Is Clare Kendry from the book "Passing" a Typical Tragic Mulatta?

Term Paper, 2013

7 Pages, Grade: 2,0



vorgelegt am Fachbereich 05, Philosophie und Philologie, der Johannes Gutenberg- Universität Mainz

Lehrveranstaltung: Racial Passing

Thema der Hausarbeit : Clare Kendry – A Typical Tragic Mulatta? WS/SoSe: 2013

Fachsemester: 3. Semester

Name : Neumann

Vorname : Sarah Antonia


Clare Kendry – A Typical Tragic Mulatta?

Introduction – The Different Stereotypes

It is a well-known fact that there are a lot of stereotypes which developed over time, especially in the minds of people and in literature. For example the so called “Blackface”, “The Uncle Tom”, “The Coon”, “The Mammy”, “The Brutal Black Buck” and last but not least “The Tragic Mulatta”. This research paper will focus on “The Tragic Mulatta” in relation to Nella Larsen’s book Passing and will examine if Clare Kendry is a typical Tragic Mulatta or not. To this end the definition of this stereotype has to be considered: Dr. David Pilgrim, a Professor of Sociology defines “The Tragic Mulatta” as a female character with white appearance but also containing black blood, who could easily pass for white. A second fact included in the definition of Dr. Pilgrim is, that those Mulattas were often not aware of their black heritage and when they found out tragically committed suicide. Another definition declares that the Mulattas always deny and “abandon their black families” (Dr. Pilgrim, 2012). They are also considered to be very seductive and sexual. Some definitions even say “they find only peace in death and live a life of alcoholism, depressions and sexual perversion” (Dr. Pilgrim, 2012) because they have a feeling of not being accepted in either of the two worlds. In the following paragraphs the fact will be proved that Clare Kendry is a typical Tragic Mulatta.

Main Part – Proving the Definitions

Reading the book Passing we can find many quotations that prove the white appearance of Clare. She is described as “an attractive-looking woman…with those dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin.” (6). In her eyes her black heritage may be visible, but the rest of her appearance and above all her skin does not reveal it at all. She definitely can pass for white, as it can be seen in this quotation: “(…) could that woman, somehow know that before her very eyes…sat a Negro? Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things (…).” (7). This shows very clearly that Clare is considered to be White and therefore has fulfilled one criteria of a Tragic Mulatta, because not even a Negro, like the other Protagonist of Passing called Irene, can identify her as a one.

Taking a closer look at the second definition that deals with the unknown of the black heritage and the suicide, it has to be said that this definition corresponds only in part. Clare was absolutely aware of her black heritage. This is shown for example by the text passage on page 25, when Clare commended on Irene’s question of having another baby: “’No, I have no boys and I don’t think I’ll ever have any. I’m afraid. I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that she might be dark.’”. This statement illuminates that Clare is aware of her black blood and the danger within. Also the fact that she knew she was good looking and could pass (17) shows that she knows about her heritage. But in relation to the tragedy, the definition fits better. At the end of the book a tragedy occurs: Clare Kendry falls out of the window “One moment Clare had been there, a vital glowing thing, like a flame of red and gold. The next she was gone.” (91). It is left open for the reader to interpret if it was suicide, an accident or Irene’s fault. “’It was an accident, a terrible accident,’ she muttered fiercely, ‘It was.’” (91). Whatever it was, it definitely can be called a tragedy and this is a typical fate for Mulattas. Therefore this criteria of the definition fits to Clare Kendry.

It is also said in the definitions that Mulattas denied their families. Examining Passing on page 16 one can see that Clare never had to explain where she came from. She always explained that, “’there were [her] aunts…’” and that they were “’respectable and authentic enough for anything or anybody.’” (16), because her aunts were white and her father, a Negro, was already dead. She always used her aunts as an explanation and denied the rest of her family by just not mentioning them. She does not only deny her background and family, but also her old friends. It is also important that she chose a husband who is an extreme racist: “’ I don’t dislike them, I hate them. And so does Nig.’” (30). This reveals that Clare hides behind her husband’s status and reputation, so that she will be considered as White. But within the book Clare takes more and more risks and although she wants to deny her background and her past, she is going to the “Negro Welfare League…to see Negroes” (53-54). She has a very strong desire to see again some Negroes, because since her passing she had not had the chance to meet them. So she begs Irene to be invited: “Rene, be polite and invite me.” (55). She is putting herself into danger only to meet Negroes, which shows her great affection towards them and her black heritage. Although she was trying during her relationship with her husband to cut off all of her contact to Negroes, she cannot resist anymore, which we can see on page 55: “’(…) if you’re not going to be nice and take me, I’ll still be among those present.’”. All in all we can say that Clare is denying her black heritage, above all towards her husband and therefore gave up all her contact with old friends and black family members, but, over time, the desire to meet Negroes returns, which reveals that Clare was indeed a Tragic Mulatta at the beginning of her passing, but now she loses the strength for this strict surrender.

