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.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Passing Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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 she is passing. Before long, the bold Clare makes her identity known. The women begin discussing old times and, briefly, new ones. During tea, Irene notes the rage she feels toward Clare, who has done the despicable in denying her race, but she...
(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 Hotel, turns the question back. Irene gets angry and leaves, vowing to have nothing more to do with Clare.
A few days later, Clare repeatedly calls the Redfield residence, but Irene refuses to speak with her, letting her maid, Liza, answer the phone. Finally, exasperated by the constant ringing of the phone, she answers the phone and lets Clare badger her into visiting her. At Clare’s home, Irene and another woman, Gertrude Martin, exchange cool greetings. Irene does not like Gertrude who, like Clare, is passing for white and is married to a white man. Irene’s opinion of Gertrude does not improve when Gertrude tells her and Clare that she does not want to have any “dark” children. Irene’s temper flares and she reminds Gertrude that her children—Brian, Jr., and Theodore—are “dark.” At that moment, John “Jack” Bellew, Clare’s husband, walks in and greets Clare with the nickname Nig. Amid tense silence, when Clare tells John to explain why he calls her that, John says that when he met Clare she was “white as a lily,” but that she appeared to be getting darker. Nig was his affectionate way of telling her that one morning she would wake up a “nigger.” Prompted by an angry but subdued Irene, John goes on...
(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 pent-up frustration and anger.
Finally, Irene opens the envelope to find a multi-paged letter inside. In the letter, Clare tells Irene that she is very lonely and would like to see her. Clare makes a reference to the last time the two of them saw one another, two years ago in Chicago. The memory of that event unsettles Irene.
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...
(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...
(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...
(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...
(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...
(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...
(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...
(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...
(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...
(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...
(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...
(The entire section is 584 words.)