Passing

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Passing Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Nella Larsen's Passing. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen was born in Chicago to immigrant parents Peter and Marie Walker, who were from the Danish West Indies and Denmark respectively. Nella’s mother later remarried another Danish immigrant, Peter Larsen. Nella Larsen spent several years in Denmark as a child and young adult, but later returned to the United States. In the 1920s, Larsen moved to Harlem and began working as a librarian. She started her writing career when she published her first novel, Quicksand, in 1928. Larsen published a few more works, including Passing, but did not publish anything after 1930. She died in New York City in 1964.
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Historical Context of Passing

During the 1920s, African-Americans moved en masse from the rural South to urban spaces in the North and Midwest, populating cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. This movement, called the Great Migration, is largely attributed to the brutal increase in hate crimes and racial violence in the South in the 1920s. During this period, the 1921 Tulsa Riot broke out in Oklahoma, in which a white mob destroyed black businesses and brutalized black Tulsa residents. Meanwhile, the Klu Klux Klan reemerged to terrorize black Americans through lynching and other acts of violence and terror. To flee danger, black Americans migrated north and settled in neighborhoods like Harlem, which would go on to be hubs of African-American community and culture.

Other Books Related to Passing

Passing was written during the Harlem Renaissance, a period spanning the 1920s during which black literature, intellectual thought, music, and art flourished. During this effervescent decade, writers and thinkers like Nella Larsen, poet Langston Hughes, novelist Zora Neal Hurston, and activists Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois mingled in Harlem, New York, creating art and engaging in social movements for the advancement of black people in the United States and abroad. Writer Alain Locke anthologized major works of the Harlem Renaissance in his landmark 1925 collection “The New Negro.”
Key Facts about Passing
  • Full Title: Passing
  • Where Written: Harlem, New York City
  • When Published: 1929
  • Literary Period: Harlem Renaissance and American Modernism
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: Chicago and Harlem, New York City
  • Climax: Clare’s death after falling or being pushed through a sixth-floor window. Larsen leaves it ambiguous whether the death was a murder or an accident.
  • Antagonist: John Bellow
  • Point of View: Third person limited narrative from Irene’s perspective

Extra Credit for Passing

Plagiarism Accusations. Nella Larsen was accused of plagiarizing British author Sheila Kaye-Smith’s short story “Mrs. Adis,” whose plot resembled Larsen’s short story “Sanctuary.” This accusation is disputed, but although it was never proved, Larsen never published anything after “Sanctuary.”

Guggenheim Fellowship. Nella Larsen won the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930, which allowed her to travel in Europe while working on her writing. However, she did not succeed in publishing anything after 1930.