Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Passing, Larsen’s second and final novel, deals with a topic that fascinated readers of the 1920’s, the calculated deception of white people by black people who decided, for social or economic reasons, to “pass” as members of the other race. Larsen’s novel, however, is quite different in approach from works such as James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912) and Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1929). The protagonist of Passing is not the black person who chooses to move into the white world but, instead, the old friend whom she seeks out, uses, and finally betrays.
At the beginning of Larsen’s novel, Irene Redfield, a socially prominent Harlem woman, opens a letter from the former Clare Kendry, now the wife of John Bellew, a white man who does not know that his wife is black. A childhood friend of Irene, Clare insists that she is lonely, isolated as she is from her own people, and she pleads with Irene to meet her again. With distaste, Irene recalls her encounter with Clare in Chicago two years before, when, invited to tea in Clare’s home, she and another light-skinned black woman had been forced to listen to diatribes about black people delivered by Clare’s racist husband. Now, Irene gathers, Clare wants to use her in order to enter Harlem society, where, though still pretending to be white, she can be with her own race.
Because she is both polite and compassionate,...
(The entire section is 570 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Passing explores the psychological and social costs of racial passing on two women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Although Irene does not, except on occasions when it is convenient, pass as white, Clare’s passing and subsequent decision to reenter parts of the black experience through her friendship with Irene disrupt the life-style Irene has fought so hard to maintain, doing so with tragic consequences for both women.
Larsen pays special attention to the emotional bonds that connect the two women. The opening chapter begins with Irene musing over a letter she receives from Clare. Irene’s emotional state is made obvious in her reflection on what the letter’s contents might mean. She focuses on the letter’s more personal message. Clare writes about how lonely she is and how she must see Irene, as though Irene is the only person in the world who might alleviate her loneliness.
The next chapter emphasizes the emotional connection between the two women. It depicts their meeting two years previously. They had not seen each other since they were teenagers. Irene has temporarily decided to pass because it is hot and humid in Chicago, where she is visiting her father and shopping for her two sons. She has tea at the top of the Drayton Hotel and meets Clare. At first, Irene is simply fascinated with the woman’s beauty and is curious as to why the woman keeps staring at her. Her first thought is that the woman might suspect that...
(The entire section is 698 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Irene Redfield receives a letter from Clare Kendry that she considers dangerous, since she knows that Clare has been passing for white and that Clare’s association with any black person is dangerous. Irene recalls that Clare has always been different, sneaky, and clever, as well as independent, selfish, and self-centered; she remembers Clare’s poise as a teenager when her drunken father bellowed at her for disobeying him. When Clare’s father was killed in a saloon fight, Clare was angry with him for abandoning her.
Irene reads the letter from Clare, who is in New York and wants to see her. Irene is determined not to see Clare, recalling the last time she had accidentally run into Clare. It is two summers earlier, and Irene is in Chicago, shopping for her sons, Brian, Jr., and Theodore. Feeling very warm and thirsty, she stops at the Drayton Hotel for tea. She notices a woman staring at her and thinks she is doing so because she is black. The woman approaches Irene and claims to know her, but Irene does not remember her, until she laughs; she then recognizes the laugh as belonging to Clare Kendry. There had been rumors about Clare’s sudden disappearance from the black community twelve years earlier. Irene and Clare talk about what they had been doing over the years. Irene invites Clare to her house but immediately regrets it. Irene questions Clare about passing for white but Clare, noting that they were both drinking tea at the all-white Drayton...
(The entire section is 1104 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary
Nella Larsen’s Passing was first published in 1929, during the arts and cultural movement called the Harlem Renaissance, a surge of recognition for black authors and artists. The title of the novel refers to the practice of some mixed-race men and women passing as white because their skin was light. This practice gave them an escape from the societal limitations placed on black people in the United States. Passing was Larsen’s second and last novel.
