and rivalry-that bear upon the formation of identity. "Passing," of course, alludes to the crossing of the color line that was once so familiar in American narratives of "race," but in Larsen's novel the word also carries its colloquial meaning - death. Thus Passing's title, like the title of Larsen's earlier Quicksand, hints at the subject's disappearance in the narrative, or the possibility of aphanisis, which Jacques Lacan defines in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis as the disappearance of the subject behind the signifier. For Irene Westover Red field and Clare Kendry Bellew, the "twin" protagonists of Passing, the obliterating signifier is nigger, a word that comes to encapsulate their struggle with the conflicts of American racism and assimilation. The narrative representation of these conflicts also suggests at a symbolic level Larsen's repetition and working through of her own anxieties about the rejection she experienced as a result of her racial identity.

Her hazy origins and almost traceless "disappearance" differentiate Larsen from the other authors of the Harlem Renaissance, but not from the characters of her own novels. Until the publication of the 1994 biography by Thadious Davis, Nella Larsen's life was shrouded in silence; not even the year of her birth was certain.(2) Davis's project was "to remove the aura of mystery" from Larsen's life (xix), an aura that often resulted in critics' presentation of Larsen as inscrutable Other.(3) But with the details unearthed in her extensive research, Davis reveals that Nella Larsen was deeply scarred by the reality of racism; her seeking of celebrity as a writer was in fact a symptom of the need for recognition and validation, something which she never received as a child and only tenuously as a young adult (Davis 10). As the daughter of the Danish immigrant Marie Hansen and the African American Peter Walker, Larsen was already doubly marginalized in American society, but when her mother remarried a white man (also a Danish immigrant), Larsen found herself so excluded from the family that her mother did not even report her existence to census takers in 1910 (Davis 27).(4) The Larsens orchestrated their dark daughter's absence from their Chicago home by sending her to the Fisk Normal School in Nashville when she was only fifteen, and when the money ran out a year later, Marie Larsen apparently asked the sixteen-year-old Nella (then Nellie) to make her own way in the world. Larsen vanished temporarily, resurfacing three years later at the Lincoln Training Hospital in New York City as a student nurse, where, according to Davis, she began her ascent into the black middle class all alone (66, 70-72).

Larsen's childhood rejection was seemingly reiterated in her 1919 marriage to Elmer S. Imes, which ended in a much-publicized divorce in 1933. As Ann Allen Shockley explains, the deterioration of the marriage was accelerated by the overt antipathy felt by Larsen's light-skinned mother-in-law and, significantly, by Imes's indiscreet affair with Ethel Gilbert, a white staff member at Fisk University, where Imes taught physics (438). "He liked white women," several of Imes's friends remarked to Thadious Davis in explanation of his betrayal of Nella Larsen (362). It is hardly incidental in Larsen's construction and subsequent dissolution of identity that the rivals for her husband's affection were both "white" women, and that she could therefore attribute the second major rejection in her emotional life to her inability to be sufficiently white.(5) Although there were many problems in the Larsen-Imes union, the divorce contains the hint of another command to "turn white or disappear," the imperative that Frantz Fanon suggests is implicit in all interracial dialogue (100). In effect, the rejections by her family and by her husband, exacerbated by the "problem of authorship" stemming from charges of plagiarism in the "Sanctuary" affair (Dearborn 56), destroyed the identity Larsen consciously cultivated during the 1920s, and provoked her disappearance from public life.(6)

Perhaps because Larsen discovered Imes's affair with Ethel Gilbert during the composition of Passing (Davis 324), her desire for recognition and fear of rejection surface in the characters Clare Kendry and Irene Red field. In Passing, Irene and Clare are tyrannized by the Other's desire, and though their relationship is complicated by issues of gender and sexuality, the dynamics of white racism and the demands of assimilation dictate the lives of the two women. White racism ultimately defines their lives in the word nigger, and that definition determines the limits of their lives; in other words, it over-determines their ends - narratively and otherwise.

The need for recognition is paramount in the lives of Clare and Irene, just as it was in Larsen's own. Recognition is always bound to the Other's inscrutable desire, for "man's desire is the desire of the Other" (Lacan, Four 38). Thus, Irene accuses Clare - "exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting" - of a "deliberate courting of attention" (Passing 203), while she herself spends an inordinate amount of time dressing throughout the novel. Recognition requires an appearance of wealth and whiteness in the bourgeois milieu of Passing. Irene "passes" not by adopting a white identity as Clare does, but by adopting white values, including white standards of beauty.(7) Thus, Thadious Davis explains Irene's "attraction to Clare" as an "aesthetic attraction to whiteness," a "logical extension of her black bourgeoisie lifestyle and ideology" (326). While Clare claims Irene as her link to blackness, Irene mediates her desire for whiteness through Clare. With her "ivory face under that bright hair" (Passing 161) and her marriage to a white financier, Clare becomes Irene's vicarious connection to the white world.(8) In dialogue, the subject must determine the desire of the Other, or as Ellie Ragland-Sullivan writes, the subject implicitly asks the Other, "What am I to/of you?" (48), a question that Irene asks not only of Clare, but through Clare. As I will argue, Clare becomes an image of Irene's self; Clare's definition as "nigger" in the eyes of John Bellew will then become Irene's definition of herself. When that meaning literally eclipses Clare's being, Irene, too, will suffer aphanisis, the disappearance of the subject behind the signifier.

