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Revealing Marxist Dimensions in Passing by Nella Larsen: A Multifaceted Exploration

Updated: Jan 6


Nella Larsen’s Passing intricately explores race, identity, and societal inequality during the Harlem Renaissance, focusing on Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two African American women navigating the complexities of racial passing. The novel transforms into a space where Marxist critical literary theory vividly illustrates the protagonists’ struggles in a hegemonic society. Within the intricate context of the Harlem Renaissance, Passing emerges as an appealing exploration of various dimensions through the lens of Marxism, integrating elements of race, class, ideology, false consciousness, and alienation into the characters’ narratives. This paper delves into various Marxist perspectives, exposing the complexities of historical struggles related to race and class, and scrutinizes Karl Marx’s proposed epistemological model of ideology. Examining the ideological landscapes of Passing through the lenses of Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci, the analysis culminates by scrutinizing the characters’ experiences of alienation—a concept fundamental to Marx’s critique of societal structures. Together, these lenses offer a comprehensive understanding of Larsen’s work, unveiling the intricate interplay of societal forces shaping the destinies of her characters in their quest for identity, recognition, and agency within the societal framework and interplay of power, identity, and societal dynamics in this influential Harlem Renaissance novel. Examining Marx’s view on history reveals an agonistic or conflict-driven narrative, highlighting history as a series of struggles. Marx saw the world’s broader story unfolding 6 through class conflicts, in which various classes contended for their interests. History, according to Marx, was an ongoing conflict between laborers and owners, leading to winners and losers.1 Marx presented a distinctive perspective on class, asserting that material conditions shape consciousness and challenging the traditional belief that consciousness shapes materiality. He argued that social, political, and spiritual processes are influenced by the mode of production in material existence. According to Marx, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”2 Recognizing the impact of material conditions on identities and consciousness is crucial for understanding how societal structures, power dynamics, and ideologies unfold within Marx's framework. Marx employed an architectural metaphor, depicting society as a structure with a base and superstructure. This metaphor emphasizes that the economic foundation (base), composed of workers and the proletariat, shapes broader societal and ideological constructs (superstructures).3 In this hierarchical model, the base determines the dominant ideology in the superstructure. In Passing, Irene and Clare confront a complex interplay of societal expectations and economic challenges rooted in their shared Black heritage. Despite their connection, they find themselves in a community marked by adversity rather than success. Irene grapples with the challenges of not passing as white, while Clare intentionally chooses to do so, yet both are associated with the bourgeois class. Their experiences reflect the class struggles prevalent in early twentieth-century America. The interactions between Irene and Clare highlight their distinct economic backgrounds and the challenges within their respective social classes. Irene, representing the African American bourgeoisie, internally struggles with her privileged status, while Clare’s choice to pass as white underscores the economic constraints and limited options faced by African Americans. According to antagonistic theory, framed as “antagonist not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from conditions surrounding the life of individuals in society,” 4 1 Robert Dale Parker, How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 231. 2 Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), 380. Quoted in Robert Dale Parker, Critical Theory, a reader for literary and cultural studies. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2012) 3 Parker, How to Interpret Literature, 230. 4 Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), 380. 7 many groups fight for their interests in society, which is a place of constant battle.5 In Passing, a nuanced power struggle among characters is portrayed as both delicate and potent, illustrating the agonistic nature of societal dynamics. Clare strategically employs her ability to shift between racial identities, leveraging it to transform the act of passing into a form of contestation. The characters’ responses to imposed material circumstances manifest in the act of passing. Clare’s decision to pass is influenced by the financial challenges faced by Black individuals in a culture that restricts opportunities based on race. Larsen’s narrative examines how the material realities of the era impact not just economic aspirations but also the characters’ awareness of racial identity. In Passing, Larsen skillfully weaves together class disparities with other identities, notably race. The characters’ lives are intricately tied to their economic conditions, and the inner struggles of Irene’s and Clare’s decisions to “pass” into white society underscore Marx’s assertion that material conditions shape consciousness. The protagonists’ aspirations are fundamentally rooted in the pursuit of financial security and social mobility. The material constraints of racial segregation and limited financial opportunities influence their consciousness, impacting their choices. Irene’s awareness is shaped by her relatively privileged economic status as a respectable middle-class Black woman, leading to internal conflicts as she navigates the expectations associated with her social position. Clare, part of the African American community, opts to pass as white to marry a wealthy white man and secure financial stability, illustrating the tangible influence of material circumstances on racial consciousness. In this conversation between Clare and Irene, we witness all of the previously highlighted elements: “Tell me, honestly, haven't you ever thought of 'passing' ?” Irene answered promptly: “No. Why should I?”