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Psychoanalytic Criticism Essay

Sigmund Freud, a well-known psychologist, believes the unconscious can be unlocked through dreams. He defined the unconscious as, “the storehouse of those painful experiences and emotions, those wounds, fears, guilty desires, and unresolved conflicts we do not know about because we feel we will be overwhelmed by them” (Tyson). Psychoanalytic criticism, a form of criticism which allows the reader to psychoanalyze an author’s unconscious through the characters of his or her work(s), is heavily influenced by Freudian theories of psychology. Since Sigmund Freud explored the workings of the unconscious, he found that his patients developed many defense and anxiety mechanisms to cope with disagreeable ideas, painful memories, feelings or impulses. Nella Larson, author to of Passing, created two diverse characters showing different signs to support Freud’s defense mechanisms and repression—Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield.

Clare Kendry, one of the main characters in the book, represses much of her black history to meet societal expectations. At the beginning of Passing, Larson gives a short backstory to Clare’s life; portraying her biracial background. As the novel progressed, readers meet “an attractive-looking woman…with those dark, almost black, eyes and [a] wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin” (Larson, 9). Once this eye-catching woman introduces herself to her longtime friend, Irene Redfield, as Clare, she declares she has passed into the white community. During the civil rights movement, if a biracial individual’s skin complexion appeared closer to white than black; he or she would be able to pass into the white society. As she tells the story of her lost years to Irene, one can tell Clare has repressed her black history as a result of moving in with two white aunts after her father died. She has this a locus in the family since her aunts were racist against the black community.

This prejudice against black people unconsciously helped Clare in repressing her black identity. Clare’s aunts were hypocrites in their religious beliefs because “[for] all their Bibles and praying and ranting about honesty, they didn’t want anyone to know that their darling brother had seduced—ruined, they called it—a Negro girl. They could excuse the ruin, but they couldn’t forgive the tar-brush” (Larson, 19). When living with her aunts, she was conditioned to believe she was 100% white. This conditioning influences Clare to pass into the white community, leaving her black history behind. In a way, since Clare has conditioned herself to live among white people, she fears her identity will be compromised. Eventually, she marries a rich, white man named John Bellew—an extreme racist. During one of Irene’s visits, Clare confessed that she would never go through the horrors of pregnancy again because she “nearly died in terror the whole nine months before Margery (her daughter) was born” (Larson, 26) because she feared that Margery “might be dark” (Larson, 26).

This fear coincides with Clare’s repression of half of her identity—something she has been trained not to accept; especially since she married a very prejudice man. After re-meeting Irene in the restaurant in Chicago, Clare begins to look up to her as more than a friend by reaching out to Irene Redfield and showing discreet signs of projection. Since she did not have a mother figure growing up, she instinctively projects that solitary need onto her friend, Irene. When Irene and Clare bump into each other at the restaurant, Clare professes her need to see Irene on a regular basis, “And now, ‘Rene dear, that I’ve found you, I mean to see lots and lots of you” (Larson, 16). This proves Clare’s need for projection, hoping that Irene would fill that motherly role. Clare’s projection could resemble many things but one stands out clear—she is starting to unconsciously revert back to her black heritage and needs that motherly role modal to guide her back to her own identity.

Unlike Clare, Irene Redfield has different psychoanalytical issues, one of which regards low self-esteem. Throughout Passing, Irene starts to despise Clare because of her confidence. Clare shows traits that she yearns to possess indicating that Irene doesn’t see her self-worth. Irene is jealous of Clare’s beauty and outgoing attitude. Irene knows Clare carries heavy baggage because she is hiding her identity from her husband but it seems like Irene hates the fact that Clare doesn’t appear to have a care in the world: Irene doubted the genuineness of it, seeing herself only as a means to an end where Clare was concerned. Nor could it be said that [Clare] had even the slight artistic or sociological interest in the race that some members of other races displayed. She hadn’t. No, Clare Kendry cared nothing for the race. She only belonged to it. (Larson, 36). This passage is the starting point of Irene’s jealousy. In her mind, Clare had it all.