Before deciding to pass for white, Clare lived an African American identity, not as Irene does as a member of the black middle class, but first as an impoverished daughter of an alcoholic janitor and then as the orphaned niece of two white great-aunts who treat Clare as if they were ugly step-sisters in the Cinderella tale. Clare describes to Irene an upbringing commensurate with the ideology her Aunt Grace and Aunt Edna borrow directly from the slavery apologists of the Old South:

"I was, it was true, expected to earn my keep by doing all the housework, and most of the washing. But do you realize, 'Rene, that if it hadn't been for them, I shouldn't have had a home in the world? . . . Besides, to their notion, hard labour was good for me. I had Negro blood and they belonged to a generation that had written and read long articles headed: 'Will the Blacks Work?' Too, they weren't quite sure that the good God hadn't intended the sons and daughters of Ham to sweat because he had poked fun at old man Noah once when he had taken a drop too much. I remember the aunts telling me that that old drunkard had cursed Ham and his sons for all time." (15859)

The aunts echo nineteenth-century paternalist pro-slavery arguments by pronouncing the curse of Ham upon Clare, assigning her a subservient position in the family, and intimating a moral degradation that only hard work and "white" guidance can correct. In a rare moment, Clare confides to Irene that the economic and psychological impact of the aunts' beliefs drove her to discard her black identity and become white. She "wanted things," she tells Irene, and clearly she means not only material goods but love and emotional comfort, as well, for she wants "to be a person and not a charity or a problem, or even a daughter of the indiscreet Ham" (159). The aunts' definition of blackness attempts to rob Clare of her humanity, so she must shed that black identity to be human. To do so, she must literally turn white by passing, accepting the demands of assimilation to avoid the ramifications of what Joel Kovel refers to as the "Ham Myth of Expulsion" (79).

Aphanisis threatens Clare in the novel when her "light" name (Clare means 'light') is supplanted by her dark name: "Nig," the uncanny appellation provided jokingly by her husband John Bellew, the racist ignorant of her African heritage.(9) He explains the nickname to her tea party guests, Gertrude and Irene, who also disguise their African American identities for Bellew's benefit:" 'When we were first married, she was as white as - as - well as white as a lily. But I declare she's gettin' darker and darker. I tell her if she don't look out, she'll wake up one of these days and find she's turned into a nigger'" (171). Bellew's naming makes present the identity that Clare strives to hide (but it eventually makes Clare herself absent).(10) He explains to the three disguised Negroes precisely what "niggers" are:

"I don't dislike them, I hate them . . . . They give me the creeps. The black scrimy devils . . . . And I read in the papers about them. Always robbing and killing people. And," he added darkly, "worse." (172)

Despite all its trappings of urbanity, this tea party becomes a microcosm of American racism: A white male who exudes the "impression of latent physical power" (170) discourses upon the meaning of nigger while three African Americans wearing self-protective masks must silently listen, powerless to challenge his version of the truth.(11)

Uncontested beliefs soon become accepted as "truth." With her temporary white identity' and enforced silence, Irene is in danger of internalizing Bellew's "truths" as a form of unconscious ideological assimilation. His views on "black scrimy devils" provoke in Irene an hysteria figured as uncontrollable laughter, which she at first attributes to the irony of the situation; however, the hysteria goes beyond an amused response to an absurd situation. It marks a loss of control, the beginning of a mental deterioration that plagues Irene throughout the novel. African origins here are tied to a false but nonetheless powerful definition, one that is shared by the white world depicted in the novel. When Bellew pronounces the casual" 'Hello, Nig' "(170), he dredges up the memories of Clare's childhood humiliations and creates for Irene an anxiety about possible humiliations, humiliations intimated by his public proclamation of exclusion:" 'No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be' "(171).(12) This sentence - Bellew's reiteration of Noah's curse-causes the nearly implacable Clare an unhappiness she betrays in an expression "so dark and deep and unfathomable" as though in "the eyes of some creature utterly strange and apart" (172).

Although the scene at the tea party, along with the rest of the novel, is narrated in the third person, the narrative consciousness is Irene's. The use of the word creature appears innocent in this context, but later the word creature resurfaces in the narrative in an overtly negative sense, revealing how Irene has already aligned herself with the white racist signification embodied by John Bellew. At the breakfast table in her own New York home, Irene recounts to her husband Brian her secret humiliation at Clare's party and her refusal ever to suffer such humiliation again:" '. . . I'm really not such an idiot that I don't realize that if a man calls me a nigger, it's his fault the first time, but mine it he has the opportunity to do it again'" (184). Within a few paragraphs of this confession, the maid enters to serve breakfast; again, the perspective is Irene's: "Zulena, a small mahogany-coloured creature, brought in the grapefruit" (184). In spite of Irene's admission of the humiliation of being called a "nigger," the narrative consciousness that reflects her own performs a gesture of dehumanization in describing the maid as a "mahogany-coloured creature" - for coloured connotes "creature" at the depths of Irene's unconscious.

The unselfconscious use of dehumanizing language to describe dark-skinned or economically disadvantaged African Americans indicates the triumph of racist signification in Irene's own thinking, a signification that will eventually demand her obliteration, as well. The invocation of "nigger," "nig," "creature," "boy," and other racial slurs results in the aphanisis of the subject, for the meanings assigned these words eclipse the being of the "racial" subject so named. Lacan refers to this eclipse as the "fading of the subject" behind the signifier (Four 208), and this "fading" is manifested in the fainting that plagues Irene at both the beginning and the end of the novel.

