Nella Larsen in Passing suggests through the language in the text that Irene Redfield represses her feelings for Clare Kendry, which is important because it exhibits how Irene’s sexuality is constrained by gender expectations. In the text, Irene thinks of Clare’s voice as “appealing” and “seductive.” Both seductive and appealing are words that mean attractive or tempting. Clare meets Irene with a “kiss” in the quotation, which suggests that Clare finds Irene just as appealing or seductive. Both women are interested in each other in romantic ways. In an essay about Passing, Corinne E. Blackmer discusses how both women are lesbian. In her essay she says “Larsen, in 1929, uses the term “passing” to connote both racial and sexuality masquerading…refers almost exclusively to the self-protective disguise of identity practiced by lesbians and gays,” (55). Here, the author is saying that both Clare and Irene pass for lesbians because of how they see each other and feel for each other. However, they can never really act on these feelings of romance because they’re stuck in in roles of domesticity. They’re both wives and mothers. This domesticity creates gender expectations, which force Clare and Irene to stay stuck in them. Instead of being allowed to express their sexuality and strong sexual desire for each other, they must repress those feelings because they’re expected to be straight. This repression of sexual desires and feelings creates negative feelings in Irene, which she harbors until the very end of the novella. It is because Irene is constrained, a bit more so than Clare, that she becomes extremely negative toward Clare. Since Clare is passing for white a lot of the time, she is able to enjoy certain privileges that whites enjoy. While Irene can certainly pass for white, she hardly uses her skin color to do this. So, not only does Irene limit herself as to where she can go in society because of her race, her gender works to keep her constrained because she has to repress her sexual feelings for Clare. Her gender works against her sexuality because it forces her to hide her sexuality because of the traditional roles and expectations that are set within society for women. It is so much repression and feelings of constraint that Irene ends up murdering Clare by pushing her out the window. This push out the window represents her relief of these sexual feelings that she hides. She is saddened by Clare’s death, but she is also relieved since she no longer has to feel repressed. She no longer has to hide her sexual feelings for Clare from people who would most likely judge her, like her husband. Although it isn’t really clear that Clare pushes her out of the window, there is definitely compelling evidence because of her strong feelings for Clare, which she is forced to hide throughout the entire novella. Irene is unable to overcome the barriers of her gender, and she is unable to freely love who she wants. Thus, the gender expectations placed upon her, force her to not only repress her sexuality, but repress herself as a person overall. Society keeps Irene constrained, and stuck in a negative space.
Larsen, Nella. The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand, and the Stories. Edited by Charles R. Larson, Anchor Books, 2001.
Blackmer, Corinne E. “The Veils of the Law: Race and Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing.” College Literature, vol. 22, no. 3, 1995, pp. 50–67.