The following is an essay test consisting of two essays on the topic of race that I wrote for an American Identities class.
Essay Test 2
October 21, 2011
Stark Contrasts Highlight Oppositions in Passing
Ever notice the dramatic contrast between the characters Ron & Hermoine from Harry Potter? This difference can be chalked up to the fact that these two characters are foils of each other, meaning each character highlights specific character traits of the other character, usually by contrast. In Nella Larsen’s Passing, the two main female characters are foils of each other. Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield were once best friends growing up together, but now have lives that could not be more different. Both women are light skinned blacks but Clare chooses to make her life easier and completely different than Irene’s by passing as a white woman. Irene chooses to be true to her race and remain a black woman. Throughout the book, starting with their physical descriptions, their dissimilarities, thus roles as foils, are apparent in many ways, such as through their feelings toward their blended races, aspects of safety and danger, madness and calmness, and concluding with life and death.
In part I of Passing, the characteristics that make these two women foils are very apparent in their physical descriptions when the reader first encounters each woman. When Irene enters the Drayton and notices Clare, she notices a woman dressed extravagantly and with an air about her that exudes class; she is described as: “…a sweetly scented woman in a fluttering dress of green chiffon…An attractive-looking woman, with those dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin. Nice clothes too, just right for the weather” (14). Irene is described as a caring mother who isn’t dressed as fabulously as Clare, or as well put-together, but matronly. The audience meets Irene as she is about to faint in Chicago because of the severe heat; she has a “moist face” which she dabs at with an “inadequate scrap of handkerchief” (12). A person of high class wouldn’t be out running the streets, and would, without question, possess an adequate kerchief. Also in part I, it is evident that these two women are foil characters because of their differences in personality and emotion toward their race. Clare’s white husband has created a nickname that would be derogatory toward any black person, but since he doesn’t know that Clare is actually part black, he doesn’t know this is offensive to her (40). Irene witnesses John Bellew call his wife “Nig,” and addresses this by asking him, “‘So you dislike Negroes, Mr. Bellew?’ John Bellew gave a short denying laugh. ‘You got me wrong there, Mrs. Redfield. Nothing like that at all. I don’t dislike them, I hate them. And so does Nig…They give me the creeps. The black scrimy devils’” (40). This is extremely offensive to Irene who acknowledges that her identity is part black. It is disturbing that Clare goes along with these degrading comments from the man who she is supposedly in love with enough to marry. These character’s contrasting perspectives of their identities is apparent in this scene because Irene is outraged to the point that she vows to remove Clare from her life forever, and on the other hand, Clare is laughing with her husband, knowingly offending her friend and making herself look foolish and weak. The fact that these two ladies are foil characters is apparent in part I by their physical descriptions and feelings toward their race; but also in part II when Clare starts questioning her decision to pass yet also becomes an alluring figure to Irene, who can’t seem to get enough of Clare, yet dislikes her at the same time.
In the second part of this story, Clare spends a great amount of time around Irene and her black family. She begins to wonder if, maybe, just maybe, passing wasn’t the best option, and thinks that her life could be a world of different, and for the better, if she were to allow herself to be black again, like Irene; “It may be, ‘Rene dear, it just may be, that, after all, your way [not passing] may be the wiser and infinitely happier one” (47). This statement comes from a letter Irene received from Clare and Irene doesn’t know quite how true Clare’s words are. However, the audience becomes aware of Clare’s true feelings when she is telling Irene in person that there is no way she can relate to how she feels; “The black eyes filled with tears that ran down her cheeks and spilled into her lap… ‘How could you know? You’re free. You’re happy. And you’re safe’” (67). Clare realizes it takes a lot out of her to keep her true identity hidden from everyone around her and it is obvious she is somewhat envious of Irene’s life, even though it isn’t as fabulous as hers, all the while Irene appears happier because she is honest with her race. Irene completely accepts her identity as a partially black and partially white woman and ends up marrying an extremely dark black man. Clare sees how happy Irene and her husband are and she knows she isn’t happy in her marriage because for the most part it is a lie, not to mention, her husband is a racist that would undoubtedly punish Clare if he ever found out her true identity. There is suspicion on Irene’s part that her husband, Brian, and Clare have committed some act of infidelity against her, but this is never substantially evident in the story.