In Part One of the novel, recounting the circumstances of Clare and Irene's reunion in Chicago, Irene sees a man fall to the pavement in "an inert heap" under "a brutal staring sun":

Was the man dead, or only faint? someone asked her. But Irene didn't know and didn't try to discover . . . . Suddenly she was aware that the whole street had a wobbly look, and realized she was about to faint. With a quick perception of the need for immediate safety, she lifted a wavering hand in the direction of a cab parked directly in front of her. The perspiring driver jumped out and guided her to his car. He helped, almost lifted her in. She sank down on the hot leather seat. (146-47)

The anonymous man's collapse is answered by Irene's own fainting and "sinking down" in the cab. Unaware of Irene's African American heritage, the cab driver takes her to the exclusive Drayton Hotel. From the misery of August heat, Irene then moves to the oppressive atmosphere of segregation, for at the Drayton, she knows, the discovery of her African American identity would lead to her expulsion. With her acute consciousness of the racially hostile environment, Irene becomes aware of the intent stare of the woman seated nearby. After assuring herself that her clothes and make-up are not mussed, Irene experiences "a small inner disturbance, odious and hatefully familiar" as she assumes that the piercing gaze is attributable to her racial origin: "Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?" With this prospect of being "discovered," Irene's fear escalates, not because she is "ashamed of being a Negro," she thinks, but because "being ejected from any place, even in the polite and tactful way in which the Drayton would probably do it, . . . disturbed her" (150). The fainting that brings her to the Drayton in the first place creates the possibility of an even more violent form of "disappearance," the forced exit required by the Jim Crow policy of the white world. Irene discovers with relief that the intent gaze is the friendly one of Clare, a fellow "passer," but the relief is short-lived; her original fainting and the fear of expulsion reach fruition at the end of the novel when Irene faints a second time, in response to a far more violent expulsion.

In describing the narrative voice of Passing, Jacquelyn McLendon speaks of "the disguised 'I.' "Although told in the third person, the narrative is "personal" because it is exclusively Irene's and thus could easily be told in the first person; this "disguised I," however, stresses Irene's repression and reinforces the theme of "passing" as disguise in the novel (McLendon 159). McLendon's insights on the "disguised I" suggest another concern of the novel, the problematic I. The first person would be inappropriate for Irene's story because the I as an empowered, integrated subject position eludes Irene. She always defines herself in relation to the desire of the Other, and thus an unmediated representation of her voice would be incongruent with her essential lack. Desire is a symptom of lack, so Irene's desire for security throughout Passing reveals the instability of the I. She equates her faintness with a "need for immediate safety" (147) and realizes "that, to her, security was the most important and desired thing in life . . . . She wanted only to be tranquil" (235). As her propensity for fainting demonstrates, she experiences "the menace of impermanence" (229), which she attributes variously to Brian's desire to move to Brazil and to Clare's disruption of her household (187, 229). In effect, her sense of permanence, her conception of herself as a stable, integrated/, is always in jeopardy, plagued as she is by a tense apprehension of doom, even in Chicago before Clare reenters her life. This tension is symptomatic; it signifies the inevitability of disintegrating subjectivity.

Because Irene experiences a problematic I, she seeks an idealized image to represent herself. In "The Mirror Stage," Lacan discusses the role of the idealized image in subjectivity. The infant first identifies herself as "I," as subject, after seeing her image in the mirror. This image is unified and masterful and therefore represents "the mental permanence of the I" for the subject (2). As Lacan further suggests, the assumption of the idealized image always involves meconnaissance, or misrecognition, because the image is not the self (6). Early in Passing, Irene adopts Clare as her idealized image, and that meconnaissance tellingly transpires before the mirror. Some critics stress the fact that key scenes between Clare and Irene happen in Irene's bedroom,(13) but they fail to note more precisely that these scenes take place while Irene sits at her dressing table, before her mirror. The place where Irene applies make-up is indeed a far more intimate space than her bed.

In the first of these scenes, Clare arrives uninvited after Irene has refused to answer her letters. After telling Zulena to admit Clare, Irene, "at the mirror . . . dusted a little powder on her nose and brushed out her hair" (193). While she performs her hasty toilet, she rehearses the rebuff she intends to give Clare:

But that was as far as she got in her rehearsal. For Clare had come softly into the room without knocking, and before Irene could greet her, had dropped a kiss on her dark curls.

Looking at the woman before her, Irene Redfield had a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling. Reaching out, she grasped Clare's two hands in her own and cried with something like awe in her voice: "Dear God! But aren't you lovely, Clare!" (194).

If the mirror were not implicitly present in the scene and if there were no elision of identities, the "kiss," the "inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling," and Irene's expression of awe might all be read exclusively as signs of an erotic attraction between two women. However, Irene is looking in the mirror when Clare enters, and the mirror's presence makes ambiguous the phrase looking at the woman before her. Is that woman Clare or Irene herself? Moreover, Irene's reaction to Clare's entrance reiterates the Lacanian infant's "jubilant assumption" of her mirror image ("Mirror Stage" 2), for like the mirror-stage infant, Irene reaches out to the image and exclaims with joy. Her "awed" exclamation" 'Dear God! But aren't you lovely, Clare!'" indicates that she sees in Clare an image superior to the one she nervously fussed over before Clare's entrance and therefore more fitting to represent the "mental permanence of the I" (Lacan, "Mirror Stage" 2). As if to stress the identification between the two, Clare even seats herself in Irene's "favourite chair" (194). While Irene's reaction includes erotic overtones, it also contains narcissistic ones. The scene confirms the oscillation between Irene's "desire for Clare and identification with her" that Helena Michie notes (151). Irene sees in Clare an "image of her futile searching" for permanence (Passing 200), and as the novel continues, she has difficulty separating "individuals from the race, herself from Clare Kendry" (227).(14)

As Irene realizes that she cannot "master" Clare, the identification between the two women becomes more problematic.(15) The beautiful, idealized white image is denied Irene when she begins to suspect that Clare is trying to seduce her husband Brian and that the two plan to betray and abandon her. When this suspicion crystallizes, also before the mirror, Irene experiences a temporary eclipse of being: "The face in the mirror vanished from her sight, blotted out by this thing which had so suddenly flashed across her groping mind" (217; emphasis added). When the face finally reappears in the mirror, it is "her dark-white face" (no longer purely white), one which she meets not with joy but with "a kind of ridiculing contempt" (218). Later in the novel, when Irene and Clare meet before the mirror for the last time, Irene experiences fear and guilt over her sin of omission; she knows but fails to tell Clare that Bellew; having seen Irene out with the brown-skinned Felise Freeland, probably suspects Clare's racial identity. "Irene passed a hand over her eyes to shut out the accusing face in the glass before her. With one corner of her mind she wondered how long she had looked like that, drawn and haggard and-yes, frightened" (233). As Irene becomes more and more incapable of controlling either Clare or herself, she experiences a diminution of the "loveliness" in the mirror. The image is no longer one of mastery, but one of impotence and fear.

Bellew's encounter with Irene and Felise Freeland points to another problematic aspect of Clare as Irene's idealized image. The mirroring between Clare and Irene is to some degree reciprocal, so that Irene also "mirrors" Clare. Clare herself is apparently aware of the ways in which other women reflect and re-present her image throughout the novel as she carefully chooses the women who surround her in her husband's presence: The tea in Chicago is limited to her "passable" friends Irene and Gertrude, and she adamantly refuses to employ black servants. But when Bellew perceives Felise as Irene's dark mirror, he in turn "recognizes" Clare, too, reflected in Felise's face:

But the smile faded at once. Surprise, incredulity, and-was it understanding? - passed over his features.

He had, Irene knew, become conscious of Felise, golden, with curly black Negro hair, whose arm was still linked in her own. She was sure, now, of the understanding in his face, as he looked at her again and then back at Felise. And displeasure. (226)

Bellew's "understanding" is really a recognition of Clare's African American identity through a complex chain of mirroring. The smile with which he greets Irene connotes his vision of Irene as a reflection of his "white" wife, but that smile tellingly "fades" as he looks from Irene to Felise, whose tell-tale hair and skin mark her as African American and reveal all that Clare and Irene have anxiously concealed from him. This identification of Clare with Felise takes place primarily through Irene (who is literally "linked" to Felise when Bellew first spies them), but also through the adjective golden, which Larsen uses to describe both Clare and Felise (203, 226); golden is a sign whose meaning Bellew instantly reinterprets upon glimpsing Felise and her "Negro hair." She has, as she says, "queered" the passing game by presenting what Bellew views as a tainted image. His fading smile and "displeasure," inversions of the infant's jubilation before the mirror, foreshadow his eventual repudiation of Clare.

In turn, Irene's response suggests the degree to which his desire still dominates their interaction: "Instinctively, at the first glance of recognition, her face had become a mask . . . . she gave him the cool appraising stare which she reserved for mashers . . ." (226-27). In the face of Bellew's "displeasure," she dons the "mask" that represents a form of invisibility, while her cool stare (usually reserved for sexual aggressors) suggests the manipulation of herself as object of the Other's desire. In other words, anticipating Bellew's withdrawal of his offered hand - and his recognition - Irene preemptively refuses to grant him recognition. Like the Lacanian child who wishes to be the object of her parent's desire and so ponders the tantalizing possibility "Can he lose me?" (Four 214-15; emphasis added), Irene here reverses the direction of the gaze and employs the possibility of her own loss or disappearance to manipulate Bellew's desire.(16)

Irene begins to feel ambivalence about her African heritage, and that ambivalence is associated with Clare as Irene begins to wish "for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a Negro" (225). Irene is "on the verge of total mental disintegration" (Tate 143), and initially she projects her disintegration onto her double and idealized image, Clare, a projection that issues in what Jonathan Little refers to as the "imagery of fragmentation" associated with Clare (179). Although Clare represents Irene's ideal physical image, she maintains only a precarious hold on her own white identity, as evidenced by her refusal to have black servants (who might "discover" her identity) or to give birth to another child because the "hellish strain" of anxiety about the child's coloring would be too much for her (Passing 168). When she says, "'Really, 'Rene, I'm not safe'" (210), she means not only that she is dangerous because of the risks she takes but also that she is always already in danger of destruction. Fragmented things become metonymies for Clare, and since Clare is a version of Irene, they represent Irene herself, even when she is consciously performing the fragmentation. As Lacan demonstrates in "The Mirror Stage," corporal integrity is fundamental to subjectivity, so we could conclude that corporal disintegration is a prelude to aphanisis, the subject's disappearance. The symbolic mutilation that Irene performs on Clare foreshadows aphanisis for both women.

The first fragmentation involves Irene's destruction of letters from Clare at two different points in the narrative. From Irene's perspective, Clare's letters are always a little obtrusive; like Clare herself, her letters are "furtive, but yet in some peculiar, determined way a little flaunting," "out of place and alien," and "mysterious" (143). Significantly, both letters revive for Irene the memory of John Bellew's racist invective, along with the presence of Clare. The first of these is the note Clare sends Irene to thank her for attending the tea in Chicago. But the letter only reminds Irene of the humiliation of listening silently to Bellew's racist diatribe, so she destroys it:

With an unusual methodicalness she tore the offending letter into tiny ragged squares that fluttered down and made a small heap in her black crepe de Chine lap. The destruction completed, she gathered them up, rose, and moved to the train's end. Standing there, she dropped them over railing and watched them scatter, on tracks, on cinders, on forlorn grass, in rills of dirty water. (178)

In destroying the letter, an overture of friendship, Irene symbolically attempts to rid herself of Clare as "Nig." She tears it into "tiny ragged squares," then scatters the pieces in a gesture of riddance, a forced disappearance of Clare's asserted presence, which brings with it John Bellew's hatred of "niggers." Irene then thinks that, if Clare shows up in person, she "had only to turn away her eyes, to refuse her recognition" (178). Unconsciously, she is mimicking the behavior of the white racist, willing Clare's disappearance through a refusal to recognize. The second letter, which Irene receives in New York two years later, revives again the memory of shame, "bringing with them a clear, sharp remembrance, in which even now, after two years, humiliation, resentment, and rage were mingled" (145). Later, she "tear[s] the letter across" and flings "it into the scrap-basket" (191), acting out both her anger at Clare and the disintegration she feels with the memory of Bellew's hatred.