The story opens as Irene Redfield is sorting through her mail. She stops when she sees an unusual envelope. She identifies the envelope as being made from an expensive Italian brand of paper. The handwriting on the front is all but illegible but is written in bold, purple ink. There is no return address, but that does not hinder Irene from knowing who sent the letter. Two years ago, Irene had received a similar letter. Now as she contemplates the sender, she is reluctant to open the envelope; she feels concerned about what she will find inside.
As she holds the unopened letter in her hand, Irene recalls images of the sender, a childhood friend named Clare Kendry. According to Irene, Clare always walked on the edge of danger. She recalls a scene when Clare was a young child living with her father, who was white. He was a big, impatient man who was often drunk. Rather than staying out of his way, Clare chose to mostly ignore the man. The image Irene sees is of Clare sitting on a sofa, working on a sewing project, while her father storms back and forth across the room, cursing and occasionally lunging for his daughter as if he wants to hit her. Clare concentrates on the dress she is attempting to make out of a red fabric. The only visible notice Clare takes of the looming figure who threatens her is to move closer to the opposite side of the couch; she keeps her eyes on her needle and thread.
A second memory Irene has of her friend is of the day Clare’s father was brought home dead. Clare is fifteen in this memory. She stares at the body that was once her father. Irene sees only disdain on Clare’s face as she stands motionless above him. Then all of a sudden Clare screams, pulls at her hair, and pounds her feet on the floor. The outburst is over almost as suddenly as it began. Irene reflects on this second memory and realizes that rather than an expression of sorrow, Clare’s reaction to her father’s death appears to be an expression of...
(The entire section is 499 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary
Irene recalls the last time she ran into Clare. Both Irene and Clare grew up in Chicago, but after Irene’s marriage, she and her husband moved to New York. But two years ago they saw each other again. In the summer while her children are away at camp, Irene comes back to Chicago for a visit. On this particular day, she is shopping downtown for some presents to take home to her children. It is so hot that Irene feels faint. So she goes to a nearby hotel and takes the elevator to the top floor, where she hopes to sit down, sip an ice tea, and enjoy a cool breeze. While she is sitting there, a woman comes to the table next to hers. At first this woman pays no attention to Irene, but once she glances over, she appears unable to take her eyes off Irene. Finally the woman asks if they might know one another. Irene cannot place her until the woman laughs. Then she immediately recognizes her as Clare.
Clare has a lot of questions for Irene. She wants to know what people from their old Southside neighborhood said after she disappeared from their lives. She tells Irene about the events of her life after her father died. Her father’s aunts took her in. They were white Christians. They felt it was their duty to care for the young teen, but they were harsh. They knew Clare was the product of an affair their nephew had with a Negro. Although they allowed Clare to live with them, they treated her like a servant. Clare claims that her life with them was very difficult. The aunts made her work day and night.
However, having white aunts offered her an advantage, especially when Clare decided to pass as Caucasian. Clare tells Irene that she could always refer to her aunts as family in case anyone asked about her background—which, Clare says, no one ever did. Eventually Clare ran away from the aunts and married a white man from South America.
When Irene tells Clare she has to go, Clare insists that they meet again. Irene’s schedule is very busy, so she suggests that Clare come with her to a get together planned for that weekend. Clare would have a chance to catch up on all the old neighborhood gossip because many of their old friends would be there. But as soon as Irene invites Clare, she immediately regrets it. She also senses that Clare probably would not want to come. The people there would all be black. Over the years, their mutual acquaintances had seen Clare on occasion, passing as white and always in the company of...
(The entire section is 595 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary
Irene has no intention of seeing Clare, but on Tuesday morning the phone at Irene’s family home continues to ring. The maid answers the calls several times and tells Clare Irene is not home, just as Irene instructed her. But that does not stop Clare. She waits for a while and then redials the number. Finally Irene gives in. Clare insists that Irene meet with her. Irene must alter her plans and make room in her day for at least a brief visit. So Irene acts against her own wishes and concedes.
