If there is one quote from Nella Larsen’s Passing, that can easily touch on all the themes from the novel it would be:
“I’m beginning to believe,” she murmured, “that no one is ever completely happy, or free, or safe” (Larsen 121).
Take a minute and let that settle. Not much of an optimistic motivator, huh? I know. Humans are a unique species that’s able to take free will and run with it. But of course with all our decisions bring forth consequences: good and bad ones. Funny, when you think of it. If free will gives us no boundaries, then why are there consequences we must face afterwards? It should be a stream of actions and no limitations. Won’t our “free-will” or decision to do whatever we want to, be influenced one way or another? That’s why what we do, I would like to think, is for happiness. Because a bad consequence is something no one really aims for.
In Larsen’s novel, Clare and Irene marry for some kind of happiness. Though Clare’s situation can be seen as her marrying to reserve her “white identity,” I can still see it as her choice to be happy. Or in the least, be content with her choice. As for Irene, it is pretty evident that she loves her family and will do just about anything to satisfy and keep them whole. However, in both cases, the women in the novel aren’t truly happy. The initial sense of happiness is just a front, a mask to distract whoever is looking outward in, that they are complete. Internally, they are broken. Clare has to suffer her husband’s racist comments and Irene is paranoid that she isn’t enough for her spouse. Which brings me to the next point: freedom. Because they are confined in a marriage, Clare and Irene cannot really escape their husbands’ highly opinionated personalities and must abide by certain rules. The notion of freedom is also closely related to identity. Both women are a mixed race of white and black, so the stereotype as well as their physical appearance hinder them from being self-expressive. They are looked at as what they are supposed to be, opposed to respected as who they want to be. Their identities are inescapable.
Trying to answer how one can be “safe” is very interesting in Larsen’s novel. There are many secrets, suspicions, and taboos explored in Passing, that the question of safety becomes relevant in the major scenes. Because Clare sneaks off to Harlem to be amongst her fellow black community, her secret to her husband is at risk. Mr. Bellew is oblivious to the fact that Clare is half black and if he finds out, he will be furious. The consequences of Clare’s other identity coming out will call for a very hostile response. Aside from identity and secrets, worldly issues become a problem in the Redfield household. Irene’s husband wants his little boy to know the issues and topics discussed in the real world, and not only what he learns in school. He wants to prepare his son to know the ins and outs of reality and ensure that this fantasy life of childhood is not the only world he knows. But as a mother, Irene’s instincts kick in, and shelter her boy from the harsh realities of the grown up world. Though, no matter how much a mother tries, her children will see the world they try so much to shelter them from. It is no longer “safe” because information reaches young ones unfiltered and their minds tend to wander into the unknown. A parent can only do so much in guiding their children, but they can never really control what is handed to them.
One of my professors told me that we need to have a sense that we are free. We are told we have freedom and can achieve anything we put our minds to. But it’s a system. We are told this because once we figure out that it isn’t true, there will be and uproar. People will just go insane. And it’s true. No matter what our decision are, they are never completely ours. Rational beings have to think, sometimes over-think, their actions. The simple fact that we think before we act proves that this freedom holds a kind of responsibility. And responsibility is binding. So how can we ever be truly happy, free, and safe, if we know we have to pay for it at the end? We won’t know, is the answer. But we can’t let that question bother us too much. So live like there’s no tomorrow? NO. Live like there is tomorrow, because you shouldn’t restrict yourself to just today.