In this essay, I argue the issue of the role of settings in the novel Passing by Nella Larson, because the resent research in the field of literature have shown that the setting makes the basis for the story that the author is telling.
One of the most well-know contemporary American writers, Nella Larsen explores a subject long discussed and presents it in a completely new way. Taking a closer look at the problem of the racial conflict, she also speaks of other important things, such as an individual and a society, and people’s loneliness which can occur even in the center of a crowd. Despite these topics are rather complicated, she manages to hit the very point. And although the methods she has chosen for this purpose are not quite new, they work right for her novel.
Larsen’s novel Passing is a snapshot of a mulatto woman’s life in the big city of dying dreams.
Taking two different lives of two similar people, Irene Walsh and Clare Kendry, Larsen shows the difficulties that a person of mixed races can face. The two lives, crossing and parting, and crossing again, show the effect that two different life approaches of the two characters have on their future state and the reaction of by the society. Showing how dangerous it is to forget one’s national heritage, the novel is a piece of a really heart-rending writing.
If you have ever looked for a frame for a photograph, you must have noticed how important the background is. It makes the central topic brighter, more expressive, –and marks its place in the room.
The same goes for setting in the novel. It can emphasize a dramatic moment, or help the reader get prepared for the new turn of the plot, or smoothen the atmosphere into a mild pause before the grand event.
However, the setting is usually silent, while the motion is centered in the main scene. The attention is focused on the leading character, and no one bothers with the background.
This description suits every novel but for Passing by Nella Larson.
Her case is the case of the setting talking together with the character and, perhaps, even being a specific character itself.
First, the settings for the novel are not numerous. The two basic ones, of a big scale, are New York and Chicago (Booth 403). The one that is going to be developed is the one of New York.
The overall mood of the play that is centered in the New York City is far from being cheerful. However, that is what the whole story demands, and it is logically grounded that the play should be taking place in gloomy eenvironment.
These are the very first lines of the novel that express the attitude of the lead, Irene, towards those two places. New York, the place where Irene Westover resides, is described as rather messy, hot and not very hospitable place. The most peculiar thing is that there is no actual, full description of the city. The remarks are made in a passing-by tone, marking the city as “crowded”, with “”boiling traffic” (Larsen 12). The very mood of the city that Larson is trying to convey to the reader sounds in the description of Irene’s shopping:
Without too much trouble she had got the mechanical aeroplane for Junior. But the drawing book, for which Ted was so gravely and instantly given her precise instructions, had sent her in and out of five shops without success. (Larson 11)
You might have noticed the despair that this description is shot through. The labyrinth of shops that Irene was trapped in symbolized both her spirits, suddenly sunken in the city where she does not belong, and the atmosphere of the city that was intentionally crowded and tense, not letting her in. It is not that the city is too small; the thing is that there is no place for Irene in it.
It is only Dayton’s where she can escape the world that does not want her and look at the situation from the top. This is the place where she can look down on the world, not vice versa. Things look different when Irene is peeping out on the big world from the thick glass of Dayton’s windows. The “cool breeze” that she can feel there, and the grass in the street that seems greener from here, are not hostile to her anymore. She can feel safe here.
Thus, Dayton, a smaller setting, symbolizes an island of hope in the middle of the ocean of the cold world that Irene is living in. However, there is one “but” for this inhospitable atmosphere that helps Irene to survive through the people casting unpleasant looks at her.
However, being a shelter that hides Irene away from the upsetting mood of the city, this only adds to her feelings, making her understand that she is a stranger in this place.
The whole city is a setting that makes the background for the lead character, Irene, for her life and feelings.
The problem of belonging to a different race has also been discussed well. Larsen emphasizes how hard it is to be a woman and that it is twice as hard to be a black woman in the big city.
Meeting Clare, Irene meets a part of her past that has suddenly turned into flesh and blood. Irene wants to ask her questions, a lot of questions, but something holds her back, a mixture of her childish prejudices with the reasons of a grown-up. The complicity of the situation is perfectly emphasized by the details of the setting.
The “sweetly scented woman” (14) that Clare was, she was described by Irene as “white woman”, that is, she fell out of the range of people Irene socialized with. And these were the two simple words that made the difference! She was from the “West side”, and she had a “big family”. Those were the details of the setting that made Clare look such an unwanted and at the same time desirable vis-a-vis.
The additional detail that makes the setting for Irene complete is Clare’s lifestyle. Clare is a character to remember, well-thought and brilliantly described. The idea of the woman who mixes with the people not belonging to her social layer is clear-cut:
There was one rumour about Clare Kendry’s having been seen at the dinner hour in a fashionable hotel in company with another woman and two men, all of them white. And dressed! And there was another which told of her driving in Lincoln Park with a man, unmistakably white, and evidently rich, Packard limousine and all that. (Larsen 37)
The small details that make the image of the people acting in the novel are the very settings that Larson makes. They are composed of tiniest issues, like a piece of fabric, and yet they make the scene complete, providing a solid background. Like wallpaper that creates the tone of the room, the setting creates the atmosphere the characters live in.
The setting helps not to spare words on the unnecessary descriptions of the characters. In addition, it fills the scene with the spirit of the country of those times, and with the specific atmosphere of each city that the characters have ever been to, making the novel look like a piece of someone’s life worked into a story.
This is where the shine of the NYC ends at. The capital letters fade away, leaving the remaining, which is nothing but the pile of dust. The city is loud and bossy, its tempo does not fit Irene’s way of life and her habits.
It is big and messy, with lots of space for show and very little room for human feelings. Simple as that, the setting makes the reader understand the tragedy of a black woman living in the place where she is something, not even someone, to peer and point fingers at. She is an animal in the zoo, and she understands that pretty well. There is nothing that can show this but the tiny details of the New York environment.
Trying to pass for an ordinary woman, Irene wants to dissolve in the atmosphere that she finds weird and hostile. This seems impossible, but Irene has no other way out. In fact, there is one, but committing suicide is not on her agenda.
Dragging a life of this kind, one might become detached from the rest of the people. And, indeed, Irene lives in a separate world which does not come into contact with the neighboring universe. Actually, it can be said that in Passing, there are several settings for the play, but none for the leading character. She is a hermit here.
The explicit idea of a mulatto isolated form the society has been developed in the novel brilliantly. Nella Larson has shown with all the vivid palette how difficult the life of a “half-blooded” man is. “For Larson, the tragic mulatto was the only formulation historically available to portray educated middle-class black women in fiction.” (Wall)
That all makes Larsen a great writer with the gift to say the things that we need to hear. And she says them in such a way that everyone can listen to them and accept them, to weave it into their own life pattern.
Booth, Alison, J. Paul Hunter, Kelly J. Mays. The Norton Introduction to Literature (Shorter 10th Edition). New York: NY. 2005. Print.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. Minneola, NY: Dover Publications Inc. 2004. Print.
Wall, Cheryl A. Passing for What? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larson’s Novels. JSTOR. 2000. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. Web.