What happens in Passing?

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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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1,268 words.)