The literary body of New York City is a literature of being tightly packed in, of living alongside the inescapable presence of millions of people, in layers of diversity that “encompass race, class, and sexuality (Josh Toth, Deauthenticating Community: The Passing Intrusion of Clare Kendry in Nella Larsen’s Passing 58) through which those bodies that are most empowered by the dominant normative culture – namely those who self-identify as white, heterosexual, and upper class – become the observers and gatekeepers of the accepted American identity. The city demands that the American body must perform as this normative body. Bodies that fail to “pass” under this rigid construct are under constant threat of having their humanity, agency, and autonomy stripped away.
The empowered observer’s identity never comes under threat via observation, so they might move among the city as Walt Whitman describes in his City of Orgies, where the narrator might celebrate being observed without judgment, feeling the gaze of the city only as a “frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love, Offering response to my own” (Whitman). For this dominant figure, there is no contradiction between any sense of individual, personal identity, and the social, public persona that must be performed to gain acceptance. However, for bodies that are under threat from the gaze of the city, bodies whose inner identities do not match the image of normative (white) America, which is demanded, to be seen is to feel the threat of having agency and autonomy stripped. These bodies, such as can be found in Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (1922), must create a separate, fictitious public identity, in order to “pass” for what the governing body of the city is willing to accept.
I will argue that though on a superficial level O’Neill and Larsen’s texts discuss very different needs to “pass,” performances of race, class, gender. and sexuality bleed into one another in a deadly conflict between personal and social identity. In both texts, the characters’ performances strive to create a space of belonging for them. Through an intersectional reading of both texts, my essay will examine the limits of resisting the oppressive gaze of society through performance. I will argue that both texts ultimately become a conflict of having to choose between “passing” in order to be accepted into a culture that seeks to destroy a person’s inner, authentic identity, and refusing to pass, to try and embrace one’s personal identity at the price of their autonomy, freedom, and often even life within the city.
Though the primary text of Larsen’s Passing refers to women of colour in New York City, passing for white in order to escape segregation and racism, “passing” has several layers of performance for Irene. Larsen’s narrative creates an inescapable link between the treatment of race and class distinction in the city, implying that racial passing is also class passing, despite the high position held by several black characters in the text. Additionally, the multi-layered performance of identity found in the two central characters – the protagonist Irene Redfield, and the old friend who threatens to intrude upon Irene’s carefully balanced inner/public performances Clare Kendry – suggests a homoerotic subtext that lends a queer reading to passing, creating the added challenge of sexual passing as well as racial and economic passing.
For Irene, the unravelling that threatens her ability to pass begins not only through the act of observation but, as “brown eyes […] returned the stare of the other’s black ones” (Larsen 17), also recognition. Irene’s world is thrown into crisis by Clare because even though Clare does not seek to out Irene to the empowered, white observers among which they are both passing, her recognition creates a hole in Irene’s performance. Clare is evidence that even if Irene considers that “white people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell” (17) one’s race, there is a gap in the whiteness she performs, a way for an outside observer to see past the mask she has created.
Throughout the text, Claire and Irene’s delicate act of balancing the performances to pass across sexual, economic, and racial lines puts the inner/public in conflict. Though there is a temptation to read only one layer of Passing, either dismissing the suggestion of a queer reading of Larsen in favour of focusing only on the racial passing, or argue that the racial passing is only there to obfuscate the queerness of the text, I would call for an intersectional reading of Passing. Larsen’s text is one where “broken sexual [economic] and racial epistemes” (Gabrielle McIntire Toward a Narratology of Passing: Epistemology, Race, and Misrecognition in Nella Larsen’s Passing 778) exist in tandem and play with each other.
Larsen describes the practice of passing as alienating, a feeling of “breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly” (Larsen 25). Creating a performance that passes under the oppressive gaze of a normative America might in some ways liberate characters such as Clare and Irene, allowing them agency and autonomy and freedom from the constant oppression of racism. However, it also a source of conflict, constantly putting both women’s personal identities at odds with the social identities they perform, with the need to pass differently in both black and white communities “performatively imbedding confusions about” (Gabrielle McIntire, Toward a Narratology of Passing: Epistemology, Race, and Misrecognition in Nella Larsen’s Passing 770) how they connect to their own black cultural identity as opposed to the one they perform for the sake of white observers.