When Irene arrives at the address Clare gave her, she is surprised to find another woman sitting in the living room. She is a heavyset, light-skinned woman around Irene and Clare’s age. It takes several minutes for Irene to recognize her as a fellow classmate from childhood, Gertrude Martin. Gertrude’s history quickly comes to mind, especially the similarity Gertrude shares with Clare: both women married white men. The difference between the two women, though, is that Gertrude is not “passing.” Gertrude’s husband had also gone to school with them. He knows that Gertrude is mixed-race, which means according to social standards at the time that Gertrude is a Negro.
During the course of the women’s conversation, the topic of children is discussed. Gertrude has two boys, as does Irene. When Clare talks about her daughter, she confesses that she will never have another child because she has a terrible fear that a child of hers might turn out to have dark skin. Her daughter is light skinned, for which Clare is extremely thankful. If the baby had been born with black skin, Clare's secret would be revealed. Gertrude’s boys are also light skinned, she tells them. She asks, who would want to have a dark-skinned child? At this, Irene tells them that one of her sons looks black. Irene’s statement causes a sudden, awkward silence.
Clare changes the subject and asks what happened to old school friends. And a short time later, Clare’s husband, John, comes home. When he greets Clare, he called her “Nig.” Clare senses Irene’s and Gertrude’s reaction on hearing this, and she asks her husband to explain why he used that name. John tells them he has been teasing Clare about how dark her skin is becoming, saying that if she is not careful, people might think she is a “Nigger.” At this, Irene cannot contain her feelings and bursts out laughing. Attempting to quell the rising emotions she feels, Clare asks her...
(The entire section is 685 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary
The day after her meeting with Clare, Irene is busy packing her clothes. It is time for her to leave Chicago and return home to New York. As she is filling her suitcases, a letter arrives for her. Although she had never previously received a letter from Clare, she senses that Clare sent it. Irene tears open the envelope and glances at the signature to confirm her suspicions. As soon as she sees Clare’s name, she stuffs the note into her purse without reading it. She simply wants to get the letter off her mind as she finalizes her preparations to leave. Once she says her good-byes and is on her way back East, Irene cannot resist the temptation of finding out what Clare could possibly say about the horrible meeting they shared the previous day.
In a slight way in her letter, Clare apologizes for having put Irene in such uncomfortable circumstances. But Clare then attempts to justify having invited Irene by stating how glad and happy she felt to see her again. She thinks that if Irene knew how much she longed to be reunited with everyone from her childhood, maybe she would forgive her. At the end of her letter, Clare adds a postscript, stating since meeting with Irene, she is questioning if she had made the right life choice. Maybe she should have been forthright in admitting, as Irene and Gertrude had done, that she was a Negro. Irene’s and Gertrude’s decision, Clare writes, might be the wiser and happier way. Their decisions have caused her some doubt concerning her deception.
After reading Clare’s note, Irene feels no better. She had not slept well the previous night and her emotions are still stirred by Clare’s situation and her husband’s disgusting prejudice. Clare can write about Irene’s so-called wisdom all she wants; that will not erase any of the humiliation Irene suffered for Clare’s benefit. At this thought, Irene proceeds to methodically tear Clare’s letter into small pieces. She then collects the scraps in her hands, walks to the end of the train, and opens her fingers to release the remnants of Clare’s letter. She watches them scatter on the wind and finally land on the tracks and the surrounding grasses. As Irene stares at them, she feels glad that the chances of her ever running into Clare again are so scant. Irene resolves that if that rare occasion should occur, she will avert her eyes from the woman’s face and pretend she does not recognize her. After pondering the whole situation,...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Part 2, Chapter 1 Summary
The scene returns to New York as Irene is contemplating the newest letter she has received from Clare Kendry. It has been two years since Irene has seen or heard from Clare, and she is surprised that a letter from Clare can still stir her anger. Irene is especially agitated when she recalls Clare’s husband’s terribly prejudiced views toward Negroes. As for Clare’s complete lack of concern for other people's feelings, Irene is not in the least surprised.