Also in this section of the book, the audience realizes Irene is starting to go a bit mad because of Clare’s increasing presence in her life, yet is still extremely captivated by the charm Clare presents to her. The charming characteristics Clare presents have to do with her dangerous, somewhat reckless attitude and behavior toward life. Clare does not seem the slightest bit worried about the fact that her passing is a hazardous way of life, because when Irene asks Clare if she is ever troubled by the fact that her actions aren’t safe, Clare responds with, “‘Safe! Damn being safe!’ And meant it” (66). Clare’s response shows her love for danger and for living life on the edge, a mindset and approach to life that is absolutely contrary to Irene’s way of life as a faithful wife and mother; and is precisely why Irene is somewhat envious of Clare’s ability to toss things of importance to the side, something Irene could never do because she feels utterly responsible for everything going on around her; this responsibility could be attributed to motherhood, something Clare has not experienced. There is a significant contrariness in both women that show, yet again, these characters are foils because even though their lives are entirely opposing and different, aspects of their lives are appealing to each other and they both desire the other’s lifestyle, whether they realize it or not. Clare wants to be more like Irene, who is the stark opposite of Clare because she is safe and responsible. Clare has an enticing love for danger and appears considerably irresponsible in comparison to Irene. These opposing characteristics highlight both women’s desire to be like each other, reiterating the fact that they are foil characters.
In part III, the climax of this story, each woman’s ultimate destiny is revealed, concluding one character’s life, thus the foiling of the two. In a dramatic ending, Irene goes mad because of Clare’s strange calmness about her risky lifestyle and her continuous presence in Irene’s life. Irene is still delusional in respect to her husband being unfaithful to her with Clare, which gets Irene started on the path to craziness that ultimately destructs her in the end. She has a thought of ending the torture she is in by getting rid of the problem, which in her mind is Clare; “I only had to break it and I was rid of it for ever. So simple! And I’d never thought of it before” (94). This statement is the type that a deranged killer would make, highlighting Irene’s peak of madness at this point. While Irene is “going mad with fear and suspicion” (104), Clare is more calm than ever, emphasizing their roles as foil characters. “Clare’s ivory face was what it always was, beautiful…Or maybe today a little masked. Unrevealing. Unaltered and undisturbed by any emotion within or without” (93). The two women are again shown as foils because one is strangely calm while the other is losing her mind. At the conclusion, Clare falls out a window to her death, while Irene witnesses the scene. Although Clare is now out of Irene’s life forever, Irene will forever be haunted by her death for the rest of her lifetime. In a way, these two characters are interconnected even after one is no longer alive, eternally exemplifying their roles as foiled characters.
While there are countless examples in Passing of how Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry both highlight parts of each other through their own characteristics, making them foils of one another, the most obvious appear in their opposing physical descriptions, sentiments toward their mixed race, opposition between safety and danger, between sanity and insanity, and ultimately life and death. Characters that are foils of each other are interesting because their differences highlight positive and negative character traits they each have, presenting not only a comparison between the two, but a better understanding of the story due to a deeper understanding of each character. Like Ron and Hermoine, Clare and Irene bring out the best, and worst, in each other as foiled characters.
A White Lie?
A lie, by definition, is a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive, an intentional untruth, a falsehood. Pre Civil Rights Movement, light skinned black people had the opportunity to present themselves as white, which was called “passing.” The chance to pass was not available for all blacks, only the fair skinned ones, therefore, this option was unfair and could be chalked up to luck, and of course, if there were traceable white roots in one’s family. Clare Kendry said it best in Passing, “I’ve often wondered why more coloured girls …never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve” (25). Passing introduced a sense of easiness into one’s life that would have previously never been attainable without passing. So, technically, the act of passing is lying about race, which is wrong. However, there are characters that have been studied that pass at different levels and their reasons for passing can somehow compensate for the fact that passing is a lie and sometimes a character’s circumstance overshadows their wrongdoing and makes their passing seem not as bad. In the film Imitation of Life, Sarah Jane believed she was white and should be treated so; in Henry Louis Gates’ article, White Like Me, Anatole Broyard had to become something he was not, a white writer, in order to further his career; in Passing, Irene, the ideal example of one who passes, does so only when convenient, yet remains true to herself and her race.