Both Irene and Clare become torn by the need for a “singular and coherent entity [that is only valid] insofar as [they are] (in one way or another) indistinguishable from a certain communal whole, or plurality” (Tosh 55), but neither can fully accept either of the racial identities which they perform. Irene is unable to fully subsume herself in the performance of whiteness by a husband and children that are themselves unable to pass for white, while Clare’s black identity is suffocated by her need to pass for her racist husband. Irene must isolate herself from her family to pass: “Never, when she was alone, had [white people] remotely suspected she was a negro” (17), while Clare must isolate herself from her husband to reconnect with her racial identity. Both characters remain trapped as “figure[s] of in-betweenness” (Annalisa Brugnoli Eulogy of the Ape: Paradigms of Alterity and Identity in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape 43). Both characters are trapped in that clash between their personal/social selves, unable to feel like they truly belong, so long as the performances are demanded of them.
Yank, the protagonist of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, is not a character thrown into conflict by his choice to pass, but a character whose sense of belonging and place in society crumbles away as he is unable to pass as figure acceptable to the observers that stand in judgment of him. When first asked his name, Robert Smith is not sure, not because he is intoxicated or impaired, but because he has “Been just Yank for so long” (58) that calling upon an identity not pressed upon him by others has become difficult, and it is his awareness of these external judges of his personhood that consistently crowd him throughout the narrative. Similarly, to Irene and Clare, Yank is a figure obsessed with belonging and chases it to the point of self-destruction.
Yank begins the narrative believing that he is in the position of the observer, judging the performance of others, those who have failed to pass by Yank’s standards. While he remains unobserved, Yank revels in the position of the observer, and before his ability to “pass” is tested, he is embracing the power to tell others, “Yuh don’t belong” (18). Yank is entirely dismissive of the idea that “De Cap’tlist class” (O’Neill 11) might ever turn its judgment onto him.
Yank believes that since labour is indispensable to capitalism, then by being a labourer, his humanity and place within the dominant social structures of his culture are assured. “Who makes dis old tub run? Ain’t it us guys? Well den, we belong, don’t we?” (12). Yank so completely sees himself as a part of the system, that he embraces the idea that he is “a flesh and blood wheel of the engines” (16) of the steel ship where he works.
Yank’s assurance that his humanity can and will always be affirmed under capitalist, that he is a fundamental and necessary “part of de engine” (16) free from judgment is fundamentally betrayed when Yank finds himself put under the gaze of the young, wealthy woman named Mildred – the daughter of his employer, “presedent of de Steel Trust” (53). Before Mildred, Yank is stripped of the role of the observer and finds himself unable to pass as that American figure who has a place within society “as she looks into his gorilla face, as his eyes bore into hers” (O’Neill 30). Yank is unable to see Mildred as anything other than “white apparition” (30), a creature removed from his world, and class, and culture, and does not understand that it is her judgment, not his, on which acceptance rests. When Mildred sees Yank, all she sees is a “Filthy beast” (30), shattering Yank’s illusion of belonging.
Yank accepts that his place of employment, which had previously defined his sense of humanity “steel – where I thought I belonged” (54), cannot give him that belonging, so long as his employers family and their social class view him and his fellow workers as less than human. His work ceases to be the source of Yank’s humanity and becomes a “cage me in for her to spit on” (54). Yank is painfully aware of his shifting state of being, and how he seems to be sliding out of the realm of the human for the sub/inhuman. “Steel was me, and I owned the woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me.” (62). Everywhere that Yank seeks belonging; the city greets him with echoes of Mildred’s judgments as if once his inability to pass has been established, his inhumanity is unshakable in all corners of the city. Whereas the power to pass traps, Irene and Clare, Yank’s lack of power to pass, his inability to even make the choice to separate his personal and social personas into separate performances are what places him into that in-betweenness state, a figure unable to find acceptance or to belong in any social group.
When Yank tries to find acceptance, to get out from under the microscope of being observed by rejoining the observers, he always faces rejection. Yank has become “in a cage at de zoo” (48), a creature to be watched. Only in prison—the human equivalent for the spiritual confinement Yank feels—does he hope to escape dehumanization by identifying with the other prisoners, the other observed, “Aint date what youse all are – apes?” (49). However, even among those imprisoned, only Yank is made to be the animal, set apart by a differing social status, as is shown through the accents of the dialogue – with Yank’s heavily accented dialogue contrasted by the more “Americanized” accents of the other inmates.
