Nella Larsen suggests through the phrase “illicit love affair” that Clare Kendry has romantic feelings towards Irene, which is important because the illicit love affair never happens and instead Clare must repress her feelings, making gender and race something that keeps her sexuality constrained. Clare’s dialogue with Irene clearly indicates that there was a sense of urgency to talk to Irene. Clare says that she felt “hopeless” once she figured out that Irene didn’t answer her letter on purpose. This hopelessness shows how Clare’s feelings for Irene are strong in a romantic sense. She constantly worries about Irene, and because Irene ignores her, she feels like she’ can’t live on. Both women are light-skinned black women, which is important to understand because this forces them in a way, to hide their sexuality because of their race and gender expectations. In an essay that discusses Passing, Rafael Walker says:
The differences between the conditions of black and white women of the era are discernible in the forms of desire they were imagined—and, often enough, encouraged—to express. Modernization was rapidly reconfiguring prevailing conceptions of middle-class white womanhood in the early twentieth century.
Here, Walker is saying that white women were empowered or encouraged to express their feelings of sexual desire, even if it was towards other women. However, women of color were not encouraged to express themselves or fully express their feelings of sexual desire. Women in general were expected to be heterosexual, but white women were somewhat allowed to deviate from gender norms and expectations simply because of their race. Black women were not given the same freedoms because they were black. Both gender and race work together to constrain Clare’s sexuality. It is because she’s a black woman, that she isn’t allowed express her feelings fully, even if she was “passing.” The author’s deliberate choice to make Clare a biracial woman, emphasizes the fact that race and gender work together to keep the sexuality of black women constrained, even if they are white passing. Race and gender work together to marginalize Clare. Her feelings of sexuality are repressed because society does not want her to have her own voice, agency, or way of being. Hence, Clare conforms easily to gender roles and what is expected of her. Even though Clare’s own husband is unaware that Clare is actually black, the novella shows how Clare is still repressed and marginalized within society as a black woman because she cannot act on her feelings for Irene. In fact, Clare feels so marginalized as a passing white woman that she longs to return to the black community and to become a solid part of it. However, she picks and chooses when to pass and when not to, which shows how she’s very fickle about what she actually wants to do. However, Clare still feels repressed sexually, which is what ultimately pushes her to try to break the gender expectations, although she ultimately fails by continuing to play the role that was assigned to her by society.
Larsen, Nella. The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand, and the Stories. Edited by Charles R. Larson, Anchor Books, 2001.
Walker, Rafael. “Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in Quicksand and Passing.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 41, no. 1, 2016, pp. 165–192.