The tearing of the two letters happens before Irene and Clare merge in the mirror. But after Irene identifies with Clare in the mirror and then loses that image after beginning to suspect Brian and Clare, Irene will act out another destruction of Clare, the smashing of the white china teacup. When she becomes enraged at seeing Brian apparently paying court to Clare at yet another tea party, Irene either drops or hurls the teacup to the ground with "a slight crash. On the floor at her feet lay the shattered cup. Dark stains dotted the bright rug. Spread . . . . Before her, Zulena gathered up the white fragments" (221). The broken teacup immediately suggests Irene's own disintegration or loss of control, but to cover her confusion, Irene tells Hugh Wentworth that she has broken the cup purposely, for it "was the ugliest thing . . . the Confederates ever owned" (221-22). The seemingly offhand remark is deceptive, for the white teacup is yet another version of Clare, who has descended from the same white ancestors and made her way in the world not through a direct route, but through a subterfuge and deception akin to the "underground" by which the teacup comes north. The broken teacup brings to Irene a realization that she "had only to break it" and be "rid of it forever" (222). Clearly the shattering of the teacup with its attendant "white fragments" foreshadows Clare's impending death.

Clare's death occurs in the appropriately named "Finale" section of the novel, where all the elements of aphanisis converge as racist signification impacts literally on the body. The final chapter, the one in which Clare dies, begins tellingly with the Redfields' dinner-time discussion of lynching. Ted asks why whites "'only lynch coloured people,' "and Brian responds," 'Because they hate 'em, son' "(231), echoing Bellew's declaration," 'I don't dislike [Negroes], I hate them'" (172). Brian's observations disconcert Irene, possibly reminding her of the humiliation of Clare's Chicago tea party two years earlier, and she upbraids Brian for speaking of the subject before their sons. Irene thinks she can insure her sons a happy childhood by keeping "the race problem" from them, but Brian knows better. He asks," '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'" (231-32). As in the scene where he refuses to avoid discussing sex with Ted and Junior, he insists on telling his sons the facts of life, including the ugly fact of racism. This argument further establishes the disharmony in Irene's marriage, and it also sets the scene for Clare's death by emphasizing the extent of racism's infringement on African American lives. Virulent white racism is not limited to the South or to the lyncher; school boys up north are taunted as "dirty niggers." With its shattered bodies and dehumanization, lynching is one connotation of nigger from which Irene tries in vain to protect her sons and herself. But as Clare's death reveals, the epithet nigger brings with it "the glorious body mutilated" (240), a mutilation inevitably preceding the disappearance that the word nigger invokes.

When Bellew discovers his wife's secret Harlem life, he confronts her at the Freelands' party. The prophecy contained in his pet name for Clare - "Nig"- is fulfilled, and so will be the displacement of Clare by the signifier (the diminutive of nigger) that demands her disappearance. Bellew repeats the gesture performed by Junior's unnamed tormentor at school, for he calls Clare the very name revealed in the Redfields' dinner-table discussion:" 'So you're a nigger, a damned dirty nigger!'" (238). The chain of events transpiring after this utterance has been hotly debated by the critics,(17) but we know with narrative certainty that the chain begins with Bellew's invocation of nigger and ends with Clare's plunge from the window, her body conspicuously absent from the scene by the time Irene descends to the street level. Whether Clare jumps or Irene pushes her, Bellew's" 'So you're a nigger, a damned dirty nigger!' "inaugurates Clare's disappearance from the window. In the Lacanian version of aphanisis, the subject disappears behind the signifier in dialogue with the Other, always while trying to determine the desire of the Other with the question, "He is saying this to me, but what does he want?" (Lacan, Four 214). Frantz Fanon notes in turn that, for black subjects in dialogue with the white Other, the answer must always be, "Turn white or disappear" (100). To both women in Larsen's novel, Bellew's" 'damned dirty nigger'" implies his desire for Clare's expulsion. Thus Clare, who is denigrated in Bellew's mind for consorting with Negroes, must die,(18) even if Irene catalyzes that death:

One moment Clare had been there, a vital glowing thing, like a flame in red and gold. The next she was gone.

There was a gasp of horror, and above it a sound not quite human, like a beast in agony. "Nig! My God! Nig? (239)

Clare's fall is a vanishing act, a sort of now-you-see-her-now-you-don't, where the signifier Nig seems literally to make Clare's body disappear in a high-stakes version of the infant's fort-da game described in Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle (13-15), for Clare is ". . . there . . . gone" (239). Significantly, her disappearance is punctuated by Bellew's final, double invocation of Nig, her uncanny nickname; her destruction is commensurate with the racist meaning of that word.(19) As the bystanders try to determine what happened, Ralph Hazelton surmises that Clare" 'fainted, I guess'" (241), an assumption that on the surface seems to be a sexist stereotyping of women's responses to crises. However, in Lacanian terms Hazelton is right, for Clare, like Irene, experiences a problematic subjectivity that leads to her fading, or aphanisis, in the narrative. Her death confirms the lethal relationship Lacan posits between signification and subjectivity since the word Nig, like the Lacanian signifier, "manifests itself . . . in the murder of the thing" ("Function" 104).