While, like in Passing, there is a temptation to read The Hairy Ape as a text only focused on socio-economic class performance, I would argue that The Hairy Ape, like Passing, can bear a more intersectional reading. The Hairy Ape can be “be regarded as a moral parable addressing Sameness and Otherness” (Brungoli 52), and the two texts’ use of the practice of passing in New York are even more closely aligned theorists such as Annalisa Brungoli have pointed to “O’Neill’s treatment of Otherness and Sameness” (Brungoli 4) through colour, coding blackness and whiteness into wealth and poverty.
Race in The Hairy Apeis also at least partly tied to the Irish identity, emphasized by Yank’s heavy phonetic accent, his unmistakable un-American-ness helps to play up. “O’Neill’s Irishness [is transposed onto Yank, along with] his fear of regressing to bestiality, that is, of being figuratively “stripped naked” of the artifices of civilization” (Brungoli 11). In tying the issue of first-class and second-class citizenship, Irishness in The Hairy Ape becomes a link to blackness. O’Neill goes to lengths to emphasize the “emphasizing the mask-like quality of Yank’s and the stokers’ blackened faces in contrast to the candid stiffness displayed by Mildred” (44) and other figures of wealth and class in New York, who are constantly framed by “cleanliness” and whiteness.
Yank is described throughout the play in both dialogue and stage direction as dirty, and as blackened by the soot and coal and filth of the city that is inseparably linked to poverty, and also to race. The voices of scene IV, acting as a kind of distorted Greek chorus, are described as bodies that “shine” (O’Neill 31) from their cleanliness and whiteness, that allows them to belong within the racist superstructure of New York culture, create a sharp contrast between the “blackened, brooding figure” (31) of Yank. The Chorus seems to warn Yank against the stigma of blackness, warning that if he does not clean himself in order to belong, “It’ll get under your skin […] it’ll make spots on you – like a leopard. Like a piebald nigger. Better wash up, Yank!” (32).
The Hairy Ape ties the dehumanization and rejection of Yank to colour, just as it ties wealthy Mildred’s status to her whiteness, emphasizing her pale skin and lily-white clothing. The Hairy Ape also creates an argument for who creates the dividing binary of colour, Yank is not only unaware of his apparent blackness before his encounter with Mildred, but he does not become an outcast on the grounds of his blackness until after the encounter. Blackness is only made into a bad and limiting feature when seen “In the mirror of [Yanks] “dead white” opposite” (Brugnoli 45). What this intrinsic tying of Race to all other forms of oppression reveals is that the observing gatekeeper, the audience who stand in judgment of those who must undertake a performance of passing, is necessarily always a racist observer, in O’Neill as well as Larsen. The use of colour theory spills outwards from beyond Yank’s initial encounter throughout the text, always framing Yank in darkness and those who would dehumanize him in whiteness. Even when Yank appeals to a higher power, begging the “Man in de Moon, yuh look so wise, gimme de answer, huh?” (O’Neill 62), the stage directions position him as a dark “ape gibbering” (62) towards the lunar whiteness, a whiteness which he cannot reach, and does not respond to his cries.
Within Passing, Irene observes that “I don’t think it would be so simple for a white man to ‘pass’ for coloured” (Larsen 79). Irene, as a woman of colour, has performed whiteness in order to escape discrimination and increase her mobility within the city. However, when white characters within these two narratives muse on what it would take for a white person to pass for a person of colour, it is not a question of escaping observation or increasing personal autonomy. Often the goal of performances of Black Face, for instance, are not to escape observation, but to attract it, with the goal of ridicule. In the case of Yank, the associations to blackface is not necessarily a performance of blackness, but a promotion of the connection that the racist empowered observer of the city makes between blackness, poverty, and inhumanity. Throughout The Hairy Ape, Yank is not attempting to perform blackness, so much as he is failing to perform the city’s standard of whiteness.
In both texts exists the question of what becomes of those who are observed and unable to pass. We might find an answer for the threat hanging over the heads of Irene and Clare, and an elaboration on Yank’s doom, in the figure described within Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. The figure of the Homo Sacer was “A figure of archaic under roman law” (Agamben 71), an individual who had become so rejected and objectified from society that to kill them no longer counted as murder as much as destroying an inanimate object. In the Roman city, the person who has been “banned may be killed by anybody” (72). Evolving the image of the Homo Sacer into contemporary discourse of human rights and discrimination, turns the Homo Sacer into a body that the empowered observers and judges of society—the upper/wealthy/white/male/straight/ruling class which Agamben referred to as those with “sovereign power” (73)— have stripped of the rights and privileges’ and dignities that the culture and law of the city deemed to be the unassailable rights of the human being.