… Irene hastened to add: “You see Clare, I've everything I want. Except, perhaps, a little more money.” At that Clare laughed, her spark of anger vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “Of course,” she declared, “that's what everybody wants, just a little more money, even the people who have it. And I must say I don't blame them. Money's awfully nice to have. In fact, all things considered, I think, 'Rene, that it's even worth the price.” 6 5 Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), 380. 6 Nella Larsen, Passing, Introduction by Kaitlyn Greenidge (2019), 29-30 8 In Irene’s social circle, widely held beliefs about race, respectability, and morality serve the African American bourgeoisie by reinforcing their identity. This resonates with Marx’s idea of false consciousness, exemplified by Clare Kendry’s choice to pass as white, driven by a desire to achieve social and economic advancement. Concerns about class stability and socioeconomic well-being significantly influence Irene’s situation in Passing. Her association of Clare with disruption hinders any potential relationship, as Irene prioritizes socioeconomic security above all else. Irene’s emphasis on financial stability is a recurring theme in the narrative. Despite Clare’s decision to pass as white and marry a wealthy white man, she defies limitations, reflecting the hierarchical concept of base and superstructure proposed by Marx. In Passing, characters like Irene and Clare embody the economic base that shapes the prevailing superstructure of societal ideologies. The protagonists’ attempts to navigate and pass as members of a different racial group illustrate the superstructure’s impact on their lives, including cultural norms, prejudices, and social expectations. Larsen adeptly weaves a story that exposes the interconnection between economic factors and societal expectations, showcasing how individuals negotiate their identities within the broader socioeconomic framework. During the Harlem Renaissance, the novel’s backdrop, a period of cultural flourishing became a battleground for conflicting ideologies within the African American community. The dynamics between Irene and Clare underscore the agonistic tensions between individuals conforming to societal norms and those challenging and surpassing them. Marx proposes an epistemological model of ideology centered on uncovering the truth in which dominant classes use ideology to manipulate workers’ perspectives and maintain oppression. The Marxian revolution seeks to unveil the truth, empowering people to see through the ideological facade and dismantle their oppressors. Antonio Gramsci introduces dominance and hegemony, with dominance involving the direct exercise of power and coercion, while hegemony employs subtler control by shaping ideologies and cultural norms aligned with the ruling class’s interests.7 Louis Althusser expands on these ideas, emphasizing that modern capitalist power often operates through hegemonic means, notably in education, convincing 7 Parker, How to Interpret Literature, 236–237. 9 individuals of their societal roles. Althusser redefines ideology as the “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”8 He distinguishes between the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) and Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). RSAs use force, while ISAs like education, family, religion, and media rely on ideology to perpetuate the dominance of the ruling class. According to Althusser, ISAs are pivotal in reproducing conditions of production, transmitting ideologies that serve the ruling class’s interests, and shaping individuals’ subjectivities. The education system in particular is highlighted as a potent ISA that influences how individuals perceive roles in society.9 In Passing, Larsen explores how the bourgeoisie’s need for acceptance in white society impacts their ideology. She highlights the impact of ideology on individual consciousness, pointing to passing as an example of how concealed class contradictions can lead to beliefs that are contrary to one’s class interests. Clare’s ability to pass challenges power structures, demonstrating her adherence to cultural norms that reshape societal dynamics. As a light-skinned African American, Clare occupies a unique position in the racial hierarchy, embodying Gramsci’s concept of dominance. Her strategic navigation, including passing as white, allows her to influence and challenge dominant discourses in both racial groups, actively shaping the narrative of racial identity. Moreover, Clare exemplifies Gramsci’s notion of hegemony through her cultural leadership. Her lifestyle decisions, relationships, and skills in navigating between racial spheres play a role in making her worldview a standard. Clare’s management of her identity disrupts and redefines hegemonic norms within the African American community, illustrating an individual who actively shapes and challenges societal expectations in her immediate social circle. She does not fulfill the role of motherhood and fails to adhere to societal expectations regarding motherhood, neglecting her responsibilities toward her daughter and failing to conform to the societal ideals of being a devoted or faithful wife. In her intricate relationships, she challenges 8 Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation), (1970). 450. Quoted in Robert Dale Parker, Critical Theory, a reader for literary and cultural studies. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2012) 9 Parker, How to Interpret Literature, 243. 