Passing Summary

In Passing, light-skinned Clare Kendry passes for white. Her friend Irene helps her enter Harlem's African American community, despite misgivings. Not long after Irene discovers that her husband has been having an affair with Clare, her friend falls to her death.

  • 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, a white man who doesn't know his wife is black.

  • When Irene receives a letter asking if she'll help Clare become part of Harlem's big African American community, Irene hesitates. She thinks Clare is putting her marriage at risk. She's also worried about her own marriage, which is already on the rocks.

  • Later, Irene learns that her husband Brian has been having an affair with Clare. Brian later confronts Clare at a party. In the ensuing confusion, Clare fall out of a window.


(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.)