The Roman City, under Agamben’s theory, can become any city, can become the New York of Larsen and O’Neill. Within Agamben’s theory, as within these texts, “the city is formulated as the foundation of social and political life, insofar as its founding establish[es] the critical difference between physiological life (bare life) and community (polis)” (Lord Sowah, What is the true meaning of Giorgio Agamben’s Bare Life/ Homo Sacer 2). To differentiate between a life and an empowered human life, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life argues that the empowered observers of the city separate themselves from all other living things (both non-human, and marginalized humans) by granting all creatures only the right to biological life, or “bare life” (82) which is set “outside human jurisdiction” (82). Both texts’ characters seek to be granted belonging in the City, but it is also something never fully within their control. As he is continually rejected and cast as the Ape, Yank grows to understand that at least some of what is keeping him outside the realm of the human is “It’s way down – at de bottom. Yuh can’t grab it, an yuh can’t stop it. It moves, and everything moves. It stops, and de whole woild stops” (O’Neill 62). This intangible belonging cannot be given to those performing, unless those with political life, those with institutional powers, accept their performance. Yank grows to understand that if one’s performance does not pass, then the city becomes entirely inaccessible. All one is left with if they cannot hide the inner self that does not meet the approved image of an “American”, is Bare Life. Bare Life is only the right to physical existence, without any of the rights or privileges that come from existing or operating within a community.
When Yank tries to join the union, the secretary says “welcome to our city” (O’Neill 57), an acknowledgment that though a body might operate within the liminal space of the city without a community, no human body is truly part of the American city without acceptance from some form of institution or community. But to be allowed into this new community, and therefore regain some of the humanity/political life he has been stripped of, the Union demands a performance from Yank that he is incapable of giving. Yang struggles under the gaze of the Union secretary to even name himself. The identity they demand, that of “Robert Smith” (58, ) is so far removed because he has “just been Yank for so long” (58) that calling upon an identity other than the one pressed on him by observers, that of Yank, or even of the Ape, has become impossible.
The Union wants Yank to straddle an in-between economic state similar to the line between identities that the characters of Passing must walk, insisting that “What we need is men who can hold their jobs and work for us at the same time” (58). The Union demands an in-between state from those within their community, as well as demanding that the union as a whole must also be a state of in-betweenness. They wish to fight against the system that they believe oppresses working-class people, but without ever actually attracting the anger or judging gaze of the Sovereign powers of the city.
The Union is “breaking no laws” (59) even as it fights for laws to change, to “change the unequal conditions of society [only by] legitimate direct action” (60), emphasizing the importance of action that is deemed legitimate in order for the Union to maintain its place within the political life of the city. Yank is not capable of that in-between state — even this community, which states in manifestos and pieces of literature that it exists to defend the working class. What Yank believes the Union stands for is a far more radical and violent rearranging of the powers of the city than what they intend. He implores to be seen on his own terms, “can’t youse see I belong?” (59), but like others, the union can only see him as the “brainless ape” (61).
Yank actually seems to understand that the discrimination between Bare Life and Political Life within the city cannot be fixed with “an hour of de job a day [or] a dollar more and make me happy! […] feeding your face – sinkers and coffee – dat don’t touch it” (62). Yank’s endless need for acceptance and belonging is put squarely at odds with his inability to perform the type of “American” that is required to be accepted.
The line between acceptance in the society in the city, and acceptance by the legal institutions of the city’s sovereign power is epitomized when Yank is confronted by a policeman. Even Yank, in his state of isolation and distress, understands that social rejection is legal rejection as well. When the Policeman asks Yank what he’s been doing, Yank considers it a confession worth “enuf to gimme life for! I was born, see? Sure, dat’s de charge. Write it in de blotter. I was born, get me!” (62). Yank considers his crime to be living. His attempts to live, to regain some type of Political Life out from the life of the Homo Sacer/Ape that his observers have condemned him to, is confirmed by the powers of the state.