She is married to a rich, white man who sees her as a white woman whereas Irene is married to a black man—almost making it impossible for her to ever pass into the white community; especially because one of her sons shares his father’s skin tone. Irene also dislikes Clare’s appearance during the Negro Welfare League Dance because she thinks her husband might find Clare’s apparel attractive. When she noticed Clare’s elegant dress and features, she “regretted that she hadn’t [counseled] Clare to wear something ordinary and inconspicuous” (Larson, 53). This dance was the beginning of Irene’s fear of betrayal and abandonment. Towards the end of the book, Irene suspects her husband, Brian, is having an affair with Clare. Despite what she suspects, she doesn’t want to believe it. Because she thinks that as long as Clare’s black history is kept from John, Irene has nothing to worry about. Despite how Irene feels, Clare is bold and daring–willing to jeopardize everything to be free of John’s grasp.

Irene couldn’t bear losing Brian; especially if Clare gains marital freedom: It was that smile that maddened Irene. She ran across the room, her terror tinged with ferocity, and laid a hand on Clare’s bare arm. One thought possessed her. She couldn’t have Clare Kendry cast aside by Bellew. She couldn’t have her free (Larson, 79). This excerpt proves that Irene has a fear of abandonment and a fear of betrayal. She cannot handle her husband betraying her for Clare Kendry, and she does not want to raise the boys alone. Irene also shows signs of repression and selective memory: “…What happened next, Irene Redfield never afterwards allowed herself to remember. Never clearly” (Larson 79). Irene knows what had happened but repressed the memory because she wouldn’t have been able to handle having murder on her hands.

When the detective asks her what had happened, she, instead, remembers what she wants to remember and tells him Clare simply fell out the window before anyone could stop her. With Irene’s unfortunate luck, he believes her—allowing the new memory of Clare Kendry’s death to take place of the actual event. Much of Irene’s responses to Clare’s persona reflect what many blacks must have felt during the Civil Rights movement. During the Civil Rights Movement, the Jim Crow laws were established and segregation was made legal. Unfortunately, the black community received the shorter end of the stick and had to endure harsh treatment. Because of the hardships many black men and women had to tolerate, a psychological illness was developed. Due to the heavy white influence, black people were subjected.

Like Irene, they most likely experienced avoidance, low self-esteem, fear of intimacy, abandonment or betrayal. Biracial men and women who passed into the white society found a loop hole to escape the disadvantages of segregation. Nella Larson captured a morbid, yet perfect, moment of how fear can literally drive a person over the edge and do whatever it takes for the fear to absolve. She portrayed Sigmund Freud’s defense mechanisms and anxieties well and understood the consequences of repression and fear. Repression is a double-edged sword. It is necessary to cope with tragic events and/or thoughts but it is also a powerful vice to the human mind.

The defenses and anxieties Sigmund Freud discovered through his experiments could make or break a person—depending on their mental condition. Fears can either conquer or be conquered. Clare wanted to conquer her fear by leaving her husband, John. She wanted to free herself from his prejudice attitude and start a new life where she wouldn’t have to hide her black history. On the downside, Irene Redfield allowed her fear and rage consume her conscious, giving her the weapon she needed to kill Clare Kendry—paranoia. If Irene wasn’t so afraid of losing her husband, then she wouldn’t have had to kill Clare to eliminate her fears of solitude and betrayal.

Works Cited
Larson, Nella. Passing. London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007. Book. Luft, Joseph and Harrington Ingham. “SMALL GROUP INSTRUCTOR TRAINING COURSE.” 1984. Chapter 5: Johari Window. Web. 11 November 2012. <http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/sgitc/read5.htm>. Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd. New York City: Taylor and Francis Group, 2009. Web.


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