My students are working on a literary analysis of Nella Larsen’s novel Passing. I’ve taught the novel several semesters and have read it many times with varying perspectives. If you think that teaching a novel again and again would dampen whatever interest I have in it, you’d be right. This is why I take breaks between semesters teaching certain texts. In the 2009-2010 academic year, I taught Ceremony and Love Medicine; last summer I taught Passing, and last fall I taught Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. As you can see, my interests are in American Indian and African American literature, and to keep myself interested in my own work, I select new texts or pick among old favorites from within these areas of lit. Even with this variety though I have learned to anticipate the same questions and variations of the same readings of the texts I teach. Every now and then, though, a student will excite me with a fresh take or freshly-worded insight into a novel I think I know. This semester her name is Kitty.
First of all, the novel is about Irene Redfield’s upsetting friendship with Clare Kendry and with her complex relationship with the concept of passing. These are black women passing as white women in 1920’s Harlem. While Irene remains loyal to her black identity (signified by marrying a black man) and passes only when it’s convenient, Clare abandons her black identity (signified by marrying a white man) and passes permanently. It is an intriguing look at the ways black Americans survived during a segregated era in American history, and although the book may at first seem outdated to my students, during class discussions they quickly see the relevance Larsen’s novel has today. Aside from the race issues, my students are mostly just annoyed with the seductive Clare Kendry and they tend to side with Irene who is frustrated that Clare seems to have slipped into Irene’s social group. We all know people like this, they say, and it can be so hard to get rid of them.
Last Friday, Kitty startled me with a reading of Passing I had not considered. I’d be lying if I said I had simply forgotten it, but in truth, I really had not considered her point. We began the classic debate to interpret the ending: did Clare fall out of the window? Did she jump? Or did Irene push her? As a class we found evidence for each possibility. Clare might have fallen, because there was such a commotion and Irene couldn’t remember the scene closely enough to show us the details. Clare might have jumped because John Bellew had finally found her out and confronted her in front of all her friends. And Irene might have pushed her because she recalls stepping toward Clare and laying a hand on her.
Each of these possibilities means something very different to the novel and indeed for the novel’s argument on the state of society. If Clare fell, it would have been an accident, and could be read as a let down to the story, leaving all the race questions unanswered. One student offered, “If Clare’s fall was an accident, it would be symbolic of the unresolved racial tensions in the U.S.” I’ve heard this claim before and was able to support it with lines from the text. It’s insightful, yes, but been there, read that. I like to think Clare jumped. It is a moment of agency, I tell my students. A moment when Clare makes a choice about her life. Yes, she is found out, and yes she has been stuck in this liminal space, unable to be fully black or fully white, unable to be situated in either culture. Her composed nature, her faint smile, which Irene describes so disturbingly in the novel, can be read as Clare’s resignation to her fate, her acceptance of the end; we witness her having exhausted all possibilities except one. Jumping would be an act of power, I propose. Of course, I also concede that our society does not condone or accept suicide, and I recognise that suicide as social taboo problematises my reading, but I offer it anyway even if the students dismiss it quickly. They tend to focus on the idea that Irene pushes Clare to her death. Irene has the motivation: she thinks Clare is having an affair with her husband Brian, and even if Clare isn’t having an affair, Irene wouldn’t put it past her. And she has the desire: only moments earlier, Irene wishes for some way to get rid of Clare Kendry. Also she is the only one in the final scene to make a move toward Clare who is standing precariously before a casement window. If Irene pushes Clare, the novel would reinforce a recurring theme: society does not like anyone who troubles our system of binaries (black/white, male/female). According to this reading, Clare has to choose to be white or black; if she can’t choose, she can’t exist. (Consider the real life example of Gwen Araujo, a transgendered girl who was killed by her male partners who didn’t want to be considered gay.)
That was it, I thought. I had held another class discussion about the novel that revealed the usual readings and interpretations. My students had deconstructed very logically a story that has been many times deconstructed. They had participated in a dialogue that critics have been writing about for decades. I was satisfied with my class’s performance, that is until Kitty raised her hand. She wanted to talk some more about the idea that Irene pushed Clare. Been there, discussed that, I thought as I put the cap back on the dry erase marker. What else is there to say? I asked. “I don’t think Irene pushed Clare,” Kitty began. “But I think she thinks she did.” Come again? “While everyone runs downstairs to look at the body, Irene stays behind. She can’t believe what has just happened. She says she can’t bring herself to remember.” Go on. “She wonders what the others will think. She wonders what the others will remember… about her.” Yes? “I think Irene is so filled with the guilt of wanting to get rid of Clare that she is blinded by her guilt, is so overwrought by it that her guilt convinces her that she pushed Clare.”
I took the cap off the marker and scribbled this on the board: “Irene is so filled with guilt she is convinced she pushed Clare even if she didn’t.” That’s a thesis statement, I said. You could write an entire paper arguing this claim, I suggested (which is my way of praising a student’s idea: write a paper on it, because it would be a paper worth reading). I had never considered Irene’s guilt before. Again, I’d like to say I had thought of it — I’m supposed to think of every possible reading of every text I teach, right? — but honestly, I had only prepared for the usual three — Clare falls, jumps, or is pushed, end of story — and here was a student offering a more nuanced take on the novel’s ending. At the end of class, I was so excited by our discussion that I told Kitty I’d blog about her. Of course, at the end of Friday I was so focused on other matters that I completely forgot my promise to Kitty. In fact, Kitty said something else in class on Monday morning that was also worth remembering and perhaps even blogging about but I seem to have forgotten that too while remembering Friday’s moment. Maybe Kitty said something about Clare’s seductive nature (as we continued our discussion of the novel) or maybe it was something about Kitty’s research paper on American Indian poverty (as I returned their papers yesterday). Whatever it was, I’m sure it was something meaningful. Oh, yes, did I mention that aside from offering insightful readings of African American texts, Kitty is also interested in American Indian studies? A student after my own heart.