The Policeman’s indifference in telling a figure he sees inhuman to “go to hell” (62-63) only reinforces the role of the law in the sovereign powers of a city’s divide between who may pass for human, and who may not. Yank’s ironic repetition of the Secretary’s words repurposes them within the monkey house of the zoo. “Welcome to your city, huh? Hail, hail, de gangs all here!” (64). Yank feels he has entered a new space within the zoo, but he is still within the walls of the city. New York as a structure has stripped his mobility, and his identity, and without any way to change how he is perceived, Yank has no method to retaliate.
Though African-Americans had been legally granted citizenship over sixty years before the era in which Passing is both written and set, efforts to keep people of colour from exercising their rights, such as their right to vote, were institutionally reinforced through grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and other means until the voting rights act of 1965 . Other means of keeping people of colour from exercising their rights within the political and civic community continue to this day through such methods as gerrymandering in order to strip power from marginalized communities, particularly communities predominantly made up of people of colour.
Similarly, while never stated directly, O’Neill’s emphasis on Yank’s accent throughout The Hairy Ape strongly implies his status as an immigrant, existing as a class of person to whom citizenship is an elusive and often denied state which is coupled with many rights (both political and civil) within the city that are denied to first-generation immigrants. Though some effects of institutionalized racism remain only as subtext within the narrative of Passing, they still make themselves known.
When Irene is first seen by Clare “on the roof of the Drayton” (Larsen 17) hotel in Chicago, a restaurant that did not allow people of colour entry, she is quick to mentally separate her own feelings about blackness from the consequences of her ability to pass. “It wasn’t that she was ashamed of being a Negro, or even of having it declared” (17) that bother Irene, so much as it is the knowledge that should her performance fail, the institutionalized racism of the American City would strip away a level of autonomy from her. Irene makes it clear that this is not a fear of being kicked out of the Drayton specifically, but that “It was the idea of being ejected from any place […] that disturbed her” (17). In this context, “passing” allows Irene full autonomy within the body of the city, something that those who act as empowered observers, the dominant and normative (white) body of America does not need to perform in order to gain. Irene, in continually balancing these multiple identities, only needs to perform in order to access white spaces that would otherwise be denied to her. It is worth noting that, like in The Hairy Ape, passing is both an act of navigating through legal systems as well as social, with legal systems helping to prop up the divide between the observer and those whose humanity has been lessened. In the time of Passing, the practice of spaces which did not permit people of colour entry was aided and given authority by the Jim Crow discrimination laws that would be in place for decades to come.
On the other hand, Irene does not have to similarly construct such a performance to move through the predominately black spaces of her home neighbourhood of Harlem. At such events as the “Negro Welfare League Dance” (75), Irene can relax into the embrace of her community. But it is notable that here, in what the novel describes as a black space, the dance is described as containing “Young men, old men, white men, black men” (76) indiscriminately. Irene takes satisfaction in being in an environment where it felt that “Some coloured men were superior to some white men” (76), but what this scene truly captures is how whiteness does not need to create a performance to pass within black spaces, even while whiteness demands that blackness perform whiteness in order to be allowed within white spaces. Irene goes on to posit that even in this space, the empowered white observers/intruders are still demanding performance – only in this space, the white observer is demanding performance of blackness that they can tolerate. She argues with Hugh Wentworth – a white observer who believes he is being discriminated against by the women at the dance, that white women are passing him over for the sake of “the good looks of some Negro” (77), even while he is allowed full autonomy within black spaces.
Irene is made to justify the physical autonomy of black bodies through dancing, and by embracing otherness. She speculates, perhaps more for the sake of her white male observer, that white women come to Harlem to find “Something strange, and even, perhaps, a bit repugnant to you; something so different that it’s really at the opposite end of the pole from all your accustomed notions of beauty” (77). When entering spaces occupied by people of colour, the empowered (white) observer demands that the black bodies perform both exoticism and otherness. They are not entering these spaces in order to try and break down the binary of Bare and Political life that exists within the American city but to reinforce it, to re-emphasize the otherness of black bodies as objects of curiosity, not necessarily as human. They come to “gaze on the Negroes” (Larsen 71). For Irene and Clare, to be allowed in both white and black communities, they must continually straddle that line of in-betweenness that is racial passing, performing whiteness in one space and blackness in another.
