In Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, Larsen blends the lines between racial identity and the construction of the self, never quite making room for her characters to understand the implications of identifying as black and white, black or white, or neither black nor white. By never defining these lines, readers are caught between the past, present, and future. The multiple aspects of identity make it difficult to recognize what’s happening within each character, regardless of the fairly straight-forward timeline.
Larsen does manage to do all of this in a mostly chronological fashion. With the exception of one chapter in which Irene reimagines an earlier meeting with Clare Kendry, the novel begins with Clare’s letter and ends with her death—what happens between these moments is what fuels the narrative.
It could be argued that Passing is a product of its time—Larsen was well-aware of both race and gender expectations in the United States’ society, specifically in regard to Harlem, where the events of Passing take place. As many of the characters in Larsen’s text are victims of their environment (as the rise of performativity, passing, and playing “white” are all linked to the connections between the city and identity throughout the novel), it is surprising that in Toni Morrison’s Jazz, each character’s feelings towards Harlem are much different than that of Larsen’s characters. There are countless passages that detail not only the characters’ love for “the City,” but also numerous accounts that place Harlem in a position of autonomous power. Morrison writes:
And the City, in its own way, gets down for you, cooperates, smoothing its sidewalks, correcting its curbstones, offering you melons and green apples on the corner. Racks of yellow head scarves; strings of Egyptian beads. Kansas fried chicken and something with raisins call attention to an open window where the aroma seems to lurk. And if that's not enough, doors to speakeasies stand ajar and in that cool dark place a clarinet coughs and clears its throat waiting for the woman to decide on the key. She makes up her mind and as you pass by informs your back that she is daddy's little angel child. The City is smart at this: smelling and good and looking raunchy; sending secret messages disguised as public signs: this way, open here, danger to let colored only single men on sale woman wanted private room stop dog on premises absolutely no money down fresh chicken free delivery fast. And good at opening locks, dimming stairways. Covering your moans with its own. (63-4)
Morrison’s depiction of Harlem is of much more than a city: it is described as its own thinking, capable being, which is what I think separates Morrison’s novel from Passing. This acceptance of Harlem, through the flashbacks and moments where the narrative temporarily steps way, allows Morrison to bring her characters’ pasts together and bind them into one community. Morrison is able to highlight performativity in ways that seem far-fetched from Larsen’s depictions, not because the novel is contemporary, thus removed from the restraints of its time period, but because Morrison breathes life into an otherwise suffocating and restrictive city—the Harlem that eventually takes Clare Kendry’s life.
Albrecht-Crane argues that in Jazz, “Morrison points to the process of constructing race and its deployment—its performative dimension… [she] illustrates how individuals ‘become’ black in a performative way that juxtaposes ‘acting black’ to ‘acting white’”(59). Similar to how Larsen constructs Clare Kendry, the characters of Jazz are caught between these moments where performativity—whether it be white or black—is a necessary action.
For Larsen, time is merely a way of measuring the growth of each character. As Irene and Clare grow older, time changes them—up until the point that Clare falls off the balcony to her death and Irene collapses moments after, as if a piece of herself has just been destroyed. Despite the constant struggle regarding identity construction throughout the novel, time moves linearly. Readers are able to observe who Irene and Clare are at the beginning of the book, as well as how they change throughout the course of the novel until the final scenes.
For Morrison, however, time operates in its own cycle. Through each flashback and the changes in point-of-view, there is an obvious sequence of change. Because the reader is not fed the narrative one linear event after another, it becomes more difficult for the reader to determine the construction of identity within each character. For example, Joe struggles with his own identity, believing his own parents abandoned him and thus growing up under an adoptive family. After Henry hints that Wild might be Joe’s mother, he tracks her down, eager in his hunt for the missing puzzle pieces of his own identity, but unfortunately, cannot initially confirm his lineage.
Moments such as these bring additional thought into Morrison’s “performative dimension.” In Passing, perhaps Clare and Irene are so unhappy, not because Clare insists on passing, but because the two women know where they come from—they recognize their mothers and fathers and are able to connect with their community through this sense of being, but feel trapped in such moments of definiteness. In Jazz, however, many of the characters fit the in-between: children who grow up without any knowledge of their parents, children of one free parent and one slave parent, and/or children who inhabit a space where they are black and white, black or white, or neither black nor white simultaneously. Because neither the characters nor the reader has any knowledge of the past (other than what is blatantly exposed), identity can only be constructed through the unfamiliarity of the present.