In Imitation of Life, the character Sarah Jane has the opportunity to pass and does so. She looks in the mirror and sees white skin, so she does not understand why her birth mother is black, and believes she is white and deserves to be treated as such. Throughout much of the film, Sarah Jane is presented as an overly emotional teenage girl who is ashamed of her mother for being the black woman that she is because Sarah Jane regards herself as white and thinks she should be entitled to the very same things as her white friend, Suzie. Her desire to be regarded as the person she thinks she is is an innocent one. Sarah Jane honestly wants to fit in and doesn’t understand why she doesn’t since her skin is white like her friend’s. She isn’t trying to get ahead in any way or become more popular by passing; she simply believes she should be regarded as how she appears physically, and she should not be discriminated against for what is not visible to others on the outside. Lying is deceiving those around you by making a false statement. Sarah Jane doesn’t appear black at all, so her passing is not an example of lying, because she never makes a false statement. Her skin is, in fact, purely white, so she is correct in believing she should be treated according to how she looks, which is a blameless point of view of a teenage girl, completely overshadowing the fact that she is misleading everyone around her.
Other characters pass intentionally to get ahead in their some way, which doesn’t seem right but at the same time, what blame can be placed on an individual that would be discriminated against and not taken seriously if his true race were shown? This is especially difficult on an individual whose occupation has nothing to do with appearance, such as a writer. Today when one reads words on a paper, the race of the person is not relevant to the topic being written about. However, in this time period, it was very hard for black writers to be taken seriously because they were considered inferior to whites, as if their opinions were somehow less important or their thoughts were less educated, which was not at all the case. So, in order to be taken seriously a man named Anatole Broyard became a white writer by passing. He did so because if he didn’t: “He would have had to be a Negro writer, which was something he did not want to be. In his term, he did not want to write about black love, black passion, black suffering, black joy; he wanted to write about love and passion and suffering and joy” (78). It is unfair and wrong that in order for a black writer’s thoughts to be accepted and given any consideration during this time period, they had to “become white.” So, naturally, these people that passed in order to be taken seriously did so and should not be judged or considered liars since their circumstances basically required that they take this path of passing.
Some characters just want to pass solely when convenient, like Irene in Passing. When asked if she has been passing, Irene replies with the honest truth, “I do, but not for the reason you think. I don’t believe I’ve ever [passed] in my life except for the sake of convenience, restaurants, theatre tickets, things like that. Never socially I mean, except once” (100). Irene is the ideal example of someone that passes. She remains true to herself and her race, she even marries a dark skinned black man and is happy with her decision, yet she has the option of passing if she needs to. She is not defined to a race, black or white, yet is able to freely drift between the two. She is not lying about who she is or where she comes from, but using mystery to her advantage. Lynyrd Skynyrd once said, “Don’t ask me no questions, I won’t tell you no lies.” I think this applies to Irene’s attitude about the act of passing because if she is passing for when beneficial and never gets confronted while buying movie tickets or eating in a restaurant, why should she go around proclaiming she’s part black if it will only make her life harder? Irene doesn’t lie about her race; she just keeps it to herself sometimes, which is understandable and what most people would probably do if put in her situation.
Nevertheless, passing wasn’t always easy, nor was it fair. Irene also says on the subject of passing: “She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her” (98). Passing had its effects on those who participated because, essentially, they were choosing one part of themselves to put on display, and another part to hide. These individuals had to choose which side of themselves they wanted to be presented as their complete identity, which is a choice people of mixed descent should never have to make because it is unfair. For this reason, even though passing was technically a lie, the reasons for most, like Sarah Jane, Broyard and Irene, to do so outweigh the wrongness of this act and that wrongness should not be held against them since their situations were so skewed from normality today.