Within Passing, the role of the city – specifically the American City – looms large in the artificial construction of who is granted Political Life, and who is denigrated in a role closer to Bare Life. Unlike Irene, who is light-skinned enough to pass within white spaces unnoticed, her husband Brian and their son Junior have no place of reprieve from the racist observers and sovereign powers of New York. They are both dark-skinned, and so passing could not be an option for them. Irene describes her husband as a “man marking time, waiting” (Larsen 88). He, more than her, is continually constrained by the racism of New York. Nevertheless, whereas Irene’s solution is to create a performance that can pass for the kind of American that is granted full Political Life, Brian is infused with a “strange, and to her fantastic notion […] of going off to Brazil.” (Larsen 57). Brian’s notion is one of escape, of the idea that there are countries other than America, where who might be deemed a citizen, who might be granted full rights and autonomy and personal mobility, might be different.
Brian’s continued dream of a country more accepting of black bodies is a dream continually blocked by Irene, “Insisting he stick to his profession right there in New York?” (Larsen 57). However, his dream is also an acknowledgment of the construction of race can differ within different cities/states. Irene does not share Brian’s dream of escaping the chains of the Homo Sacer by escaping the physical spaces of the American city itself, because she does not feel she needs to escape the gaze of the city’s racist observers, only to pass among them.
Irene, whose layers of performed identities put her in conflict with her inner self, needs some of “Permanence [that] extends across a multiple rang of identity categories.” (Toth 61). Even as it is the reason her identity has fractured in the first place, Irene will make America that unifying factor shared by all the identities she feels and performs. Her “fixed national (i.e. American) identity compels her to resist her husband’s desire to move to Brazil” (Toth 61) Because if nothing else, all of Irene’s conflicting identities work to allow her to identify as American, something her husband feels he cannot genuinely do. America is a “society that insists difference demands fear, fear requires lying, and that passing for what one is not is safer than telling the complicated versions of truth available in a racially stratified society” (McIntire 789-790). Irene “rebels against the larger ontological implications” (62) suggested by her and Clare’s ability to pass.
Clare’s performative identities suggest that there might be no category of identity that is not socially constructed. If Clare undermines the necessity of racial discrimination within the American identity, and Brian’s yearning to escape America undermines the need for that national identity itself, then Irene must deny the implications made by both her husband and Clare’s identity, in order to keep some form of inner stability. If Irene were to face how America shapes and demands performances of race that are not fixed and immutable, but malleable social constructions, affected by time and place, then she would further struggle to justify her reasons for constantly undermining her identity for the sake of the social identity she performs.
In both texts, those who pass in order to gain any autonomy within the city yearn to belong, and the characters that navigate through the New York Cities of both Larsen and O’Neill want desperately to be given that autonomy, and that freedom of movement, and acceptance. Nevertheless, this does not imply that the act of passing in of itself, of embracing an identity that does not reflect one’s inner character, is not a struggle. Irene muses on the in-betweenness of the practice of passing itself: “Funny thing about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time, 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 56). Passing may protect the gaze of others, but it does its kind of internal violence.
Throughout Passing, Irene only brings herself to actually pass few times, and each time she does not choose to pass so much as “she feels compelled to pass” (Toth 60). She passes at the Drayton in order to remain, and she passes in front of Clare Kendry’s racist husband John Bellew, the first time she meets him. It is notable that, even after passing before Bellew, Irene feels that she is betraying her race. “Why hadn’t she spoken out that day? Why, simply put because of Clare Kendry, who had exposed her to such torment, had she failed to take up the defence of the race to which she belonged?” (Larsen 47).
The struggle between self and community is a choice, one constructed to do harm to the performer no matter what they choose. Irene repeatedly separates her inner sense of self from her sense of communal identity, demanding that she not remain in that place of in-betweenness of constant passing. She is “caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her” (Larsen 101). Performing whiteness might sometimes be the key to Irene’s survival, but it is also an undoing, an unravelling of whom she believes that she is. Physically, Irene does not succumb to the destructive nature of passing, but this conflict between autonomy and identity, truth and performance, still eats away at her, creating strife in her marriage, and leaving her all too often in a state of paranoia, distress, and confusion.
