Self-Derived Happiness, Defamiliarized: Ambiguity and Agency in Nella Larsen’s Passing



In Nella Larsen’s Passing, Clare Kendry plays a dangerous game. Only a little over half a century removed from the end of the American Civil War, in a time when white supremacy still defined the nation’s social, economic, and political life, Clare Kendry has agency. Though free from the confines of slavery, American white supremacy maintained that Black independence and narratives of Black happiness be dictated and authored solely by whites. Passing as a white woman, Clare derives her own happiness and builds her identity, marriage and livelihood on the basis of her deception. When her trickery is uncovered, Clare suffers an ambiguous fate and an untimely death. In writing an ambiguous end for Kendry, Larsen provides Clare an even greater sense of agency by forbidding traditions of white-authored narratives of a self-derived Black happiness from determining her fate. Critical condemnations of Passing’s conclusion establish that Larsen successfully defamiliarizes the Black psychological fiction novel and rejects southern antebellum models of white supremacy and Black self-determination.

Keywords: Nella Larsen, passing, identity, agency, ambiguity, defamiliarization, psychology

How to Cite: Sehnal, T. M. (2021) “Self-Derived Happiness, Defamiliarized: Ambiguity and Agency in Nella Larsen’s Passing”, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies. 21(1). doi: