Larsen, Nella. Passing. 1929. Penguin, 1997.
Summary of Work
Irene Redfield has received a letter from a woman she grew up with in Chicago. It is a letter begging her to call on Clare Kendry, and after having seen Clare in Chicago, she does not wish to ever again. Irene remembers back to being in Chicago and visiting family and friends there. She was out and about looking for gifts to give her children when she and they returned to New York—her boys were at a summer camp—and after seeing a man faint on the sidewalk, she also became faint, and had a taxi driver take her somewhere for tea. He takes her to a whites only hotel, assuming because of her skin color that she is white, and she goes up to have tea. Irene can pass as white, but has a black husband and her boys are darker skinned. While Irene is having tea, a woman comes in who she thinks is beautiful, but rude because she won’t stop staring at her. Irene is just about to leave when the woman comes over and says she knows her. She calls her Rene, a name that she hasn’t been called since high school. After awhile she remembers who it is: Clare Kendry. It is the dark eyes that give her away.
She remembers Clare’s past, with a white father who was a janitor at the school and always drunk. When he died, Clare cried with fury but stopped as suddenly as she started. She was in her mid teens, and Irene was certain that the crying was more over frustration and anger at her father than sadness. After that her two white aunts took her to live, and then Clare never came to the South Side but rarely, until not at all. She was seen with white men parading around town in fancy dress, and rumors started about her.
Clare sits down and asks her all sorts of questions about Irene and says very little about herself. When Irene absolutely has to go because she is already late to her dinner and bridge party, Clare begs that Irene take time in the next few days to see her again. At first Irene is hesitant and doesn’t want to, but she gives into Clare, much to her own annoyance. She discovers on the way out that Clare has married a white man who struck it rich in South America. She has all the money she could want and a little girl named Margery. She says that it was very easy to pass because she was part white and had white aunts, so her husband never suspected she had black blood in her. Her husband does not know that she is black, and her aunts didn’t say anything because Clare never told them that she was going to marry a white man on account of her fear that they might get a conscience and tell the man she was half black.
Irene ponders what Clare has said on the way home, and sees Clare the next week. Another woman, Margaret, has also been invited to tea at Clare’s home, which annoys Irene, having thought that it was going to be just the two of them again. Margaret was another school friend who had lighter skin and could pass as white. She married a white man, a butcher, and he did know she was half black, but didn’t care. He married her for love. They all spend some time talking, mostly about their children and the fear that when they were born they would come out dark (to which Irene is insulted because she is proud of her children regardless of skin color), and then just when Irene is about to leave, Clare’s husband, Jack Bellew, walks in. He calls Clare Nig, and Irene is just mortified that her husband would say such a thing. When he explains the nickname as meaning that the longer Clare’s alive the darker her skin gets, and he jokes with her that one day she will turn black. They realize, over the course of conversation, that he does not know that Clare is black, and that he hates black people so much that he will not even be in their presence. Irene can’t stop laughing aloud at the situation because he is duped: he is sitting in a room with three black women, and one of them is his wife.
Irene and Margaret talk on the way out about how horrible it would be to live a lie like that in order to pass as white. They both agree that it is dangerous for Clare, and that they are happy they are not in her position. When Irene goes home, she is excited to get back to New York City and never see Clare again. Yet here is this letter, sitting on her desk. She talks to her husband about it, who says it’s best she just turn her down and get it over with: the association isn’t worth the risk. Her husband, Brian, is a doctor who is well off; they are part of the black elite. When he married her, he wanted to go to Brazil and work, but after a large fight about it, he dropped the matter. She still knows it’s in his heart and he dreams to go travel, but she feels confident that he will stay and take care of her and his two boys. She wants to talk to her husband about Junior, their oldest, about going to a school in Europe, and she hopes that his taking him there will sate some of the wanderlust she can see in his eyes. But when she’s in the car with him, the way she brings it up causes a fight, and she leaves the car angry and he avoids the conversation after that.
She is preparing for a large ball for the black elite and wealthy whites who come to Harlem, and she is in charge of tickets and tables. It is a large job, and she is determined to do it right, but it takes up most of her time. By the time she gets home, she is exhausted. But there is a knock on the door, and it is Clare Kendry. She decides to allow her up, even though the servant is reluctant. Clare asks why Irene never answered her letter, and Irene doesn’t have a good answer at first. But she then talks to Clare about the dangers of her being in Harlem in the home of a black person when she is passing as white and her husband is unaware and hates black people so much. Clare shoos that thought away, saying that she really needs to have her black culture back and to participate, and she will only do so when Jack is out of town so he never needs to know. But then Irene says that Clare should remember her responsibility to her daughter, and Clare cannot brush that reasoning aside. But she still wants to spend time where she can. Irene says she simply cannot do anything with her, especially considering the ball, and when Clare finds out, she talks Irene into letting her come. Brian, when he finds out, is amused.