10 dominance, hegemony, and moral judgments, contributing to a deeper understanding of power dynamics and social control. In Passing, Louis Althusser’s concept of ISAs outlines how institutions such as the family and religious bodies perpetuate prevailing ideologies. In the novel, the family, as an ISA, transmits ideas of racial pride and social order, shaping the characters’ societal roles. Althusser argues that ISAs, including families and religious institutions, reproduce conditions of production and preserve social hierarchies. Religious institutions in Passing act as powerful ISAs, reinforcing moral values. Althusser’s concept of ISAs emphasizes how these institutions shape subjectivities and perpetuate dominant ideologies. Althusser asserts that “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects… ideology ‘acts’ or ‘function’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects… which I have called interpellation or hailing.”10 In Passing, we witness interpellation as the mechanism sustaining ingrained cultural assumptions over generations, impeding transformative change. This is evident in the naturalization of whiteness and racial values within the capitalist political economy depicted in the novel. The act of racial passing is connected to racialized class distinctions and the cultural dominance inherent in capitalism. Furthermore, the influence of Western imperialism’s white heterosexist power is portrayed prominently in the novel. The idea of alienation is intricately woven through the narrative of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Irene’s internal struggle with racial identity, and her external interactions with Clare and society, reflect Marx’s concept of alienation. Clare’s decision to pass as white leads to multifaceted alienation—self-alienation, distancing from racial communities, and economic estrangement in her marriage to John Bellew. The concept of alienation in the novel aligns with Marx’s broader concept of the fetishism of commodities in the capitalist mode of production. Although Marx does not explicitly use the term “alienation” in the section on commodity fetishism, he explores how commodities, within a capitalist society, acquire a mystical quality, creating an illusion of inherent value. Marx states, 10 Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. 456. Quoted in Robert Dale Parker, Critical Theory, a reader for literary and cultural studies. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2012) 11 “Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic.” 11 Being infatuated with commodities separates people from the labor process, disconnecting them from the social connections and human effort involved in production. Individuals’ obsession with commodities contributes to their alienation from the labor process, resulting in a disconnection from the social connections and human effort required to produce these products. The phenomenon of commodity fetishism, according to Marx, masks true social relations, creating a sense of alienation by isolating individuals from the underlying substance of their labor.12 In Passing, Irene faces economic alienation in her marriage, conforming to the societal expectations that define her role. Even though Clare occasionally breaks social rules and expectations and acts against hegemony, in pursuing societal acceptance through passing as white, she experiences self-alienation as she lives a double life and grapples with the consequences of her choices. Despite her outward charm, Clare’s relationships, particularly her marriage to John Bellew, are marked by economic alienation. “She wished to find out about this hazardous business of ‘passing,’ this 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.”13 The privileges associated with her white facade create perpetual loneliness, emphasizing both internal and external alienation as pervasive forces shaping the characters’ experiences in the novel. Clare’s new white privileges isolate her, preventing her from revealing her true self and causing lasting loneliness. These external advantages intensify her internal alienation as she grapples with the consequences of her choices, highlighting the pervasive theme of alienation in Passing. In conclusion, Passing by Nella Larsen intricately explores Marxist themes within the complex dynamics of race, class, and societal expectations during the Harlem Renaissance. The novel seamlessly integrates elements of race, class struggle, false consciousness, and alienation into the characters’ stories, providing a foundation for a thorough Marxist analysis. Protagonists Irene and Clare navigate intricate societal structures shaped by economic conditions, echoing 11 Karl Marx, The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof, (1867), 383. 12 Parker, How to Interpret Literature, 232–233. 13 Nella Larsen, Passing, Introduction by Kaitlyn Greenidge (2019), 25. 12 Marx’s view that material circumstances influence consciousness. The power struggles in the narrative align with Marx’s concept of history as a continuous conflict between different classes. Incorporating Antonio Gramsci’s concepts of dominance and hegemony alongside Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses enhances our understanding of power dynamics and cultural leadership within the portrayed African American community. Characters’ interactions illustrate how ideology, transmitted through institutions like family and religion, sustains dominant societal norms. The theme of alienation, connected to Marx’s ideas of commodity fetishism, is intricately woven into the characters’ experiences, emphasizing disconnection from social relations and the labor process. Irene and Clare’s struggles with alienation manifest in economic, societal, and self-alienation, highlighting the pervasive impact of the capitalist system. Passing emerges as a compelling literary work that exposes the nuanced interplay of power, identity, and societal dynamics through a Marxist lens. The characters’ journeys, shaped by economic backgrounds and societal expectations, contribute to a profound exploration of the challenges inherent in the pursuit of identity, recognition, and agency within a societal framework marked by racialized class distinctions. Bibliography Larsen, Nella. Passing. Introduction by Kaitlyn Greenidge: Modern Library, 2019. Parker, Robert Dale. Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.






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