Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary
Nella Larsen’s Passing was first published in 1929, during the arts and cultural movement called the Harlem Renaissance, a surge of recognition for black authors and artists. The title of the novel refers to the practice of some mixed-race men and women passing as white because their skin was light. This practice gave them an escape from the societal limitations placed on black people in the United States. Passing was Larsen’s second and last novel.
The story opens as Irene Redfield is sorting through her mail. She stops when she sees an unusual envelope. She identifies the envelope as being made from an expensive Italian brand of paper. The handwriting on the front is all but illegible but is written in bold, purple ink. There is no return address, but that does not hinder Irene from knowing who sent the letter. Two years ago, Irene had received a similar letter. Now as she contemplates the sender, she is reluctant to open the envelope; she feels concerned about what she will find inside.
As she holds the unopened letter in her hand, Irene recalls images of the sender, a childhood friend named Clare Kendry. According to Irene, Clare always walked on the edge of danger. She recalls a scene when Clare was a young child living with her father, who was white. He was a big, impatient man who was often drunk. Rather than staying out of his way, Clare chose to mostly ignore the man. The image Irene sees is of Clare sitting on a sofa, working on a sewing project, while her father storms back and forth across the room, cursing and occasionally lunging for his daughter as if he wants to hit her. Clare concentrates on the dress she is attempting to make out of a red fabric. The only visible notice Clare takes of the looming figure who threatens her is to move closer to the opposite side of the couch; she keeps her eyes on her needle and thread.
A second memory Irene has of her friend is of the day Clare’s father was brought home dead. Clare is fifteen in this memory. She stares at the body that was once her father. Irene sees only disdain on Clare’s face as she stands motionless above him. Then all of a sudden Clare screams, pulls at her hair, and pounds her feet on the floor. The outburst is over almost as suddenly as it began. Irene reflects on this second memory and realizes that rather than an expression of sorrow, Clare’s reaction to her father’s death appears to be an expression of pent-up frustration and anger.
Finally, Irene opens the envelope to find a multi-paged letter inside. In the letter, Clare tells Irene that she is very lonely and would like to see her. Clare makes a reference to the last time the two of them saw one another, two years ago in Chicago. The memory of that event unsettles Irene.