Bellew's interjection of "'damned dirty nigger' " - his response to Clare's "What am I to you?" - also reflects on Irene, for Clare is her idealized image. Although Irene has throughout the novel indulged her desire to tear and shatter Clare through displaced aggressions toward letters and teacups, Irene herself will shatter once Clare actually experiences corporal disintegration, for she cannot "separate . . . herself from Clare Kendry" (227). After Clare has fallen to her death, Irene experiences nausea when she imagines that Clare might have survived. The nausea stems not only from "fear" (the belief of most critics who assume her guilty of Clare's murder), but from "the idea of the glorious body mutilated" (240). This "idea" is a manifestation of the corps morcele, the imaginary fragmented body whose emergence indicates "the aggressive disintegration" of the I constructed during the mirror stage (Lacan, "Mirror Stage" 4). "The glorious body" is not exclusively Clare's, but a shared, idealized image of self; so its mutilation represents disintegration for both women. Thus Irene replicates Clare's death in a fainting spell mirroring the one that eventually led to her reunion with Clare two years earlier.

After Clare falls, Irene slowly descends the stairs, grasping "the banister to save herself from pitching downwards . . . . How she managed to make the rest of the journey without fainting she never knew" (240).(20) In fact, when she does finally arrive on the scene, the others assume that "she had fainted or something like that" (241). Aphanisis is imminent for Irene, too, because the fainting that threatens her (and has threatened her throughout the novel) is now complicated by a "hideous trembling" and "quaking" that overtake her as the others question her about Clare's fall. As she tries to exculpate Bellew, her unstable subjectivity fractures: "'No, no!' she protested. 'I'm quite certain that he didn't [push Clare]. I was there, too. As close as he was. She just fell, before anybody could stop her. I -'" (242).

Significantly, the utterance of the I undoes Irene:

Her quaking knees gave way under her. She moaned and sank down, moaned again. Through the great heaviness that submerged and drowned her she was dimly conscious of strong arms lifting her up. Then everything was dark. (242)

Irene faints while uttering her last and most problematic word," 'I -'" (the incompletion of the utterance is indicated by Larsen's use of the long dash). Her fainting, the "darkness" that swallows up/, is another instance of aphanisis in the novel, the mirror of Clare's violent death. The narrative ends here, since Irene's consciousness-the one that drives the narrative - dims and then fades completely. Her obliteration completes and therefore halts the narrative.(21)

In his study of the various editions of the text, Mark Madigan notes that, in the first two printings of Passing, Irene's blackout is followed by a paragraph ending with an anonymous man's words," 'Death by misadventure, I'm inclined to believe. Let's go up and have another look at that window.' "This final paragraph was omitted from the third printing in accordance with Larsen's instructions, apparently to add ambiguity and suspense to the ending (Madigan, "Two Endings" 522). Larsen's crucial revision allows Irene's fainting to be aligned more closely with Clare's death. The final "Then everything was dark" suggests once again "the curse of Ham," which was codified by the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling and allowed the white Other-figured variously in Larsen's novel as Noah, Bellew, and the monolithic staff of the Drayton Hotel-to demand the black subject's expulsion. Everything is dark at the end of the novel, including Irene, and this denigration(22) identifies her with Clare once again via Bellew's invocation of "'damned dirty nigger' "and" 'Nig'" during Clare's exit. The racist epithets that Bellew interjects as Clare plunges to her death similarly darken Irene and exclude her from the world.

Just as Irene does not consider lynching to be polite dinner conversation, delicacy dictates that this novel of manners refrain from showing explicitly the corps morcele. There is no direct narrative representation of Clare's corpse; Irene only imagines but does not see the "glorious body mutilated" (240). Like Charles Bon's in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Clare's body is summarily whisked away. instead, the narrative presents versions of a broken Clare shattered teacups, torn letters, and fainting friends. Both the prospect of the mutilated corpse and the irrevocable loss of Clare that the missing body signifies have dire implications for Irene, who can no longer avoid the fainting that has threatened to overwhelm her throughout the novel. That she is apparently implicated in Clare's death does not free her from its ramifications. Indeed, that complicity only reveals the extent to which she has been infected by white ideology, ironically even while conscientiously playing the role of a "good race woman." If she does in fact push Clare, that action is merely a conditioned response to the white voice of authority pronouncing "nigger," which, in accordance with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, entails an act of expulsion or exclusion.(23) Clare's death merely fulfills the expectation of expulsion that Irene has felt since sitting on the roof of the Drayton.

In the sense that Clare's death and Irene's fainting respond to a narrative expectation of expulsion and represent the aphanisis implicit in white racist signification of nigger, the end of Larsen's Passing is not a "false and shoddy denouement," as Robert Bone contends (102). Bellew - the bellows of white authority - decrees early in the novel," 'No niggers in this family. Never have been and never will be'" (171); Clare's death fulfills that law.

With the exception of Hugh Wentworth, Larsen's thinly veiled version of Carl Van Vechten, all the white characters in the novel work to exclude African Americans from the human family. Because Passing is Larsen's reworking of her own experience as an African American woman in the twentieth century, there is nothing too exaggerated or melodramatic about the ending. The novel represents symbolically the reality that Larsen knew in 1929. It also represents the reality that Larsen still knew as late as 1963, when she made a trip to California in an attempt to see her white sister Anna Larsen Gardner. According to Thadious Davis, Larsen was

rejected once again by her sister, who had not invited her into her home because Nella Larsen Imes was so obviously a black woman and Anna Gardner was white and without any visible connections to people of color.

