The Relationship Between Nella Larsen's "Passing" and the Rhinelander Case

Term Paper, 2015

17 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Act of Passing
2.1 Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry
2.2 Alice Jones

3. Representation and Readability
3.1 Representation and Readability in Passing
3.2 Representation and Readability in the Rhinelander Case

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Passing by Nella Larsen, published in 1929, features the issue of racial passing in a society which segregates people of Negro descent from the dominant white American class. Wall claims that “Not only is Passing set in Harlem at the height of its vogue, it is itself a product of the vogue. Aptly then, it acknowledges the opportunities as well as the risks that the more fluid racial and cultural boundaries of the period created” (126 - 127). Irene Redfield, one of the two female protagonists, is able to pass, but still chose a life within Harlem and a coloured husband. Her counterpart Clare Kendry, on the contrary, is completely passing by being married to a white man who does not know about her descent. Still, she is highly fascinated by the life Irene leads in Harlem and thus she attempts at leading a double-life. As Clare becomes increasingly involved in the black culture of that time, she also has to fear about her husband finding out the truth about her.

In order to set the issue of racial passing in a historical and cultural framework, I attempt at focusing on the connection between the novel and a jurisdictional case from 1925, called the Rhinelander Case. This case is also being referred to in Passing: “What if Bellew should divorce Clare? Could he? There was the Rhinelander case” (p. 81). Furthermore, Madigan claims the following: “That Larsen has the case enter Irene's mind so quickly, however, testifies to the Rhinelanders' importance to discussions of miscegenation, the law, and racial passing during the period of the Harlem Renaissance” (527). Leonard Kip Rhinelander, who was from the upper white class of New York, got married to Alice Jones, who was mixed-raced and from the working class. Rhinelander attempted at annulling the marriage as he claimed he had not known about his wife's race before the wedding. She countered by claiming that he has known about their race before their marriage as it was unmistakable. The jury the young couple had to face was all-male and white. The trial received a lot of attention by the media as it dealt with a contemporary issue and held some scandalous features, such as the disrobing of Alice Jones in court and the fact that she never took the stand during the legal proceedings. The trial was widely discussed in the press as it dealt with assumptions about race and gender that were highly contradictory, such as the promiscuity and the primitivism of the coloured woman. In the end, the jury ruled in Alice's favour Thereupon, this term paper will deal with the following research question: How can the relationship between the Rhinelander Case and Nella Larsen's Passing be defined and which are the means by which this relationship is being constituted?

In order to answer my research question, I will discuss the topic of racial and social passing in Larsen's novel. There will be a focus on Irene and Clare and their success in passing as white as well as their reasons for doing so. Most importantly their means of succeeding will be discussed, such as fashion, etiquette and appearance. These means are indispensable for passing, as it was believed that certain behaviour could be associated with either black or white. On this account Nisetich claims that “[…] Larsen illustrates how racial categories are socially constructed” (349). The proximate results will then be compared to Alice Jones and the racial subjectivity that society at that time approached her with. Furthermore, it is important to consider the importance of performance and the presumption of the visibility of race to the novel as well as the infamous trial. Afterwards, I will elaborate on concepts of readability and representation in Passing as well as in the Rhinelander Case. In Passing, readability and especially the ability to read are central issues that Irene foremost has to struggle with. Moreover, the matter of readability also becomes central in the courtroom as the jury has to concentrate on the question whether Alice is in fact readable and whether Leonard Rhinelander was able to read his young bride. Thus, subjective concepts about her racial identity based on physical and psychological assumptions are being constructed. In a final chapter, the research question will be answered by paying attention to the aforementioned aspects of the two narratives and by comparing the results.

2. The Act of Passing

As the title of Larsen's novel already suggests, the act of passing is a central issue and also the topic which the Rhinelander trial centres on. Especially the characters that are discussed here are the ones concerned with the act of passing in their respective narratives. Passing, in the context of this term paper, refers to mixed-raced Afro- Americans passing as part of the light-skinned population, their black descent remaining unnoticed. Nisetich states that “[w]hat is troubling about the concept of racial passing is that it necessitates placing people of mixed ancestry in one racial category over another” (350). Thus, the USA is recreated as a biracial society where one has to be either black or white with no categories in-between. As a result of the continuing racism that whites approach people of other skin-colours with, the possibility of race-passing becomes increasingly attractive for those of the discriminated race in New York City of the 1920s. On that account, Singh claims that “[f]or a black, the risks in passing have always been higher, but the possibilities that lie beyond have been more tempting” (91). One should take notice though that the aforementioned narratives not only feature passing as an appearance-related topic but one that goes further by incorporating demeanour as it is being associated with the white middle-class which these women try to slip into. Thus, as Wald suggests, “[…] the figure of 'passing' in these texts is produced and mediated not only through race, but through a variety of social discourses, especially class and sexuality” (29). This implies that passing is not only made possible by means of skin-colour, but also by applying class- and gender-specific practices. However, one should not forget the risks and sacrifices the passing person has to face. Hobbs claims that passing has two sides, namely that “[t]he delight of 'fooling white folks' and prevailing over an unjust racial regime was often accompanied by the agony of losing one's sense of self and one's family” (176). The following chapters on Irene Redfield, Clare Kendry and Alice Jones will analyse their versions of passing and the risks thereby. Important for assessing the issue are their means and reasons as well as the discrepant relationship between their self-definition and the way they are perceived by society within the frame of law and cultural codes and norms.

2.1 Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry

With the protagonists of Passing, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, Larsen presents two very contradictory women and thus two distinct versions of passing itself. Clare, on the one hand, is completely passing by being married to a white man who does not know about her descent. Irene, on the other hand, only passes occasionally for the convenience as she states in the novel: “I don't believe I've ever gone native in my life except for the sake of convenience, restaurants, theatre tickets, and things like that” (Larsen 79).

Irene can be described as “[…] the most self-consciously and avowedly race-conscious character in the novel” (Pfeiffer 143). In fact, she judges Clare for abandoning what Irene believes to be her race and thus “[…] the notion of 'race' loyalty constitutes an important basis of Irene's critique of Clare's passing, and thus of her ability to establish herself as superior to her friend” (Wald 48). However, even Irene admits a certain fascination with the business of passing, as she states: “It's funny about 'passing.' We disapprove of it and and at the same condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it” (Larsen 42). The act of passing is not without risks, as the reader learns via the anxieties Irene associates with Clare's passing, such as her fear of Jack Bellew finding out his wife's and her own true racial identity. It is also questionable whether Irene only criticises Clare for her ignorance towards race or also because she is not content with the method with which Clare made her way up the class ladder. Irene rather believes in the American Dream and that prosperity should be the result of hard work, integrity and sacrifice (cf. Wald 49). What Irene does not take into account in her treatment of Clare is how the other woman views herself under the racial microscope. Clare is, just as Irene, of mixed-race and thus of black and white descent. Irene strongly adheres to the one-drop rule, which means that a person is supposedly belonging to the dark-skinned race if there is just one drop of black blood in the family tree. Thus, even though Clare has been living as a white woman, Irene still views her as belonging to her own race. This is underlined as Irene states: “She had to Clare Kendry a duty. She was bound to her by those very ties of race, which, for all her repudiation of them, Clare had been unable to completely sever” (Larsen 38) and that she “[…] could not separate individuals from the race, herself from Clare Kendry” (Larsen 80). Irene seems to define black as non-white, and therefore she heavily relies on binary oppositions. Nisetich claims that “[f]or Irene, this 'one-drop' logic enables the opposition she wants to see between herself and Clare: she is a self-sacrificing 'race-woman' while Clare is a race traitor” (355). Thus she constructs a reality which puts her in the position of the “true” black woman and Clare in the position of the inferior illusionist. Hence, Irene views herself as self-sacrificing for her own race, as she states: “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” (Larsen 78). Hence, the question arises whether Irene does indeed not approve of Clare's decision or whether she is envious of the freedom passing provides for the other woman, which is further illustrated when Irene reflects: “Race! That thing that bound and suffocated her” (Larsen 78). Despite her criticism, Irene also “[…] measures herself by white standards, and lives in constant imitation of whites” (McLendon 97) in order to achieve the transition from one race to another.