But if the choice to pass harms Irene, it does not do so as much as the choice not to pass, or an attempt to pass that has failed. In The Hairy Ape there are facets of Yank’s identity that he cannot disguise. He cannot hide his accent or his physical condition. But there are ways in which Yank actively refuses to pass as well. Once he has been made aware of what others see as his dirtiness, the soot and coal that link his condition to blackness, Yank makes a choice not to remove it. Yank chooses to keep his appearance as is, even while it harms his ability to pass within the confines of the American city.
When Yank faces the Apes in cages, he feels that he has finally taken himself off stage, seeing the world as the audience/observers see it, and see him. “So yuh’re what she seen when she looked at me, de white-faced tart! I was you to her, get me?” (O’Neill 64). Yank has surrendered to the inhumanity that others have cast on him. He occupies the in-between space of the Homo Sacer. He knows his own humanity, but also knows that this humanity has been denied to him “I belong wit ‘em, but I don’t.” (64). In both Passing and The Hairy Ape, attempting the escape the gaze of the racist observers, to regain some sense of political life and autonomy by walking that line of being in-between is punished by death.
In Passing, Irene and the text as a whole seem to condemn Clare to die because “she is too in-between, too liminal, seeking to stand perpetually on the in-betweens. Clare is always both black and white, straight and queer, cold and passionate […] in and out of the closet of racial and sexual belonging (McIntire 783). The In-Between states of Clare and Yank become a kind of tightrope strung between the towers of New York, a precarious state from which both eventually fall. Clare’s performance collapses when she is no longer able to pass. Her husband Bellew sees her, and like Irene, who could only pass when she was alone, away from her family and friends in Harlem, Clare cannot pass for white when she is re-engaged with that community. Her “whiteness” is rejected by Bellew, who declares, “You’re a damn dirty nigger” (Larsen 116) upon seeing her with the Redfield’s and their company. But Clare is also, in a way, rejected by Irene. Though Irene “never allows herself to remember” (116) the actual moment of Clare’s death, the scene can be easily read as a murder, with Irene pushing Clare out the window.
Yank never escapes observation. His downward spiral, started by the white-faced and wealthy Mildred, ends in total objectification, no sense of the human remaining available to him “She wasn’t wise dat I was in a cage too” (64), the cage which her gaze had placed him in. Within New York, the power of the observer keeps those who do not fit the image of an American body in cages. In Passing, though Irene never truly chooses between the constructed identity of whiteness and the personal identity of blackness, she does, in the end, choose to side with the observers.
It is Clare who remains trapped by passing. Moments before her death, Irene makes the decision to reject Clare, just as Bellew has rejected Clare, just as all the peoples of The Hairy Ape have rejected Yank. Her only thought before Clare either falls or is pushed out the window to her death is that Irene “can’t have her free” (116). At the end of The Hairy Ape, Yank even allows the non-human figure to become his observer. When the Ape kills him, it is not painted as an act of violence, but as a rejection, “even him didn’t tink I belonged” (67). Yank’s predicament offers no escape from the gaze of the observer. For Yank, the city is a cage from which there is no escape so long as he continues to embrace being the animal object as part of the environment, as opposed to the human who may be allowed to judge. Observed, judged, and denied, Clare and Yank both die in their cages, the identities that they had sought to regain. Between the two texts, only Irene is left alive, though even she is not free. Yank and Clare die, still reaching beyond the bars of their cage for the autonomy that has been denied them, both seemingly aware that the performances demanded for their release were constructed by the empowered bodies within the city. Only Irene, still trapped in her own, unseen in-between state, continues her delicate performance. She, like them, is trapped in the destruction of the need to pass, her inner self confined by the social identity she performs. Between O’Neill and Larsen, the practice of passing becomes not the key to escape, but another realm of confinement.
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McIntire, Gabrielle. “Toward a Narratology of Passing: Epistemology, Race, and Misrecognition in Nella Larsen’s Passing.” MELUS, vol. 33, no. 1, 2008, pp. 770-794
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About Ben Berman Ghan
Ben Berman Ghan is a Jewish-Settler, writer, editor, and academic based in Tkaronto/Toronto, Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory. He has served as fiction editor of The Spectatorial, associate editor of The Goose, the Hart House Review, and prose editor of Terse Journal, as well as being the editor of Bruce Meyer: Essays and Interviews from Guernica Editions (forthcoming). He’s the author of many short stories, as well as a few poems and essays, and is completing his MA in English literature at Ryerson University. His novel What We See in the Smoke was published 2019 with Crowsnest Books. You can find him at @inkstainedwreck.