Generally regarded as Nella Larsen's best work, Passing was first published in 1929 but has received a lot of renewed attention because of its close examination of racial and sexual ambiguities. It has achieved canonical status in many American universities.
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Understanding cultural perspective is going to be important to understanding this novel. Watch the video below to learn more about the role a cultural perspective plays in literature, keeping this in mind as you gain context by reading the introduction. (This annotation contains a video)
Did you know that you can look up any word in the text of the book or the text of the questions and answers? Just click (or press on mobile devices) the word you want to define and hold until the blue text selector pops up. When you release, a define option will appear. Since it's so easy to look up words, make sure you use this feature frequently... Is there a word on this page you need to look up?
As you read on in the introduction, you will realize that "bisexual" here is meant in two ways. Clare often takes on attitudes and personality traits that are considered more "male" in nature while still clearly behaving like a woman. There is also some implied physical attraction between Clare and Irene, thus meaning "bisexual" in the definition you are probably more familiar with.
You may be disappointed to learn how the novel ends before even beginning to read it. However, knowing the end can allow you to read the novel in a different way. What else can you focus on while reading instead of trying to figure out the ending now that you know it?
You can read a brief overview of the Harlem Renaissance at the site below. How does Larsen's writing fit in with the other writings of this period? (This annotation contains a link)
Which is likely NOT a reason for this flashback?
The web page below describes average weather in Chicago in August. Skim the information here to get a general idea of what it would be like then compare that to the description Irene provides. (This annotation contains a link)
Irene was afraid of being asked to leave the restaurant because Jim Crow laws were in play. You can read more about them at the site below, including information about restaurants. What other discriminatory treatment would Irene have had to endure under these laws? (This annotation contains a link)
Using the context of the highlighted text, decide which statement might best reflect Irene's inner thoughts.
While the Drayton Hotel is fictitious, it is believed it was modeled after the Drake Hotel in Chicago, which is known for serving high tea. The picture below shows Palm Court, where tea is served at the Drake. How would this be different from what Irene and Clare were experiencing? (This annotation contains an image)
What is likely the situation Irene and her friends imagined Clare was in all those years ago that would be so uncomfortable to acknowledge?
Two outdated terms for black people -- "Negro" and "colored" are used in the highlighted text. The correct descriptor for people who are black has changed over decades, and some terms have taken on derogatory connotations. Read the article at the site below to see the modern-day status of the terms used here. (This annotation contains a link)
Irene says she has never really thought about trying to "pass." But in actuality, she probably has. How?
The image below is of actress Nancy Cheryll Davis who won an award from the NAACP for her stage portrayal of Clare Kendry Bellew. How closely does the actress's appearance match that which Irene has just provided? (This annotation contains an image)
While this novel does not necessarily have an excess of situations where detailed description is needed, there are still times when strong images are evoked. Watch the video below to learn more about the role imagery plays in writing, then pay close attention to the times the author does use strong imagery to see what the author wants you to see. (This annotation contains a video)
Why might Irene be feeling defensive and resentful at spending time with Clare and now Gertrude?
It was not uncommon to have small snacks of finger sandwiches or dainty pastries during tea, as pictured below. However, what is the main difference between the tea Clare is offering her guests and what we traditionally expect to be served at afternoon tea? (This annotation contains an image)
Irene seems to look down on Clare and even Gertrude for "passing." However, the reader has seen her do it when she had tea at the hotel and feared for a moment that it might be discovered she wasn't actually white. Do you think Irene is justified in her feelings toward Clare and Gertrude or do you think she is being a bit hypocritical? Explain your answer using examples from the text.
The health risks of smoking cigarettes were unknown during the time setting for this novel. A great many people smoked. It was common to have cigarettes in a box on a table for guests to take, much like the box pictured below. Why do you think cigarette boxes like this are not used today? (This annotation contains an image)
Which is likely NOT a reason Gertude thinks Clare is crazy?