After contemplating Clare’s letter, Irene decides that going through such a humiliating experience once was bad enough; she will not allow Clare to drag her through another one. To this end, Irene is determined not to see Clare again. Clare has chosen her path, and it is not Irene’s responsibility to soothe the longing Clare expresses in her letter. Irene feels no duty to ease Clare’s to ease her need to be with her own people, as she put it. When Clare had the chance to check her husband’s bigotry, she said nothing. Irene has trouble forgiving Clare for allowing John to belittle Negroes so harshly. She could have stood up to him without betraying herself. Instead, she said nothing.
Without realizing it, Irene’s anger has spilled out of her thoughts and into words she has spoken aloud. When Irene’s husband, Brian, hears Irene curse someone, he comes into the bedroom and asks Irene what the trouble is. Irene hands Clare’s letter to Brian. After reading it, Brian says it is strange how Negroes who pass for white always seem to want to come back. He claims it never fails. Then he suggests that Irene not give in to Clare and provide a chance for the woman to sneak back into Irene’s life. Brian is concerned that Clare will pester Irene until Irene gives in.
Irene responds by claiming she has already decided to put a definitive end to the matter. She will answer Clare’s letter and let her know that she does not favor another meeting. She does not intend to play the link between Clare and her “darker brethren.” When Brian turns back to his morning newspaper, Irene expands on her thoughts. She finds it odd that, as a race, black people tend to disapprove of passing and yet they also condone it. Although they feel contempt for the light-skinned Negroes who...
(The entire section is 600 words.)
Part 2, Chapter 2 Summary
Five days later, Irene has still not answered Clare’s letter. She determines that she will never do so. Silence, she decides, is the best way to deal with Clare. If Irene were to write back even to tell Clare she does not wish to meet with her, that would only encourage Clare to send another letter. The more Irene thinks about what Clare says in her note, the less she wants to become involved in Clare’s life. On top of this, Clare has provided no return address except a post office box number. Irene finds this to be rude, as if Clare worries that Irene will give her away by saying something in her letter about Clare’s being black. If Irene’s response were delivered to her home, Clare’s husband might read it. All of this—Clare’s dishonesty, lack of awareness of other people’s feelings, and lack of trust—convince Irene that she will see no more of Clare. So Irene returns all her attention to the details of her own life and tries not to think of Clare any more.
But then there is a knock on her door. Clare has tired of waiting for an answer to her letter and has come calling on Irene. Despite all the conclusions Irene had drawn, she greets Clare like an old friend. She tells her how lovely she looks. When Clare presses Irene for a reason why she did not respond, Irene only tells her that she felt scared for Clare. Clare should not be hanging out with Negroes, she says. Clare then asks, with tears in her eyes, if that means Irene no longer wants to see her. Irene insists that she is only thinking of Clare’s welfare: What if Clare’s husband found out? Even worse, what if Clare’s daughter discovered the truth—how would her daughter feel? She would not only learn that her mother was a Negro but that she was too. Might Clare’s husband take the child away from Clare? Or would he abandon both of them? Neither development would do anyone any good. What if Clare’s daughter became so angry with her mother that she never wanted to speak to or see Clare again?
Clare brushes these fears away. She does not think any of that would happen. Instead, she tells Irene that she misses her Negro friends. She wants to be with them and hear their stories and their laughter. She can never truly be herself around white people. She sees no danger in wanting some Negro companionship. Besides, she asks whose life is safe? At this, Irene has to reflect on her own recent feelings about her marriage. Irene wants to be safe. She...
(The entire section is 588 words.)
Part 2, Chapter 3 Summary
Irene’s husband feels a little perturbed at Irene when he discovers she has invited Clare to come to the Negro Welfare League’s benefit dance. After all Irene told him about Clare and after his counsel to her to stay away from Clare, he is disappointed that Irene has conceded to Clare. There is nothing, however, that he can do about it.
