Document Type

Honors Paper

Publication Date

5-1-2006

Abstract

This thesis explores the constructions of African American female identity in Nella Larsen’s two novels, Quicksand and Passing. It examines the textual representations of race, class, gender and sexuality and how these representations speak to the stereotypes of African American female identity prevalent in Harlem Renaissance literature and the wider literary canon. The first chapter shows the connection among constructing racial, gender and sexual identities by paralleling Quicksand’s protagonist’s plight to define her racial identity with her simultaneous struggle to obtain sexual autonomy. It concludes that Helga’s failure to achieve autonomy signifies the novel’s critique of the racism and misogyny within its contemporary society. The second chapter focuses on Larsen’s second novel, Passing, and how the two protagonists, Irene and Clare, construct their identities in their segregated society. The agency Clare possesses in constructing her identity leads to the tragic ending of both women, for her white husband’s racism prevails and his power to dictate his wife’s identity indirectly causes her death. The thesis concludes by considering the criticism both novels receive and its influence on Larsen’s place in the literary canon. The thesis argues that both novels’ portrayal of female characters as three dimensional women capable of autonomy, refute the stereotypical representations and the novels’ tragic endings further criticize the societies that deny them agency.

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The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.