In Nella Larsen’s novel, it is Clare who most obviously embodies Passing. In this, she seems very different from Irene. Clare has decided to accept the social discrimination against black people and pass as white. She envied people who seemed to succeed effortlessly, as she tells Irene.
"I used almost to hate all of you. You had all the things I wanted and never had had. It made me all the more determined to get them, and others."
These feelings fed into her decision to move away and marrying a white man. She tries to dismiss the harmful emotional impact of his racism. Irene, in contrast, is fully immersed in African American society, and married to a kind, altruistic husband. Feeling a deep "yearning for my own people," Clare takes the bold step of leaving her husband and to begin identifying as black.
But the reader also sees that Irene is passing, though in a different connotation. She hides important aspects of her identity, as she internalizes her unhappiness and a kind of racialized self-criticism.
It wasn't that she was ashamed of being a Negro, or even of having it declared. It was the idea of being ejected from any place . . . that disturbed her.
Part of her envies Clare’s ability to pass because Irene judges people based on skin color, thinking herself superior to darker-skinned African Americans. The greatest similarities between the two women are their frustrated ability to live authentic lives and their envy of the other for apparently being more forthright.
While it is Clare who passes for white in the novel, Irene is also passing for someone that she is not. Although she declares herself proud of her race, her aspiring middle-class behavior makes her unable to sympatize with the struggles of African American workers. She is trapped by her necessity to feel secure and surrounded by material comfort. For this reason, she fears but, at the same time, feels admiration for her friend Clare who is able to take big risks such as that of passing. Admired and feared by Irene, Clare too is a woman who has given up her identity and roots in exchange for respectability. Married to a white supremacist, Clare feels the need to re-associate with black people, just as Irene grows more and more distant from them in the course of the novel. The two women also share a disappointing marriage. Clare is forced to pass for white as her husband would repudiate her if he discovered her true race. While Irene is married to a fellow middle-class African American, her marrige is not a happy one and, by the end of the text, she realizes she has never really loved him. Her marrige is based not on love but on her obsession for social security, a somewhat ironic predicament as her husband Brian would immediately give up pursuing the American Dream of social mobility and work with the poor in Brazil. Also, as Clare enters again in her life her safety is shattered both because she feels attracted to her and because she fears that she may be having a secret affair with Brian. The feeling of attraction between the two women has made several critics speak of a lesbian subtext in the novel.