The narrator returns to Irene at present, in her home in New York, holding the second letter she has received from Clare, several years after their meeting in Chicago. In this letter, Clare expresses her desire to see Irene again. Irene lays the letter aside and contemplates her intense feelings of fear and anger about the incident two years before. Knowing Clare, Irene is not surprised that she has written to her again.
That Irene, two years later, is still upset about the incident with John Bellew and Clare shows how profoundly affecting subjection to such vitriolic racism can be, and how long its emotional toll can persist.
Irene vows not to repeat the day in Chicago, which was so humiliating and hurtful to her. Irene thinks that, if Clare had wanted to retain her connections to the black community, she should have thought of that before marrying John. Irene also finds the style of the letter too “lavish.”
Irene sees Clare’s passing as a permanent choice, and one that should preclude her from returning to the black community. To Irene, it seems Clare is trying to have it both ways: enjoying both white privilege and black community.
Irene wonders why, during their tea in Chicago, she did not reveal to John that she is black and stand up for herself in the face of John’s racism. However, Irene knows that she did not want to betray Clare, and feels a loyalty to her as member of her race. Irene acknowledges that Clare does not seem to care especially about their race, but still, Irene thinks, she belongs to it.
Irene continues to feel conflicted about how she should have acted at the tea party, unsure of whether it would have been better to stand up for herself as a black woman or to protect Clare’s secret. Irene’s racial loyalty extends to Clare, even though Clare passes as white, and even though Irene sometimes thinks of her as white.
As she pulls on her stockings, Irene swears to herself not to indulge Clare. Irene’s husband Brian walks into the room, jokingly says that he has caught her swearing, and asks why. Irene hands Brian the letter. She feels bad because she is running late and holding Brian up, and blames the letter for distracting her.
Irene blames the letter for making her late, which hints (as many other moments do) at the unreliability of Irene’s perspective. Even in these early interactions, Irene blames Clare for her marital problems.
Irene finishes getting ready while Brian reads the letter. She fixes her hair in the mirror and dresses. When Irene finishes preparing herself, she looks at Brian as he reads, thinking he is extremely handsome. She thinks he is not attractive in a feminine way, but in a masculine way. Irene also thinks that Brian’s attractiveness is due in a large part to the beauty of his dark skin.
Irene’s belief that Brian is extremely handsome in a “masculine” way suggests that Irene pays particular attention to gender and gendered beauty. Irene’s clinical evaluation of Brian’s “masculine” beauty contrasts with her sensual observation of Clare’s “feminine” beauty.
Brian looks up from the letter and asks if Clare is the same girl that Irene saw in Chicago last time she was there (clearly, Irene has told him about the tea party). Irene affirms this guess. She tells Brian she is ready for breakfast. As they descend the stairs, Brian asks pointedly if Irene is going to see Clare. Irene gets a little defensive, saying she would not be so stupid as to put herself in the same room as John Bellew so that he can call her a “nigger” again.
Irene’s defensiveness at Brian’s question displays that their marriage has underlying tension, since Irene understands Brian’s inquiry as a criticism. Irene’s response, meanwhile, clearly shows again how hurt Irene was by the scene at the tea party, and how profoundly John’s use of slurs affected her.
They go into the dining room, where their housekeeper Zulena has laid out breakfast. As they eat, Brian tells Irene that she misunderstood his question as an aggressive one, and explains that he just wanted to make sure that Irene would not let Clare bother her. He reminds Irene that John did not exactly call Irene a “nigger,” but rather said it around her, and says that that makes a difference. Irene admits that he didn’t call her a “nigger” but argues that there isn’t very much of a difference, since John Bellew would have done so if he had known that she is black.
Brian and Irene’s discussion about the distinction between Irene being called a “nigger” and having the word said in Irene’s presence shows how their views of racism differ. Irene professes to be just as affected by the word without it being directed at her. Their discussion reinforces Larsen’s portrayal of Irene as deeply committed to racial justice in general, not just to escaping racism herself.
Brian argues that the story has a humorous side, since they all knew what was going on and John didn’t, but Irene says she “can’t see it.” She tells Brian she will write to Clare that day and put an end to the matter.
While Irene previously thought that the situation was humorous (she laughed in the moment), clearly Irene’s reaction has changed over time.
Irene then expresses surprise that Clare wants to spend time with her at all, given John’s terrifying racism. Brian cuts her off, saying that he has seen people pass before, and they always return to the black community. They discuss the potential reasons for this. Finally, returning to the original topic, Irene says that she has no interest in helping Clare connect with her black identity and the black community. Brian agrees with her choice.