Later, as Irene notes on the night of the dance, Brian does not seem to mind Clare’s appearance in the least. He acts quite cordial with Clare as he drives her and Irene to the dance. Furthermore, Brian dances several times with Clare. Irene feels glad that Brian is so helpful in making Clare feel comfortable in the crowd of strangers. At the end of the dance, Brian finds Irene and tells her he will drop her off at home first and then take Clare home. But Irene tells him that she has already made other plans. She has asked a friend who lives not far from Clare’s hotel to drive Clare back.
Earlier, during the dance, when Irene took a break from her hostess duties and dancing, she sat down with Hugh Wentworth, a popular white author and a patron of the charity dance. They were sitting on an indoor balcony, looking down at the dance floor. Their discussion centered on race. The conversation began when Hugh asked Irene who the beautiful blonde was, and he pointed out Clare. At the moment, Clare was dancing with a very distinguished-looking black man. Hugh found the couple a very interesting study in contrast. Then he wanted to know why white women seemed to enjoy dancing with black men more so than with white men. At first, Irene surmised that it might be because, in general, black men are better dancers. Hugh thought it must be something deeper than that.
Irene suggested that maybe it was the excitement of being close to and sharing an experience with someone different from oneself. There is a curiosity that pulls people together—people who may be the opposite of what they are accustomed to. Irene added that the attraction was not necessarily because someone might think that the man or the woman was beautiful, as Hugh had suggested. Rather it might be quite the contrary. They might even be drawn to someone they believed was ugly or repugnant. People are stimulated, Irene suggested, by the exotic.
Then Hugh opened the topic of people “passing.” He asked if Clare belonged in that group of those who were Negro but passed for white. He told Irene that he had...
(The entire section is 600 words.)
Part 2, Chapter 4 Summary
As Irene thinks back to the night of the dance, she realizes that as unimportant as the event seemed at the time, her life dramatically changed because of it. At the center of that great change in her life is Clare Kendry.
Since the dance, Clare is often with Irene. If Irene is busy, Clare comes to the house and visits with Irene’s sons. If the boys are not available, Clare goes to the kitchen and chats with the servants. On the occasions when Brian is there, she also spends time with him. And Brian does not complain. He even invites Clare to go with him to bridge parties and other public obligations he must attend when Irene is otherwise engaged or too tired to go out. Irene takes this in her stride, though she feels a little annoyed that Clare is spoiling her boys. As for Brian’s relationship with Clare, Irene’s feelings are neutral. Brian does not seem to be overly impressed with Clare, and Irene is glad that he also does not seem bothered. Once when Irene asks Brian if he thinks Clare is beautiful, Brian tells her that he prefers dark-skinned women to white women.
Clare often comes to dinner parties that Irene and her friends hold. Although Clare can be quite entertaining on most nights, Irene finds that Clare can just as well sit and stare as if she were not really present. Clare’s beauty and charm appear to be all that is necessary for the guests to enjoy her company.
Clare once complains to Irene that she wishes she could be more available to attend more social gatherings with Irene and her friends, but in general she can only go out when her husband is out of town. She then mentions a trip to Europe her husband will be taking in the spring. Clare asked her husband if she could stay in New York while he was gone, but he would have nothing of that. Part of his trip would include visiting their daughter. Surely, her husband said, Clare would want to be there, but Clare tells Irene that her life is more than taking care of her daughter.
Clare criticizes women who throw themselves into motherhood to the point of losing themselves. At this, Irene protests. Irene is that type of mother and thinks Irene must be teasing her. Irene cannot understand how a woman could have children and not be intimately involved in their lives. Clare responds that she is different from Irene. She does not have the proper morals or sense of duty Irene has. Irene does not accept Clare’s definition of herself,...
(The entire section is 511 words.)
Part 3, Chapter 1 Summary
It is almost Christmas, but Irene cannot quite get into the spirit of the season. For one, the weather is too warm, but the real underlying cause of her depression is something much more subtle and complicated. She can feel it but not quite identify it.
