Document Type


Date of Award



School of Communication (SOC)

Degree Name

MA in Communication

First Advisor

Dr. Betty Taylor-Thompson


Author Nella Larsen's Passing, her second novel, is a work that is closely related to her personal life. Her light skin afforded her the opportunity to probably pass for a white woman. Although she was considered legally black she wanted to be able to identify herself with both races black and white. Since she related some of her own personal ideas, thoughts and beliefs in Passing, the success of the novel was an even greater achievement. In Passing, Larsen relates the themes of passing and the tragic mulatto myth to encapsulate the struggle with the conflicts of American racism and assimilation. The literary character known as the tragic mulatto was first introduced in "The Quadroons" in 1842. A working definition of a mulatto is one that is a first general offspring of a Black and White parent; or, an individual with both White and Black 1 2 ancestors. Generally, mulattoes are light-skinned, though dark enough to be excluded from the White race. A mulatto can further be defined as a person of mixed white and black ancestry. The tragic term mulatto is applied to this particular person because they often come to a tragic end. The term passing, on the other hand, is the crossing of the color line from black to white. When one passes, the individual gives up their identity to assume a new and hopefully better life from the one they previously deserted. The tragic mulatto literary tradition claims that mulattoes possess the margins of two worlds, fitting into neither, accepted by neither. The plight of passing, affords the individual a lifestyle that he or she may not be accustomed to living if they chose to remain among the African American tradition. In her novel Passing, Larsen explores both themes through the lives of her "twin" protagonists Irene Westover Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew. The objective of this particular subject is to explore the moral judgment and implications of the themes of passing and the tragic mulatto in literature. Using Nella Larsen's novel Passing as a reference guide, these two themes will be examined from the viewpoint of not only the author but also the subjects that she uses in the novel. In order to comprehend the theme of passing and the tragic mulatto tradition a thorough search of the subject must be considered. Research must be obtained from various references and secondary bibliographies. The main study of focus, however will refer back to Nella Larsen's novel Passing. The main objectives for this study are to (l) define passing and the tragic mulatto theme (2) examine the psychological effects of the "mulatto" stigmatism and (3) apply the themes of passing and the tragic mulatto to Passing. It is hoped that this research 3 inspires scholars of literature to further explore the theme and the author. The subjects of passing and the tragic mulatto myth are ones that have a place in African American culture. The steps needed to complete the analysis of the research will include anthologies, primary text biographies, and literary criticisms. Further references would include critics of the themes of passing and the tragic mulatto myth such as Judith R. Berzon and Elaine K. Ginsberg. The texts and criticisms from these critics and other authors on this subject provide extensive information necessary to complete this study.