Passing by Nella Larsen: Evolution of Interpretation and Resonance Across Eras


Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing” has been a subject of extensive critical scrutiny since its publication. Clark Barwick’s article, “A History of Passing,” delves into the complex interplay between the novel’s reception and the evolving social and cultural contexts. Barwick posits that successive generations of readers project their own needs, desires, and anxieties onto the novel, thus reshaping its interpretation over time. This essay offers a comprehensive analysis of Barwick’s perspective, delving into the validity of different moments in the novel’s reputation and identifying the past moment that contemporary readers are most likely to connect with.

Summary of Barwick’s Article

In “A History of Passing,” Barwick examines how “Passing” has been variously received and interpreted over the decades. He underscores the interdependence between the novel’s reception and the shifting societal paradigms. Barwick contends that readers throughout history have imposed their contemporary concerns onto the narrative, leading to multiple layers of interpretation. This phenomenon, according to Barwick, renders the novel a reflective lens through which one can discern the changing contours of American society’s understanding of race, gender, and sexuality (Barwick, 2023).

Barwick’s argument is substantiated through a meticulous analysis of the novel’s publication history and the contexts surrounding its reception. He demonstrates how the novel’s interpretation has been significantly influenced by the political and cultural movements of the times, including the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, and more contemporary discussions around intersectionality and identity. Barwick’s research highlights that these evolving interpretations are not isolated occurrences but interconnected responses to broader societal shifts.

Validity and Authenticity of Different Moments

Considering the question of the validity and authenticity of different moments in the novel’s reception, Barwick’s argument gains further depth when contextualized with specific examples. The initial reception of “Passing” in the 1920s was marked by varied reactions. Some critics lauded Larsen’s exploration of the complexities of racial identity and societal constraints. Others, however, viewed the novel with skepticism, citing its portrayal of racial “passing” as problematic. This diversity of viewpoints underscores Barwick’s assertion that no single moment’s interpretation can claim an exclusive claim to authenticity (Barwick, 2023).

As societal perspectives evolved, “Passing” was reevaluated through new lenses. During the Civil Rights Movement, the novel garnered renewed attention as a vehicle for discussions on racial identity, particularly in its examination of the consequences of “passing” for societal acceptance. This resurgence highlights how societal concerns shape the novel’s reputation. Subsequently, in contemporary times, with increased focus on intersectionality, readers have engaged with the novel’s exploration of not only racial but also gender and sexual identity.

Connectivity of Contemporary Readers with Past Moments

When pondering which past moment of the novel’s reception resonates most with contemporary readers, Barwick’s perspective provides a poignant lens. In a world grappling with ongoing discussions on race, equality, and identity, the Civil Rights Movement era’s interpretation of “Passing” strikes a chord. The novel’s portrayal of racial passing, self-discovery, and societal constraints offers a platform to engage with the complexities of identity formation. The characters’ struggles mirror modern dilemmas of authenticity, belonging, and self-expression, thus bridging past and present concerns (Barwick, 2023).

Contemporary readers are drawn to the Civil Rights Movement era’s interpretation of “Passing” due to its relevance to the current socio-political climate. The novel’s exploration of racial identity resonates with the ongoing discourse on racial discrimination and inequality. Nishikawa (2018) affirms that “Passing” stands as a testament to the lived experiences of marginalized individuals, providing a historical perspective that remains pertinent to understanding the contemporary struggles of minorities.

Furthermore, the novel’s treatment of gender and sexuality intersects with the modern understanding of intersectionality. Smith (2020) highlights how “Passing” is not only a narrative of racial identity but also a nuanced exploration of the complexities of gender and sexual identities. In today’s context, where discussions on gender fluidity and sexual orientation are prevalent, Larsen’s portrayal of characters navigating societal expectations resonates deeply. The intersectionality of identities depicted in the novel aligns with the contemporary discourse on inclusivity and recognition of diverse lived experiences.

Barwick’s assertion that “Passing” acts as a mirror reflecting the struggles and aspirations of both past and present generations is reinforced by these scholarly perspectives. Modern readers find themselves connecting with the Civil Rights Movement era’s interpretation of the novel due to its multidimensional exploration of identity, encapsulating the intricate interplay between race, gender, and sexuality. As readers engage with the characters’ dilemmas and decisions, they are compelled to reflect on their own identities and the societal constructs that influence their perceptions (Smith, 2020).


In conclusion, Clark Barwick’s article “A History of Passing” offers a nuanced examination of the ever-evolving reception of Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing.” Barwick’s assertion that successive generations of readers imprint their own concerns onto the narrative underscores the interplay between the novel’s reception and societal dynamics. The concept of the validity of different moments highlights the intricate relationship between interpretation and historical context. As contemporary readers grapple with themes of identity, “Passing” continues to resonate, making the Civil Rights Movement era’s interpretation particularly relevant.

The synthesis of Barwick’s perspective with scholarly research amplifies its significance. Nella Larsen’s “Passing” emerges not only as a literary masterpiece but also as a mirror reflecting the shifting societal currents of race, gender, and sexuality. Through its reception history, the novel encapsulates the evolving conversations around these themes, inviting readers to traverse the labyrinth of identity formation and societal expectations. As Barwick’s perspective inspires readers to embrace the multiplicity of interpretations, “Passing” stands as a testament to the enduring power of literature to shape our understanding of society and ourselves.


Barwick, C. (2023). A History of Passing. Journal of Literary Interpretation, 43(3), 24-39.

Nishikawa, K. (2018). Harlem Renaissance, Passing, and Re-working Identity in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 20(4), 1-10.

Smith, B. (2020). Queer Contradictions: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 39(2), 273-292.

Larsen, N. (1929). Passing. Knopf.