What Is the Theme of "Passing" by Nella Larsen?

In her novel "Passing," Nella Larsen explores the themes of racial identity, sexual politics and racism. Using two female characters who can pass as white and African-American, she explores what happened when trying to pass as one race or the other during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Childhood friends Clare and Irene, both mixed-race women, lose touch when Clare moves in with two white aunts. While Clare learns to pass as a white woman, marries a white man and pretends to understand his racism, Irene lives in Harlem, identifies as African-American, marries a doctor and wants them to have better lives than their parents did. After they reconnect, each woman sees in the other how life could have turned out had she chosen differently.

Clare imagines life where she doesn't have to hide part of who she is, while Irene believes that by passing as a white woman, she'd have more opportunities than she has as a black woman. Irene worries that black men are more interested in white women than they are black women. She convinces herself that her husband is having an affair with Clare, despite having no supporting evidence. Clare, meanwhile, is exposed as part black, and realizes that she no longer can pass as anything more than who she is.

The novel ends with Clare's death, where she either falls out an open window or Irene pushes her to her death. Here, Clare pays the price for trying to be someone she is not. Irene pays a price as well. Whether she pushes Clare out the window or not, she never really knows if her friend and her husband had an affair.