Passing Summary

Irene Redfield, a light-skinned African American woman and prominent member of the Harlem community, receives a letter from an old friend named Clare Kendry. Like Irene, Clare is light-skinned, but, unlike Irene, Clare has decided to pass as white. Clare feels lonely and isolated and wants Irene's help to become part of Harlem's society.

  • Clare and Irene have a strained friendship. Two years prior to the events of the novel, Clare invited Irene over to tea, where she was forced to listen to Clare's husband, John Bellew, make racist comments about black people. John still doesn't know that Clare and Irene are African American.
  • Clare's marriage to John has been in trouble for some time and is weakened by the fact that she refuses to follow him to Brazil. Irene suspects that Clare's involvement in the Harlem community will only cause trouble, but she decides to help Clare despite her reservations.
  • Irene later learns that her husband Brian has been having an affair with Clare. Brian then confronts Clare at a party at the end of the novel. In the ensuing confusion, Clare falls out a window and dies.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

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, Irene finds it difficult to repulse her old friend, even though she knows that this scheme may well endanger Clare’s masquerade and her marriage. Irene is well aware of the risks to Clare; what she does not anticipate is the danger Clare poses to her own marriage, which is already on shaky ground, primarily as a result of Irene’s refusal to leave New York and follow her husband to Brazil. The moment comes when Irene realizes that her husband, Brian, is having an affair with Clare. In a dramatic final scene, Clare’s husband breaks into a party and confronts her with the truth that he has discovered; in the confusion that follows, Clare falls out of a window. Whether Irene actually pushes her or simply wills her death is left for the reader to decide.

Passing is often called “slight,” perhaps because, as Cheryl A. Wall suggests, the theme of passing is itself superficial, perhaps because, even before the abrupt ending, Larsen has failed to make her own intentions clear. Because her attitudes toward Irene and Clare can be so variously interpreted, it has been argued that the book has two themes, passing and infidelity. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Clare, representing black female sexuality, is a sympathetic character and the real protagonist of the novel. It has even been suggested that the real subject of Passing is the desire of Clare and Irene for each other.

Another approach is to see the novel as a work about integrity. Viewed in this way, there is no doubt that the central character in Passing is Irene Redfield, and the story is a conventional loss of innocence. As the novel develops, Irene first vaguely senses and then sees clearly that someone who will deny her race will also betray her friends. Seen in this way, Passing is as strong an argument against assimilation as any writer of the Harlem Renaissance ever produced.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698

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...

(This entire section contains 698 words.)

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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 also notes Clare’s beauty, thinking of Clare as a lovely creature. Clare wants Irene to come to her house for tea, and although Irene knows that she should not do it, because Clare’s husband is white, she agrees, almost as if compelled.

Two years later, Irene is in the same predicament. Clare has requested another meeting, and in spite of knowing that she should not meet with her, Irene agrees. She knows that more is at risk this time because Clare, being in New York City, is on Irene’s turf. Anything outrageous or scandalous that happens will have immediate consequences on Irene’s life.

Irene and Clare meet. Clare tells Irene of her plan to spend time with black people, to become reacquainted with the black experience. Against her better judgment, Irene agrees to help Clare in her plan. The novel next showcases a number of parties, racial uplift meetings, and dinners that the two women attend in Harlem.

Most people are charmed with Clare, and everything seems to be working fine until Clare’s visits to the Redfield home become more frequent. Irene notes the attraction Brian has for Clare. Added to Irene’s growing jealousy is the complication of Clare’s husband, who returns from a business trip. His presence makes Clare’s getting away to be among black people more difficult and dangerous.

The novel is divided into three major sections, entitled “Encounter,” “Re-Encounter,” and “Finale.” Larsen advances her story by detailing Irene’s responses to the changes in her life that Clare’s “newfound” blackness brings. At various times, Irene either hates or loves Clare, feels sorry for her or feels contempt, and wants Clare near her or banished to another part of the world. It becomes clear to Irene that Clare’s attention to Brian may be all he needs to make a decision to leave Harlem, costing Irene the material and social comfort she has worked hard to get. Irene resolves that Clare must leave her life. Irene often hopes that something will happen to remove Clare from the Redfields’ social circle.

The novel’s ending, which includes Clare’s death, is ambiguous. Irene wanted Clare out of her life, but the narrative does not make it clear whether Clare accidentally fell from an apartment window, jumped, or was pushed by John Bellew or by Irene. In any event, Irene is relieved that Clare is dead.


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