An Ironic Point Of View English Literature Essay

Jessica Hayes

Professor Bonnie Reddick


An Ironic Point of View

The Post-Reconstruction era, refers to the period of time after the abolition of slavery. During this era, hopes of eliminating discrimination recoiled and led to enforced segregation which encouraged the subordination of African-Americans. Despite African-American’s constant efforts to achieve equality in a race-dominated society, preconceived binary constructions of race led to progressively disregarded social, political, and economic inequalities between the black and white communities during the 19th and 20th centuries. The basis of racial binary constructions, were driven by slavery, and fueled by the idea of white supremacy, and black inferiority; these principles were ingrained within the American society, and were the foundation for the stereotypes. Stereotypes varied, but were often based off of assumptions that African-Americans were uneducated, uncivilized, and unsuccessful.

Throughout this era, the African-American community experienced severe turmoil and increased oppression. Blacks and whites were hardly perceived by the white society as equal, and stereotypes provided the initial foundation for demeaning, and dismissive racial attitudes. Demeaning can be defined as behavior that causes someone "to lower in dignity, honor, or standing." In context of racial attitudes in Passing, this definition can be applied to whites who interact with blacks, as well as mulattos who chose to pass. Mulattos were African-Americans of mixed-blood, whose physical appearance enabled them to be a part of white society, and if they chose to commit to the white identity, they were choosing to pass. Dismissive is defined as "having the purpose or effect of dismissing [removing], as from one's presence or consideration." When applied to racial attitudes in Passing, dismissive behavior is displayed in situations rejecting dismissing racial equality and is highlighted through the subordination and oppression of blacks. Nella Larsen strategically uses her reader’s point of view to utilize the aspects of irony in the text in order to protest the demeaning, and dismissive racial attitudes associated with discrimination and oppression.

Larsen provides her reader with not only a narrator’s point of view, but also skillfully includes Irene’s perspective. This allows for the objective analysis of all characters, as well as Irene’s insight, allowing the reader to critically analyze all situations presented throughout her text from an African-American perspective. The novel is primarily concerned with two mulatto women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, who both have the ability to pass as white, but choose opposite lifestyles. Irene completely identifies with her African-American culture, and still manages to lead a successful life with her family. Although Irene does choose to pass, it is only as a means of convenience in order to receive certain benefits that were only available to the privileged whites. Clare on the other hand, has fully passed by disowning her black identity, and submerging herself into a white lifestyle. "I’ve often wondered why more colored girls…never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve." (25) In this statement, Larsen is questioning the allurement to race that was seen with disgust as a primitive By placing mulatto characters who casually and frequently choose to pass as the centerpiece for her novel, Larsen ironically challenges the demeaning theory of black inferiority as a means for segregation by showing African-American’s ability to assimilate into the white society.

"When the chance to get away came, that omission was of great value to me." Most people believed that being able to access the privileges of being white, would lead to some sort of utopian happiness. This is exemplified when Larsen describes Irene’s reminiscing about the numerous encounters of Clare being seen with various white people through the overall perspective of African-Americans. "There had been rumors…about Clare Kendry’s having been seen at the dinner hour in a fashionable hotel… And there was another which told of her driving in Lincoln Park with a man, unmistakably white…There had been others… but all pointing in the same glamorous direction." (14) Larsen confronts these beliefs of the lavish white lifestyle by informing her readers of Clare’s latter perspective of the situation. "…For I am lonely, so lonely…You can’t know how in this pale life of mine I am all the time seeing the bright pictures of the other that I once thought I was glad to be free of…It’s like an ache, a pain that never ceases…" (7) This dual perspective that Larsen gives shows the reader the true irony in passing, while also showing its demeaning effects on racial identity for mulattos specifically. Although Clare "was determined to get away, to be a person, and not a charity or a problem" (18), her mischievous actions ironically made her desire the African-American culture she once betrayed. Larsen challenges the ideas of white cultural dominance through Clare’s grief and craving for acceptance in the African-American community.

Larsen challenges the dismissive stereotypes of blacks being unsucce, she also challenges through irony of this situation