Clare goes to the ball with the Redfields, and she is extravagantly dressed, moreso than anyone else. She enjoys the ball, and dances with Brian a lot. Irene is happy that Clare is happy and that the ball is going well. Hugh Wentworth, a very wealthy white man, is also there, and he enjoys conversation with Irene. Clare is very eager to meet him, and Irene says she’ll introduce her. After that night, Clare comes quite regularly to the Redfields’ home and even plays with the boys, staying around even if they are the only ones in the home.
Christmastime comes along, and Irene is feeling bleak. She is tired of Clare Kendry, but at the same time can’t say why. She accidentally falls asleep, and she is hosting a party for Hugh that evening, so she is rushing to get ready when Brian comes in. She is about to tell him about the incident, but still can’t bring herself to. Then Brian says he invited Clare to the party, and Irene stops getting ready. He says that he thought it was surely a mistake Clare hadn’t been invited, and Clare was so crushed that he couldn’t help but invite her. It is at this moment that Irene realizes that Brian is cheating on her with Clare, and the look in Brian’s eyes tells her it is true. She tells him that she didn’t invite Clare because Hugh doesn’t like her; she’s pretty enough, but not the type of intelligence that Hugh enjoys. After that nearly starts a fight, Brian leaves. Irene loses herself in grief, but puts herself together enough to go down and host. Still, she is not herself, and Hugh notices. He observes the situation and gathers that Brian is being unfaithful, and Irene, to distract him from that fact, makes up a story about breaking the cup she dropped because she hated it but couldn’t ever get rid of the cup because it was a Civil War relic.
Irene, over the next few weeks, tries to tell herself she is making up the situation, but she never really believes herself. And she realizes how vulnerable her position is. Her boys will be fine, but she is dispensable. She wishes she could ruin Clare Kendry. She is out on the town with her friend Felise one afternoon, and when they are walking about shopping, she runs into Clare’s husband. She knows that Jack can see her linked arm in arm with a black person, and that it is dangerous for him to see that because of Clare’s secret. He holds out his hand and says hello, but she cannot shake it and quickly skirts around him. She does not stay out long with Felise after that, and thinks that she’d better tell Brian and Clare about what has happened. But when she gets home, she can’t bring herself to. She and Brian get in an argument over him talking to his sons about racism and lynching. She doesn’t want her children to have to deal with that as children, and he tells her to not force him to give up everything that matters. She is struck and hurt. Her only solace is that soon Clare will be gone to Switzerland to get her child Margery from school, and her husband Jack is forcing her to go.
When they go to a party at the Freelands, Irene is surprised to see Clare coming with them. She tells Clare that Pennsylvania is not very far away and that it is a huge risk for Clare to go. She sends Clare over to Brian to talk because she can’t explain to her why it’s dangerous. At that point, Clare realizes that Irene knows that she is stealing her husband, and Irene reconfirms what she knows. She is saddened, but not as grief stricken as the first time. They get to the Freelands and climb up the many flights of stairs to the top floor. They start enjoying themselves, and about halfway through the party, Jack bursts in. He calls her out for her lying about her race, and Clare, in fear, backs up, Irene tries to grab her arm, but it is too late; Clare has fallen out the window. She tumbles to the ground and dies instantly. Everyone runs down, but Irene stays. Was she a part of the reason Clare fell? Did she push her? Or did she fall of her own accord? She realizes that she needs to go down the stairs, and she realizes that Brian left his coat. She doesn’t want him to catch cold, so she brings the coat to him. She is losing her mind over this, and the men realize it as everyone is asking her about what happened. Brian has said he was sure he saw Jack push Clare out the window, but Irene insists that no, Clare simply fell. Jack is nowhere to be found. The men suggest they all go back up and get another look at the window.
Brief Note on Themes
The largest discussions within this book surround cultural identity and what happens when a person betrays that identity. Irene is very protective of her black community and culture, and feels that Clare doesn’t belong because she actively chose to leave it in order to have wealth and privilege, and now wants it back only out of a need for nostalgia and fun. Irene herself can pass as white, but doesn’t because she values her culture more than the privileges of whiteness. Yet Irene still benefits from those privileges when she is out alone in public. Passing is the act of being able to participate in the culture of the majority because of a light skin color. It was a way around Jim Crow laws for those who chose to renounce their heritage and community.
Clare and Irene’s relationship represents what is largely a broken female bond. Irene feels betrayed, and Clare keeps using Irene in order to relive her life after discovering that money and privilege do not offer her everything she wants. Racism still affects Clare even though her husband thinks she is white, because she still gets to hear his rants against her race; her biracial status places her between two cultures, and she cannot find a way to bridge them because of the racism her husband exhibits. Irene, on the other hand, has a need to control everything in her life, and not being able to control Clare causes her much grief. Her perfectly planned life leads her to be protective of her culture and community and family. Her relationship with Clare starts to force a break in that control, completed when she realizes Clare has stolen away her husband.
Racial tensions reach their height at the Freelands’ party, where Jack confronts Clare. Clare’s death, so quickly occurring, could be said to represent how vulnerable and fragile the black body, but particularly the female black body, is when confronted with racial violence. Lying about race proves more fatal than accepting racial identity and being open and honest about it.