Passing

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Gertrude Martin Character Analysis

Gertrude Martin is a childhood acquaintance of Clare and Irene, the wife of Fred Martin, and the daughter of a butcher. Gertrude was beautiful when she was young, but has apparently not aged well. Irene encounters her when she goes to Clare’s for tea. Gertrude can pass as white, and is married to a white man (a butcher like her father) who knows that she is black. During tea, Gertrude expresses her aversion to dark-skinned children to Clare and Irene, making Irene angry.

Gertrude Martin Quotes in Passing

The Passing quotes below are all either spoken by Gertrude Martin or refer to Gertrude Martin. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Anchor Books edition of Passing published in 2001.
Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

Later, when she examined her feeling of annoyance, Irene admitted, a shade reluctantly, that it arose from a feeling of being outnumbered, a sense of aloneness, in her adherence to her own class and kind; not merely in the great thing of marriage, but in the whole pattern of her life as well.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield, Gertrude Martin
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

Irene has reluctantly gone to have tea with Clare, and when she arrives, Clare brings her into a room where Irene finds one of their mutual childhood acquaintances, Gertrude. Here, the narrator is expressing Irene’s frustration with Gertrude and Clare, who both married white men and seem to think that their choice was superior to Irene’s choice to marry a black man.

Interestingly, Irene being the only one in the room to have married a black man makes her feel “a sense of aloneness.” Later, when Clare begins to spend more time with Irene, Clare expresses how deeply lonely she feels in her marriage to John, a white man. Irene feels judged and, in this instance, lonely for not having a part in white society, while Clare feels lonely for having lost her place in the black community. It’s notable that both Irene and Clare’s senses of alienation come because of their choices in marriage.

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It’s awful the way it skips generations and then pops out. Why, he actually said he didn’t care what color it turned out, if I would only stop worrying about it. But, of course, nobody wants a dark child.

Related Characters: Gertrude Martin (speaker), Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

Gertrude says this as she, Irene, and Clare discuss their marriages and children over tea in Chicago. Both Gertrude and Clare are married to white men and have light-skinned children, while Irene is married to a black man and has one son who has light skin and one who is dark. Gertrude and Clare both admit to their anxiety during pregnancy about the possibility of having dark-skinned children.

Gertrude’s husband, unlike Clare’s husband, knows that she is black, and so Gertrude does not need her children to be light skinned in order to keep her own race a secret. Moreover, Gertrude clearly states that her husband did not care what their children looked like. Still, Gertrude clearly expresses a preference for light-skinned children, and she even actively disparages dark children, calling the way skin pigmentation can skip generations “awful” and saying harshly “nobody wants a dark child.”

Although it’s possible that Gertrude simply wants light-skinned children so that they may experience more privileges by passing as white, Gertrude’s negative language suggests that her preference comes from deeply internalized racism. The racist beauty standards of American society have so influenced Gertrude’s thinking that she thinks of blackness as aesthetically unappealing.

He roared with laughter. Clare’s ringing bell-like laugh joined his. Gertrude, after another uneasy shift in her seat, added her shrill one. Irene, who had been sitting with lips tightly compressed, cried out: “That’s good!” and gave way to gales of laughter. She laughed and laughed and laughed. Tears ran down her cheeks. Her sides ached. Her throat hurt. She laughed on and on and on, long after the others had subsided.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield, John/Jack Bellew, Gertrude Martin
Page Number: 201
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene takes place after John has come home and, not knowing that Irene, Gertrude, and his own wife are all black, he called Clare a racist slur in front of them. John then explains that it is an inside joke between them. John laughs at his own joke, and the rest of the women begin to laugh, as well, for a variety of different reasons. Clare and Gertrude seem to be laughing to keep John from finding their silence or disapproval suspicious. Irene, meanwhile, bursts out with genuine laughter, but not because she thinks that John’s joke was funny. Rather, Irene laughs because of the irony of the moment—John, who hates black people, has no idea that he is drinking tea with black women, and, in fact, has married one.

The irony of the moment could certainly be perceived as funny, but it is also extremely dark. This scene shows how humor, rather than creating commonalities between people, can be disturbing and divisive and can expose gaps in empathy and understanding. At the same time, though, the humor is necessary—both practically, so the women do not reveal Clare’s secret, and emotionally, because there are few other options for dealing with the bleak situation.

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Gertrude Martin Character Timeline in Passing

The timeline below shows where the character Gertrude Martin appears in Passing. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 3
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
...Irene does not recognize her, but then she identifies her, and asks, “how are you, Gertrude?” (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Gertrude, a mutual childhood acquaintance, greets Irene. Irene thinks about how Gertrude, like Clare, married a... (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Irene observes Gertrude, thinking she seems uncomfortable, and feels annoyed. The narrator notes that later, when Irene thinks... (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Beauty and Race Theme Icon
Irene agrees, and asks how Clare found Gertrude. Clare says she looked up the contact information for Gertrude’s father’s store—a butcher shop. Irene... (full context)
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Clare tells Irene that Gertrude told her before Irene arrived about her two twin boys, and the tone in Clare’s... (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Beauty and Race Theme Icon
...was so terrified during her pregnancy that Margery would have dark skin. Irene is silent. Gertrude empathizes with Clare. She says that, while her husband would have been fine with a... (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Beauty and Race Theme Icon
Irene promptly replies that one of her boys is dark, and Gertrude is shocked and embarrassed. She asks if Irene’s husband is dark as well. Irene, though... (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Beauty and Race Theme Icon
...much about skin pigment, and saying it’s not so important for Irene, or even for Gertrude. Clare says that only “deserters” like her have to be afraid of “freaks of nature.”... (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Gertrude tells Clare that Claude Jones converted to Judaism, and says she would “die laughing” if... (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Humor Theme Icon
...surprised Irene would have expected them to think of that. The conversation gets tense. Meanwhile, Gertrude is confused and surprised. Clare then steers the conversation away from race and religion to... (full context)
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
...Clare was with at the Drayton. John greets Clare by saying “Hello, Nig,” shocking both Gertrude and Irene. Irene is confused, and thinks that maybe John knows that Clare comes from... (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Humor Theme Icon
Clare introduces John to Gertrude and Irene, and then asks if Irene and Gertrude heard her husband’s nickname for her.... (full context)
Humor Theme Icon
Gertrude makes a noise, and Irene cannot tell whether it is a giggle or a snort.... (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
...black people in South America before Clare cuts him off. John backs off and asks Gertrude about her life in Chicago. As they discuss Chicago and New York, Irene is astonished... (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
...in the hotel. Irene plays along, saying she likes it. They all say goodbye, and Gertrude and Irene get in the elevator together silently. (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Humor Theme Icon
On the street, Gertrude exclaims that Clare must be crazy to be living in that situation, and Irene agrees... (full context)
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Irene and Gertrude part ways. Now alone, Irene processes the tea party, and her own contemptuous anger. She... (full context)