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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Passing cover image

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.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.)