Later, Gardner denied knowing of Nella Larsen's existence: "Why, I didn't know I had a sister." (448).

Nella Larsen died in 1964, less than a year after the failed attempt to see her sister. It is easy to imagine Larsen, having been refused acknowledgment by her only living relative, sharing Clare Kendry's deepest desire to be a person and not a charity or a problem, or even a daughter of the indiscreet Ham'" (Passing 159).


1. For example, Deborah McDowell gives priority to the lesbian aspects of the text in her introduction to Quicksand and Passing, cited below. Hiroko Sato claims that the novel devolves into 'a case study of woman's jealousy" (88). Claudia Tate suggests that "racial issues . . . are at best peripheral to the story" (143). Mary Mabel Youman claims that Irene's motivation in Passing is "class, not race" (237). Finally, Charles Larson argues that Passing is not about racial identity, but marital instability, an argument he supports with evidence of the disintegration of the Larsen-lines marriage during the composition of the novel (82-86).

2. For a discussion of the confusion surrounding Larsen's birth-year (1891 vs. 1893), see Ann Allen Shockley's biographical sketch of Larsen in Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933 (432, 439n4); also see Davis, Nella Larsen (3-4, 21, 28-29).

3. See, for example, Mary Helen Washington's early article on Larsen, first printed in Ms. magazine. Washington originally entitled the article "Nella Larsen: Mystery Woman of the Harlem Renaissance," but renamed the essay "The Mulatta Trap: Nella Larsen's Women of the 1920s" in her Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960. The shift in titles represents perhaps Washington's realization that her earlier title, with its implications of the exotic Other, fell into the "mulatta trap."

4. Mrs. Larsen's refusal to admit giving birth to Nella is reminiscent of Thomas Sutpen's refusal to recognize Charles Bon as the son of his first marriage to Eulalia Bon.

5. Shockley characterizes Ethel Gilbert as "vivacious" and "white" (438); these two attributes return in Larsen's characterization of Clara Kendry, whom Irene views as a threat to her marriage with Brian Redfield.

6. Emotional rejection was exacerbated by the questioning of Larsen's "authority" in the charges of plagiarism stemming from the similarity of her short story "Sanctuary" to Sheila Kaye-Smith's "Mrs. Adis." Mary V. Dearborn suggests that this "problem of authorship" motivated Larsen's subsequent literary silence (56).

7. Cheryl Wall (98) and Mary Mabel Youman (235) have both noted that Irene's adoption of white, middle-class values is tantamount to passing. Addison Gayle, Jr., notes that Irene possesses "the symbolism of the white world" in her social status so that she "has little reason to completely adopt its images" (113).

8. According to Barbara Christian, the very prevalence of the novel of passing during the early part of the twentieth century suggests that passing "offered vicarious wish fulfillment, as well as amusement for those blacks who would pass if they could" (45).

9. Larsen originally intended to entitle her second novel Nig, but editors at Knopf thought this title too risky for a new and still relatively unknown novelist (Davis 287, 306-07).

10. See Freud's discussion of the fort-da game in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, cited below. Freud notes that the child's game is a use of language to control the mother's presence and absence. In Passing, as I will discuss below, Bellew's invocation of "Nig" and "nigger" manipulates Clare's bodily presence/absence.

11. Between Bellew and his interlocutors is a case of what Lyotard calls "the differend," for the three women are "divested of the means" to make their case by the very conditions of that case (Lyotard 9). That is, they cannot argue against Bellew's stereotypes without revealing that they are African Americans, and such a revelation would be harmful to them - specially to Clare - because of the nature of Bellew's racist beliefs. See The Differend: Phrases in Dispute.

12. Bellew's declaration verbalizes the rejection of Nella implicit in Marie Hansen Larsen's refusal to admit giving birth to a black child. This sentiment is also expressed in Larsen's first novel, Quicksand, where Helga Crane is turned away from her Uncle Peter's front door by his new wife, who tells Helga," 'And please remember that my husband is not your uncle. No indeed! Why, that, that would make me your aunt!'" (29). The rejection is later formalized by Uncle Peter in a letter in which he informs Helga, ". . . I must terminate my outward relation with you" (54).

13. For example, Deborah E. McDowell claims in her introduction to the novel that the erotic subplot "explodes in Irene's own bedroom" (xxvi).

14. Several critics have noticed at least a partial identification between the two women. For example, Jonathan Little notes that, "by the end of the novel, Irene has a hard time distinguishing herself from Clare" (177). Mary F. Sisney (179) and Deborah McDowell (xxix) both discuss Clare's death as Irene's expulsion of disruptive aspects of herself that she has been unable to repress.

15. As Freud's discussion of the fort-da game in Beyond the Pleasura Principle illustrates, language is the child's consolation for the painful knowledge of the mother's separateness. Lacan's work in "The Mirror Stage" further suggests that, before the child enters the symbolic, through which the child negotiates the separation, the child adopts the mirror image as an image of a puissant self. The mirror image is another consolation for the painful differentiation of the mother. In Passing, Irene exhibits an infantile frustration at her family's differentiation; she "wanted only to be tranquil. Only, unmolested, to be allowed to direct for their own best good the lives of her sons and her husband" (235). When Irene realizes that Clare, too, is dangerously beyond her control, the mirror image, which in her case involves extreme meconnaissance, ceases to be either a consolation or a source of power, but rather a reminder of impotence.

