Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Irene (’Rene) Westover Redfield

Irene (’Rene) Westover Redfield, the protagonist, in her early thirties, foremost among a cast of unlikable characters. She is a complacent member of the moneyed black elite of Harlem with a craving for safety. Olive-skinned, she “passes” for white when she wants a taxi, a theater ticket, or entrée into a classy café, but her erstwhile friend Clare Kendry’s wholesale betrayal of her race provokes her scorn and a sense of unease. Jealous and frightened of Clare’s attraction for her husband, she is nevertheless bound to her by the ties of race. As the novel’s center of consciousness, from the first she focuses the reader’s own sense of unease, and at the novel’s close the reader wonders whether ’Rene has deliberately pushed Clare to her death from a sixth-floor window.

Clare Kendry

Clare Kendry, also referred to as Mrs. John Bellew, ’Rene’s Chicago childhood friend. Blonde, pale-skinned Clare grew up as the orphaned poor relation of whites whom it suited to obscure her racial origins. She is now married to a wealthy black-hating bigot (he nicknames her “Nig” because her skin is darkening with age). There is reckless daring in her life of deception and something tragic in the loss of selfhood that drives her to reestablish dangerous contact with the blackness whose burden ’Rene has been privileged to bear so lightly. An elusive and flowerlike beauty with a...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Larsen uses a third-person omniscient narrator who is always close to Irene Redfield’s thoughts and feelings. Most of the novel’s meaning depends on Irene’s character. Irene, Clare, and Brian are the most fully realized of the characters, though several relatively undeveloped characters are present, including Gertrude Martin, John Bellew, Zulena, Hugh Wentworth, and Felise Freeland.

Irene is a complicated character whose exterior conventionality masks a woman who wants adventure and excitement and whose reinvolvement with Clare gives her vicarious outlets for feelings she has denied. Irene is an inauthentic woman. By disclosing her thoughts, feelings, and life choices, Larsen highlights not only the extent of this inauthenticity but also how it creates a woman more dangerous in her denial of self than Clare is in her overt risk-taking.

Irene has groomed herself to be a model of black middle-class respectability. She marries a physician, has two sons, lives in a respectable Harlem brownstone, associates with the right people, and supports the right social causes, such as the Negro Welfare League. On the surface, she has it all. Beneath the surface, Larsen shows the price Irene pays to live a fraudulent life.

When Irene reflects on her relationship with Brian and the constant tension she has to quell to keep him from moving to Brazil and disrupting her life, she understands that she does not love him and never has. She thinks that if he were to die, she would only look askance at his photograph. She and Brian even sleep in separate bedrooms. She remains in her marriage for the financial security and social standing it provides. When Clare poses a risk to her security, Irene decides to do something about it. Most...

(The entire section is 715 words.)