Nella Larsen's Passing: Crossing Forbidden Boundaries
The present paper aims at analysing the theme of transgressions or the crossing of forbidden boundaries in Nella Larsen’s Passing. Due to the fact that hers is the first novel to address the social practice of “passing” overtly and directly within a wider tradition of “passing narratives” its context is relevant. Larsen’s novel became a canonical text almost sixty years after its first publication back in 1929. Moreover, it addressed a social practice, “passing”, that was a consequence of and relevant against a very particular social and historic backdrop and literary tradition, therefore I have deemed it crucial to start by positioning it against its background. The text draws on many autobiographical details such as both women protagonists being of mixed race ancestry like the author herself and them being part of the vibrant Harlem social and cultural scene of the 1920s so a brief outline of Larsen’s biographical details has been rendered. After placing the text in a context that is so relevant to it, the actual boundaries crossed under scrutiny in this paper have been delimited. Racial boundaries linked to identity boundaries are the most relevant as already revealed by the title. In fact, it will be argued that other transgressions are subdued to the crossing of racial boundaries, thus more scope will be devoted to analysing this sphere. Notwithstanding, in view of the scholarly interest in issues of social class, gender and sexuality these spheres are considered too as racial identity is related to issues of class as well as gender and sexual identities. In this sense, racial “passing” is motivated by the need for social advancement but also linked to sexual transgressions. In turn, class issues of bourgeois respectably also linked to the characters restraint and respect of other boundaries. Above all, the text questions racial definition in terms of visual perception, but racial boundaries are explored and exposed as both a physical essence and a social construct so both ambits shall be considered. Racial boundaries are revealed as ambiguous, permeable and arbitrary and their crossing results in individual and collective apprehensions that shatter ideas of identity and identity politics threatening a system of segregation in place in the 1920s America. The social practice of “passing” is exposed as a menace to the validity of the “colour line” as well as the characters ontological certainty raising the question of why a multiple and contingent identity should not be possible as opposed to binary categorisations.