16. Larsen's characterization of Felise Freeland suggests a possible alternative to Clare and Irene's ambivalence and unhappiness. Felise's name means 'happy,' while her surname suggests emancipation, and indeed, she is the only woman in Passing who seems to be happy in her own skin. She is also the only woman in the novel who directly challenges John Bellew. When he arrives at her apartment to confront Clare, Felise threatens him: "Felise had leapt between them and Bellew. She said quickly: 'Careful. You're the only white man here.' And the silver chill of her voice, as well as her words, was a warning" (238).

17. Most critics view Irene as guilty of murdering Clare. See, for example, Bernard Bell (110), Deborah McDowell (xxix), Mary Sisney (177-79), and Jonathan Little (174). A notable exception is Claudia Tare (145-46), who compares the scene of Clare's father's death to the final scene in order to show that Clare might have committed suicide.

18. In "Miscegenation and 'The Dicta of Race and Class': The Rhinelander Case and Nella Larsen's Passing," Mark Madigan notes that the protagonists of Larsen's novel, like the historical inhabitants of New York during the 1920s, were "bound by . . . 'the dicta of class and race' "and that, for Clare, death is the only possible escape from these inflexible strictures, which she has transgressed (528).

19. Larsen's description of Bellew is particularly interesting in that it turns the tables on the "black beast" metaphor used by Negrophobes. Bellew's cry is "a sound not quite human, like a beast in agony." However, the word agony suggests that Bellew, in spite of his racism, mourns Clare's loss.

20. Helena Michie notes that Irene's descent from the Freelands' apartment and subsequent fainting "mimic" Clare's fall (154).

21. In A Spy in the Enemy's Country, Donald Petesch finds a parallel among the fates of Clare, Irene, and Helga Crane of Quicksand: "The violence done to the self in Quicksand becomes the violence done to the other in Passing. and Helga Crane's sinking into quicksand becomes Clare Kendry's fall to her death. The wrenchings of racial ambivalence and desire are violently stilled" (194). Petesch's observation suggests that Irene's violence is like Helga Crane's self-destructiveness. Though projected externally, Irene's actions issue from her own internal conflicts and ultimately end in her own destruction.

22. See Michael Awkward's Inspiriting Influence for a different use of the term denigration in the discussion of African American literature. Awkward uses the term to signify the genesis of authentically African American writing. I use the term self-consciously here to indicate the white Other's enforcement of the negative definition of nigger.

23. In The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C. Vann Woodward notes that the Plessyv. Ferguson decision located the state's authority in the voices of white railroad employees, white ushers, and other petty tyrants (93). Larsen shares Woodward's recognition of the power of the voice in racist ideology. Bellew's name recalls bellow, suggesting that his voice is somehow his most important characteristic.

Works Cited

Awkward, Michael. Inspiriting Influence: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.

Bell, Bernard. The Afro-American Novel and Its Traditions. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987.

Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.

Davis, Thadious M. Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman's Life Unveiled. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1994.

Dearborn, Mary V. Pocahontas's Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. 1952. Trans. Charles L. Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. New York: Vintage, 1972.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1989.

Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. Garden City: Anchor, 1975.

Kovel, Joel. White Racism: A Psychohistory. 1970. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1978.

-----. "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis." Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.30-113.

-----. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977. 1-7.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing. Ed. Deborah E. McDowell. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1986.

Larson, Charles R. Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1993.

Little, Jonathan. "Nella Larsen's Passing: Irony and the Critics." African American Review 26 (1992): 173-82.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Madigan, Mark J. "Miscegenation and 'The Dicta of Race and Class': The Rhinelander Case and Nella Larsen's Passing." Modern Fiction Studies 36 (1990): 523-29.

-----. "'Then Everything Was Dark'?: The Two Endings of Nella Larsen's Passing." Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 83.4 (1989): 521-23.

McDowell, Deborah E. "Introduction." Larsen, Quicksand and Passing ix-xxxv.

McLendon, Jacquelyn Y. "Self-Representation as Art in the Novels of Nella Larsen." Redefining Autobiography in Twentieth-Century Women's Fiction. Ed. Janice Morgan and Colette T. Hall. New York: Garland, 1991. 149-68.

Michie, Helena. Sororophobia: Differences Among Women in Literature and Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Petesch, Donald A. A Spy in the Enemy's Country: The Emergence of Modern Black Literature. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1989.

Ragland-Sullivan, Ellie. Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.

Sato, Hiroko. "Under the Harlem Shadow: A Study of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen." The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. Ed. Arna Bontemps. New York: Dodd, 1972.63-89.

Shockley, Ann Allen. "Nella Marian Larsen Imes." Afro-American Women Writers, 1745-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide. New York: Meridian, 1988. 432-40.

Sisney, Mary F. "The View from the Outside: Black Novels of Manners." Reading and Writing Women's Lives: A Study of the Novel of Manners. Ed. Bege K. Bowers and Barbara Brothers. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1990. 171-85.

Smith, Barbara. "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism." The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 168-85.

Tate, Claudia. "Nella Larsen's Passing: A Problem of Interpretation." Black American Literature Forum 14 (1980): 142-46.

Wall, Cheryl A. "Passing for What? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen's Novels." Black American Literature Forum 20 (1986): 97-111.

Washington, Mary Helen. "The Mulatta Trap: Nella Larsen's Women of the 1920s." Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960. New York: Anchor, 1987. 159-67.

-----. "Nella Larsen: Mystery Woman of the Hadera Renaissance." Ms. Dec. 1980: 44-50.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford UP, 1955.

Youman, Mary Mabel. "Nella Larsen's Passing: A Study in Irony." CLA Journal 18 (1974): 235-41.

Neil Sullivan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. She has published essays on William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, and is currently revising a longer manuscript on representations of African American subjectivity in twentieth-century fiction.
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Author:Sullivan, Neil
Publication:African American Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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