Another point being said for Mulattas is there sexuality and seductiveness. This becomes obvious in the narrator’s description of Clare’s voice, laughs, gazes and appearance: “And she gave Irene a curios little sidelong glance and a sly, ironical smile peeped out on her full red lips (…)” (14). Another passage which shows her sexual nature is the following: “Irene couldn’t remember ever having seen her look better. She was wearing a superlatively simple cinnamonbrown frock which brought out all her vivid beauty (…).” (73). Here it can be seen, that Clare loves to be the center of attention. She does not hide her womanly appeal. The opposite is happening, she knows exactly how to use her appeals to seduce and convince people. They always react positively to her: “’Isn’t she stunning today?’” (73). Also in her letters Clare is writing very appealingly and passionately “For I am so lonely, so lonely…cannot help longing to be with you again…and it’s your fault…I wouldn’t…have this terrible, this wild desire (…)” (3). This shows that she is not only appealing to men, but to women as well. She uses a special kind of language to express her feelings which always sound very passionate and in some way attracts people.

Coming to the definition that concerns alcoholism, depression and sexual perversion, there are no clear paragraphs in the book Passing which underline this. But in a secondary source of Lois Brown The Harlem Literary Renaissance it is said that Clare’s Father, Bob Kendry, was an “alcoholic…and violent (…)” (414). This could have had an impact on Clare’s life, but we do not have a clear statement to prove this. In regard to depression one should consider the Re-Encounter two of Passing on page 52 until 56. There Clare claims to be “so lonely” and she has “Never anyone to really talk to” (52). This statement sounds a little desperate and sad, which are typical conditions of a depression. Another sign of depression is that her “black eyes filled with tears that ran down her cheeks (…)” (52). It seems that Clare is very sensitive and powerless to manage still passing for white. Normally Clare seems in public selfconfident and affirms everything with a smile. But in this passage it becomes clear, that deep in her she feels caught in the white society: “’You’re free. You’re happy.’” (52). In this Re-Encounter scene it is the first time that Clare reveals her true feelings towards Irene and it seems to the reader that she is very desperate, which could indicate the beginnings of a depression. Also the statement “‘Damn Jack! He keeps me out of everything…I could kill him!’” (56) reveals the detained anger and sadness towards her husband, who indirectly is one of the causes for her feelings of depression. Also of importance is Clare’s look “(…) there was something groping and hopeless (…)” (56), which again shows her desperation. But we have no statement in Passing or in any other secondary source which proves the fact that Clare is deeply depressed. It only can be said that she stands at the beginning of a depression and that she has depressive moods. Clare finds the strength to counteract her feelings of depression by going to the Negro Welfare League (53). So it becomes clear that Clare does not become depressed by passing in general but by not seeing her folk. In regard to the sexual perversion it cannot be clearly said that Clare is perverse, but in the Re- Encounter three of Passing it is obvious that she is flirting with Brian. It cannot exactly be called perversion, but an approximation. The visits of Clare become more and more regular and Irene finds them more often together: “(…) she had rushed into the living-room, where Brian was waiting and had found Clare there too.” (58). It seems that Clare and Brian are building up a closer relation to each other, because Clare gives Brian “a little deferential smile” and he “returns her one of his amused, slightly mocking smiles.” (58). This shows clearly Clare’s seductive effect on men. Also the fact that she is dancing “(…) frequently with Brian.” (59) leads to the assumption that she likes to play with her appearance. Irene notices that and “her suspicions grow that Clare is interested in Brian (…)” (Wall 109). It can be said that we do not have to deal here with a sexual perversion but with a Clare who is openminded towards sexuality.


Excerpt out of 7 pages


Is Clare Kendry from the book "Passing" a Typical Tragic Mulatta?
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Amerikanistik)
Racial Passing in Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Racial Passing, Tragic Mulatta, Stereotypes
Quote paper
Sarah Antonia Gallegos García (Author), 2013, Is Clare Kendry from the book "Passing" a Typical Tragic Mulatta?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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