Bellew is clearly an avowed racist. He was certainly not alone in those feelings in America. Similar feelings of racism could be seen in other countries, including South Africa which was poised on the edge of apartheid during the setting of this novel. Read more about apartheid below. Compare and contras the racist attitudes of Bellew with those held in apartheid. (This annotation contains a link)
The picture below is of a dress from the 1920's made from crêpe de Chine fabric. What do you think this soft and fluttery material says about Irene's social status? (This annotation contains an image)
Quiz 1 -- Encounter
Irene told Clare that she has everything she needs except maybe a little more money, but that's what everyone seems to say. However, Irene has just implied that her life might not be as satisfying as it seems. What do you think Irene is trying to say here? What makes you think this?
It could be said that Brian and Irene are having an argument over semantics in the highlighted passage. Read the definition of semantics at the site below, then think about the differences in what Brian and Irene are both saying about Mr. Bellew's racial slurs. (This annotation contains a link)
What has its humorous side and advantages, according to Brian in the highlighted text?
Gloves, like the ones pictured below, were a common fashion accessory for women in the 1920's. Why do you think women wore them, even in the middle of summer, even for everyday events like shopping? (This annotation contains an image)
From what you have seen of Irene and Brian's marriage and Clare and John's marriage, which statement would be true?
A common style of hat women wore in the 1920's was a cloche, similar in style to the one pictured below. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of wearing at hat every day for women? Why do you think hats are not as in vogue nowadays? (This annotation contains an image)
Do you think Irene is correct in trying to keep distance from Clare? Why or why not? Be sure to use details from the text to explain your position.
The Negro Welfare League is a fictional organization, but it could be based on the National Urban League, which you can read more about at the site below. What kind of work would be done with the money earned at the dance to benefit the Negro Welfare League? (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following words would NOT describe Clare as you know her so far?
The site below explains women's fashion during the time period of this novel. Skim the information there. Who is dressed more stylishly -- Irene or Clare? (This annotation contains a link)
Which statement do you think is closest to the truth?
Bridge is a popular card game. The video below quickly explains the basics of bridge. After watching the video, does this sound like a game you would enjoy playing? (This annotation contains a video)
Quiz 2 -- Re-Encounter
Do you have sympathy for Clare? Why or why not? Use details from the book to develop your response.
In the early 20th century, it was common for women to get dressed and fix their hair and makeup in front of a dressing table similar to the one pictured below. Dressing tables are not very common anymore. Why do you think they have gone out of vogue as far as furniture goes? (This annotation contains an image)
It sounds as if Irene suspects Brian is having an affair with Claire. Do you think this is a realistic suspicion on her part? Why or why not? Be sure to use details from the text to support your response.
What is happening in this scene with Irene could be considered dramatic irony. Watch the video below that explains dramatic irony, then identify how this scene fits the explanation. (This annotation contains a video)
In this sentiment, how are Clare and irene alike?
Irene may be feeling like she is having an epiphany. Read about what an epiphany is below. Then, as you read on in the text, determine if Irene is indeed seeing things in a new way now and truly having and epiphany. (This annotation contains a link)
Why would knowing that Clare has been traveling to and spending time in Harlem be enough to keep Clare away?
The climax of a story is often considered the high point, the most exciting part of the story. However, it is really the point at which the conflict reaches a definite turning point and the conflict has been changed or resolved somehow. How does Irene and Felise bumping into Mr. Bellew qualify as the climax of this story?
What do you think happened between Clare and her husband after he saw Irene with Felise? Support your idea using details from the text.
At the link below, you can read about the history of lynchings. Then as you read on in the novel, decide who you think is right -- Brian for wanting his sons to be aware of the dangers they may face, or Irene who wants to keep her sons protected as long as possible from the knowledge of such evil doings. (This annotation contains a link)
Irene has likely experienced a catharsis, which you can read about at the the site below. What do you think this catharsis means for Irene? (This annotation contains a link)
Which word would best describe Irene's state of mind about her marriage?
If you've read the introduction, you are already aware of how this story will end. With that in mind, what literary element is at play in the highlighted text?
Not long ago, you read of Irene and Felise meeting Mr. Bellew, thus revealing to him that Clare has been "passing." That could be considered the climax of the story. However, this event might also be considered a climax as well. Which event fits the definition of climax better? Or is it possible that more than one climax can exist within a story?
Quiz 3 -- Finale
There is evidence that Clare may have jumped from the window or that Irene may have pushed her out the window. Which scenario do you think is most likely, or is there a different scenario to describe the conditions surrounding Clare's death? State your theory and support it with evidence from the text.