Nisetich claims that “[i]n Passing, Larsen explores the conceptions of race as a real physical fact and as an imagined social construct and challenges the logic of 'common knowledge' and visibility in assigning racial identity to individuals” (345). This implies that especially Clare challenges the notion of the visible race as well as the discrepancy between racial belonging and self-perception. The pitfall for Clare is in the end not the fact that she lives with the constant threat of someone finding out about her descent, but that her attempt is “[…] in the end defeated by the way in which others, including Irene, view her” (Nisetich 345). Thus there is a friction between the way she views herself and her life and the way others view her and thus also deny her to break out of these boundaries. According to Wall, “[t]he tragedy for these mulattoes is the impossibility of self-definition. Larsen's protagonists assume false identities that ensure social survival but result in psychological suicide” (89). This implies that even though Clare has a material gain via the marriage to Jack Bellew, the impact on her psyche thereof is ambiguous. What also needs to be considered are the reasons for Clare's and Irene's passing. One gets the feeling that Irene passes for convenience and in order to circumvent certain racial attitudes by the American population at that time. In the novel she exclaims the following: “It wasn't that she was ashamed of being a Negro, or even having it declared. It was the idea of being ejected from any place” (Larsen 8). Clare, on the contrary, passes for belonging to another class and perhaps the adventure. This becomes clear when Clare comments on the financial benefits of her marriage: “In fact, all things considered, I think, 'Rene, that it's even worth the price” (Larsen 19). Pfeiffer states with reference to the reasons that “[…] passing for white permits Clare to transform herself into a meaningful social presence, as her white skin claims a higher market value than her black blood […]” (141). In a nutshell, by performing the transition to the upper white middle-class, Clare gains economically and financially. Furthermore, as Clare and Irene both rely to certain extents on their husbands, Thaggert states that “[t]he women become reflectors of their husbands' wealth and position, their husbands' success written on their female frames” (77). Nevertheless, one needs to take into account that even “[t]hough her marriage has brought her economic security, she has learned that money is meaningless without freedom […]” (Larson 83). In fact, Clare states in one of her letters to Irene: “It may be, 'Rene dear, it may just be, that, after all, your way may be the wiser and infinitely happier one” (Larsen 36). Furthermore, by either wholly passing as white or black, Clare inhabits spaces within both of these racial categories as Nisetich argues: Clare “[…] disregards the racial categorizations that would limit her self-identity to either 'white' or 'black,' and it is this that enables her to move back and forth freely over the color line” (351). Thus, Clare either completely transits to Harlem or completely transits to her life with her husband (cf. Cooke 67).

In Passing, race is a constructed concept as it depends on societal norms and perceptions. The racial binary of black and white is deconstructed in Passing as Clare does not seem to belong to either race but is perceived as interloping in both. Depending on Clare's perception of herself and the race she associates herself with, one could argue that Irene is the one truly passing as she identifies as black and pretends to be white. Furthermore, Nisetich states that “[i]n Passing, Larsen implicitly challenges the social, sexual, and moral tenets of the New Negro movement, and she portrays the racially ambiguous Clare Kendry as she struggles to define herself outside of socially imposed racial and sexual parameters” (355). This implies that Clare refuses any specific definition in terms of her race. In addition, McLendon argues that “[t]he juxtaposition of the two characters makes it clear that passing is as much a state of mind as a physical act […]” (96). Clare is physically passing as much as Irene is, but Clare does not seem to pass psychologically, as she clearly identifies with the white middle-class. Irene, in contrast, does identify with the culture and the people of Harlem and is clearly aware of the fact that she is actually trying to deceive the people around her by passing. Clare, as much as she behaves like a white woman and lives among their society, is denied a complete transition as Irene refuses to grant her that place. This is underlined as Irene states: “No, Clare Kendry cared nothing for the race.


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The Relationship Between Nella Larsen's "Passing" and the Rhinelander Case
University of Bonn
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passing, nella larsen, discrimination, racism, 60s
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Katharina Lurz (Author), 2015, The Relationship Between Nella Larsen's "Passing" and the Rhinelander Case, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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