In the course of life, people have overcome some difficulties transitioning from one stage to another. Sometimes, it is rather difficult to trespass those adversities due to the limits and norms established in society. The stereotypes shaped in our life could determine the fate of those people who are incapable of boarder the line because of those prejudices. Regarding this, the story Passing by Nella Larsen and Hunger of Memory Richard Rodriguez narrates about those constraints of life that people should surpass to be full-fledged members of the community. In addition, these are the stories of ‘crossing’ different social lines. Hence, the first novel presents the racial ‘passing’ whereas the second one enlarges on the languages ‘passing’ constraints where the author emphasizes the difference between real and false passing that is thoroughly disguised by the protagonists.
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The problem of racial discrimination and racial identity
Both works touch upon the theme of race discrimination and the way protagonists of the stories treat it. Hence, in Larson’s Passing, Irene Redfield is a white-skinned African-American who is not afraid to reveal her ethnic heritage she “passes” as white in case it is convenient for her. Her appearance gives her the possibility to take advantage of the privileges granted to the white class. Arising out of it, this passing discloses the false identity when Irene uses his color of skin as access to the elite social class. Another character of the novel, Clare Kendry, explicitly tries to mask her real origin thus referring herself to the whites. Irene and Clare are both light-skinned women; however, Irene makes up her mind to turn back to her origin and to recognize her real identity whereas Clare is a person who is substituted by her veritable heritage for the luxuries of life. Anyway, both women ignore the values of their roots and the essence of their inside world, thus only appraising the appearance given to them. The author tries to reduce the differences between the social status of whites and black in order to show the racial identity. The absence of visual interpretation reveals the image of absurdity to distinguish people by judging upon their national origin. In this respect, Irene regards such identification as absurd:
Did the woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro? Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things for all they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, fingers-nails, palms of hands, shapers of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot (Larsen 16)
The same could be seen in Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory narrating about racial issues as well. The protagonist of the story is in front of an important choice: whether to gain education or to retain family ties. If he chooses the first, he will have to study English and lose his national heritage. On mastering the English language more and more, he will lose his close relations with the family. The problem here lies in the fact that Richard will also lose his real identity, as his ‘passing’ to the higher classes and to the successful life cannot be carried out without betraying with native land. Therefore, English education symbolizes here the false identity thus separating him from his Spanish origin. Richard was even more frustrated when he obtained encouragement from his family. Therefore, there may be traced the notes of irony where one idea contradicts another; Richard’s parents also choose the alien language to study: “I was a bilingual child, a certain kind – socially disadvantaged – the son of working-class parents, both Mexican immigrant” (Rodriguez 8). While learning the English language, there observes the reevaluation of the primary values in terms of the importance of learning the alien language. Richards now sees English as the only way to pass to the world of wide possibilities. He is confident now that his Spanish roots only hamper his personal improvement and self-determination. The English language now is an inherent component of successful communication and the only way to exist in English-speaking society.
When entering the English-speaking education, Richard begins perceiving differences between Mexican and American Catholicism. English Catholicism now embraces the issues that were not acceptable in hid religion. In order to gain confidence among the English society, he also abundance the Mexican peculiar religious rights and penetrate into Catholicism itself and the religion, which more personal and suitable for his new life and education. On the one hand, a writer is still a religious person with his own faith, and on the other hand, he betrays the religion that he was taught by his parents. Religion, hence, becomes the last stage of transition from one cultural environment into another.
The expression of false identity in both stories
The author refers to this moment as to the false identity, as the protagonist strives to the pseudo values that could substitute cultural and ethnic identity. The transition from his childhood to adulthood is predetermined by a gradual reconsideration of his value and the recognition of his mistakes as well as counterfeit goals: “In adulthood, I am embarrassed by childhood fears” (Rodriguez 9). He confesses that his ambitions and longing for education destroyed the range of values cultivated in him when he was a child. He presents the idea of unnecessary sacrifice conducted by him to become a skillful writer.
Both novels discuss the problem of gaining education because of belonging to different races. The heroines of Passing are tempted by the luxury of a life of white people thus rejecting their veritable origin. Still, after experiencing the hardships of life and the fear of discovering their secrets, the women are in a state of constant pressure as this false identity reduces their existence to the material values and the false respectable status in the society. Here, the writer emphasizes that this corrupted society is reluctant to accept African Americans and to leave a normal life on an equal basis. The conflict between races is the only reason for white-skinned girls to hide their roots and disregard their cultural and national heritage.
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When the girls reached recognition in the white society, the constant fear of discovery did not allow him to enjoy a calm and full-fledged life. This fright and suspicion became the main obstacles and the shortcoming of false ‘passing’; the desire to live equally with white Americans make them pretend and disguise his veritable essence and forget about their own culture. Both girls built a sandcastle that is too fragile to remain. In particular, Clare leads a very dangerous and fake life, which is built on a lie.
The reflections on the notions of identity
If the heroine of Larson’s novel follows the fake ‘passing’ in order to preserve their high social status, Rodriguez’s hero chooses the wrong path in order to gain this status. In the desperate quest for recognition, he fails to pursue the consequences of it. While learning English he gradually understands that he is losing the ties with his parents and ethnic real identity. On gaining the education, Richard is keen on sharing his success with his relatives. However, he encounters misunderstanding and indignation from his family part; Richard has torn apart between his longing for education and his closeness to the family. To put it in other words, the education made him abandon his cultural identity and enter the alien world where is forced to be subject to the established norms and to forget his real origin.
As it could be observed from the stories, both authors suggest their own vision of cultural and social identities. They represent the difference between real and fake crossings where the protagonists are misled by the specific norms established in the white society thus rejecting their genuine roots. To my mind, the real cultural identity lies in the person’s self-awareness and self-esteem; those who support their culture and traditions will never betray them. The racial identity presented by the authors in the first half of the twentieth century cannot be regarded as real if the representatives of ethnic minorities are afraid to uncover their essence and origin due to their dependence on material values.
In that period, people were often forced to abandon their native language in order to obtain a proper education. To pursue the reason for betraying their identity, it is necessary to pursue the reason for that. As social inequality and contrast in the level of well-being of people is mostly predetermined by race and nationality, the ethnic minority has no other way out than to resort to the false way of life.
In conclusion, Larson’s Passing and Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory is the outright manifestation of the infringement of the racial identity and cultural heritage for purpose of living in the elite society. Clare’s longing for social welfare and recognition forced her to resort to the false identity. In this case, her desire was materially predetermined. However, there are cases when a person has to forget his origin for self-realization. Nevertheless, in both cases, the authors prove that national origin could not be replaced by material values.
Larsen, Nella, and Davis Thadious. Passing. US: Penguin Classics, 2003.
Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: an education of Richard US: Bantam, 1983.