She arrives back home after having gone out in the hopes of losing the negative feelings that are gnawing away at her. It had not worked. She has arranged a tea party and brought flowers back. But she feels exhausted and is not looking forward to having to entertain her friends.
She goes upstairs and lies down on her bed, wondering if what is bothering her has anything to do with Brian’s wanting to move to Brazil. Irene has continued to notice that Brian seems unhappy and restless. She has, in the past, prided herself on understanding his moods—but recently she has found she is incapable of reading him. Not only is Brian distracted but he is more irritable, especially with his sons. This is not like him. It seems as if his sons get on his nerves. In contrast, Brian has been acting unusually considerate of her, which makes her suspicious. His normal manner is to be sarcastic, but she has not witnessed this side of him for weeks. Brian appears to Irene as a man marking time, waiting for something to happen. But she feels so tired of trying to figure everything out. Before she realizes it, she drops off to sleep.
When Irene wakes up several hours later, Brian is standing at the side of the bed, looking down at her. He reminds her that their guests are soon to arrive. As a matter of fact, Brian says, Clare is already downstairs. Irene sits up on the bed. She asks what Clare is doing here—she had not invited Clare on purpose. Hugh was going to be there, and Hugh did not like Clare. So Irene had omitted Clare from the list. Brian asks what is wrong with Clare and why Hugh does not like her. Irene tells him it is Clare’s lack of intelligence. Clare is pretty but does not have very much depth or substance. Brian says that Hugh’s evaluation of Clare is probably based on the man’s self-concept that he is a god. Irene argues that this is untrue; Hugh is not that pompous. She also has found that Clare is not a very profound thinker. She likens Clare to a Southern Belle—someone who dresses up and is very successful at flirting.
Brian apologizes. He tells Irene that he is the one who invited Clare. When Clare heard about the tea party, Brian said, she...
(The entire section is 512 words.)
Part 3, Chapter 2 Summary
Irene continues to feel miserable. At first she suffered because she thought her husband, Brian, was having an affair with Clare. Next she endured mental anguish because she tried in vain to convince herself that this might not be true. She had no proof that her husband and Clare were either romantically or sexually involved; she only had suspicions. Because she had roused these suspicions herself, she tries to control her thoughts so she will no longer ponder the possibilities that Brian is being unfaithful. She alone has caused the agitation she has been feeling ever since the tea party. After all, the only thing Brian did was invite Clare, their mutual friend to a party that was being held at a house that belonged to the two of them, and there is nothing wrong in doing that. All these long years Irene and Brian have been married, Brian has never shown signs of being attracted to any other woman. Irene must be fair to both Brian and Clare. She considers the possibility that they are completely innocent. However, Brian has been acting very withdrawn from Irene and their sons. Irene senses that Brian is unhappy, and she has no clue what is causing it or what she might do to change it. If Clare would just disappear from their lives, maybe everything would take care of itself.
Christmas soon arrives and provides Irene with a busy distraction. Clare, presumably busy with the holidays and with her husband’s return from a trip to Canada, has not been seen for quite a while, which makes Irene feel more at ease. Unfortunately though, Clare continues to be present in Irene’s thoughts. Irene cannot get rid of her. She tries another tactic: she wishes for spring. Irene knows that Clare will be traveling to Europe with John in March. This could not happen soon enough for Irene. She wants distance between Clare and her family. She feels extremely tired of Clare.
As Irene continues to contemplate Clare, she finds herself wishing that something would happen that could make Clare and John leave New York earlier than they had planned. Irene wants Clare removed from her life, and she does not care how that might be arranged. She even finds herself thinking about Clare’s daughter becoming ill, so Clare would become completely absorbed in healing Margery. Then she has an even more sinister thought—what if John found out Clare was a Negro?
This thought astonishes Irene. She cannot believe she had the nerve to think that....
(The entire section is 559 words.)
Part 3, Chapter 3 Summary
As if Irene’s wish had come true, as she is downtown shopping with a friend, she bumps into Clare’s husband. John recognizes Irene immediately. He stops and pushes forward his hand to shake hers. He even calls her by name. But then Irene sees a strange look pass over John’s face. John had turned to glance at Irene’s friend. Then he had looked back at Irene and again turned to her friend, as if he were comparing them. She looks over at Felise and sees what John is looking at. Although Felise’s skin is not very dark, she is obviously a Negro. Irene recalls how vehemently John had spoken against Negroes when she first met him in Chicago two years ago. John is extremely prejudiced. He wants nothing to do with blacks. The look on John’s face as the three of them stand on that New York corner tells Irene that John now understands Irene is black. The logical progression of thought would then be for John to question what his wife, Clare, is doing with a friend who is a Negro.
Irene, upon reading John’s expressions, refuses to shake his hand. She merely turns away from him and continues walking down the street. However, even as she does so, she curses herself. She should have introduced John to Felise, stating that he is Clare’s husband. Felise knows that Clare is a Negro, but she did not know Clare is married to a Caucasian and is passing as white. The news would spread fast. People would talk. Clare would have many questions to answer as her husband examined her. Irene wonders if it might even lead to a divorce. But a divorce would not help Irene; it would only make Clare more available.
Irene says nothing to Felise. Instead, she merely avoids any discussion of who John is or why Irene walked away from him. There is a story behind it, but all Irene tells Felise is that she once purposefully passed as white. That one time was in the company of the man they just bumped into.
Irene makes excuses and leaves Felise earlier than they had planned. When she arrives home, Brian is there, but she does not tell him about the chance meeting with John. She does not open up to Brian any of her reflections on the incident. She keeps it all to herself, though she does not know why. Later that night, as Irene lies in bed waiting for Brian to come upstairs, she hears the front door open and close and knows Brian has gone out for the evening. At that moment, she has the most evil thought she has ever conjured. She wishes...
(The entire section is 475 words.)
Part 3, Chapter 4 Summary
The next day, Irene receives a telephone message from Clare. Although there is a snowstorm in the city, Clare will be able to make the dinner party at Felise’s house. This news wears on Irene, and at the dinner table she loses her temper with Brian. Their son Ted has heard about the lynching of a black man and wants to know why only Negroes are lynched. Brian attempts to answer this question, but Irene is angry with him for doing so. After the boys are excused from the table, Brian and Irene continue their discussion. Irene believes children should be shielded from some of the harshest realities of life as a Negro living in the United States. Brian thinks his sons would be better prepared for adulthood if they were told beforehand of the challenges they must face. If they are going to be forced to live in America, Brian states, they should be told what they will have to deal with. This is a criticism of Irene, who has always insisted that the family not move to Brazil, where Brian would prefer to live. When Brian reaches his limit, he shouts that Irene should not expect him to give up everything. This is another reference to Irene’s refusal to the leave the States, but Irene wonders if there is even a deeper meaning behind the statement. She wonders if Brian is referring to not wanting to give up his affair with Clare.
Irene is upstairs getting ready for the party when Clare arrives and comes upstairs to be with her. Because Irene is aware of Clare’s intuition, her uncanny ability to read Irene’s thoughts, Irene sends Clare back downstairs. She no longer cares if she is giving Clare and Brian yet another chance to be together without her. What is done is done, Irene thinks.
Once the three of them arrive at Felise’s apartment building, Irene observes how Brian and Clare talk to one another. She watches their body language, particularly when Clare clutches Brian’s arm for support as she walks along the icy sidewalk. Irene also notices how Brian’s mood is elevated. His tone of voice is flirtatious. Upstairs, Irene feels separated from the rest of the guests. Irene is silent and withdrawn, although everyone else seems filled with merriment. As the party goes on, there is a sudden knock on the door. Clare’s husband is there, uninvited. Clare had thought he was out of town. John pushes his way inside and shouts at his wife that he knows she is a Negro. There is a commotion around Clare. Irene walks across the room...
(The entire section is 584 words.)