Larsen continues to explore the nuances of passing and how it is viewed in the black community. Brian’s comment that people who pass always return to the black community suggests that passing is ultimately unsatisfying. These people who return to the black community are clearly not always welcomed with open arms.
Zulena brings them toast, and Irene comments on the ambiguous attitude that the black community has toward “passing.” She suggests that it is simultaneously condemned and admired. Brian attributes it to biological survival impulses. Irene scoffs at the idea, but does not try to argue with him, knowing he is a good arguer.
Brian’s belief that passing is a biological survival impulse attributes a complex social phenomenon to a simple biological rule. This is problematic considering how, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, science (and particularly Darwin’s ideas of adaptation and survival) was often used to endorse racist ideas.
Irene changes the subject, asking Brian if he would do her a favor and take her to print some tickets for the Negro Welfare League dance, which she is helping to organize. Brian agrees. Irene says that organizing the dance is difficult, and Brian comments that his work as a doctor is as well, and that he hates it. Irene begins to get defensive, since she has encouraged him to remain in medicine, but Brian cuts the conversation off and asks if she is ready to go.
The fact that Irene is organizing the Negro Welfare Dance shows Irene’s commitment to advancing black people and to racial equality, as she devotes her free time to fundraising and organizing for the cause. This section also clearly shows that Irene and Brian’s marriage is fraught with tension.
As Brian puts his hat on in the hall, Irene thinks that Brian’s moodiness about his job is unfair, because he seems to be blaming her for not letting them move out of New York. Irene wonders angrily and fearfully if he will ever give up his idea of moving to Brazil. She tells Brian she is going upstairs to get her things. She thinks uneasily about the fact that Brian had not voiced his discontent in a long time, but she had known it was still there.
Irene repeatedly tries to attribute the tension in her marriage to Brian’s desire to go to South America (which is described almost as a romantic competitor to Irene). However, it appears that Irene and Brian’s marriage has more issues with control, communication, etc. than with South America specifically.
Irene worries briefly that she actually does not know Brian very well, but then backtracks, assuring herself that she does. Irene tells herself not to worry, as Brian’s desire for something different will die out eventually. Irene puts on her coat and hat. She decides to make some kind of plan to soothe Brian’s desire to get out of New York, to assuage his restlessness. Irene puts on her gloves and takes her purse and walks out to the car where Brian is waiting.
Irene describes waiting out Brian’s desire to go to South America in a way that clearly shows her lack of respect for Brian’s aspirations and desires. She views his ambition to go to South America as a threat to their love. Again, clearly Irene and Brian have communication issues.
In the car, as Brian drives, Irene tells Brian she has been wanting to talk to him about something. Brian prompts Irene to tell him what it is, and Irene says that she is worried about their son Junior, who she thinks is “going too fast” in school. Brian tells Irene that he wishes she worried less about the children. Irene concedes that she is sure Brian wouldn’t make a mistake with his son, but says that she worries Junior is picking up some bad ideas from the older boys.
The narrator, taking up Irene’s perspective, frames Irene’s plan as a thoughtful way to give Brian the chance to travel while keeping him from wanting to go to Brazil. However, it quickly becomes clear that Irene is not really thinking of Brian, but of her own parental anxieties.
Brian asks Irene if she means ideas about sex, and Irene tells him yes, that Junior has picked up “dreadful jokes.” Brian is silent, and then asks, “if sex isn’t a joke, what is it?” Brian then goes on to tell Irene that she is trying to coddle Junior, and that if she is trying to imply that Junior should change schools, Brian is totally against it. Brian says that it’s good that Junior is learning about sex, especially as a joke, to save him from later disappointments.
Clearly, sex makes Irene feel uncomfortable, and she does not like the idea of her son talking about it with his friends. Brian, meanwhile, sees it as totally normal. Irene wishes to insulate her children from the adult world, including sex, while Brian wants to teach them how to confront it.
Irene does not respond, and when they reach the print shop, she gets out and slams the door behind her. In the print shop, she is extremely angry. Irene then composes herself and, once she’s done printing and back outside, tells Brian she will not go back to the house with him. Instead she will take the bus downtown to go shopping. Brian puts on his hat and Irene bitterly says goodbye to him.
Rather than discussing their conflict, Irene and Brian part ways without resolving any of their frustration. Throughout these scenes of Brian and Irene, Larsen shows that what keeps Irene and Brian’s marriage together is not sex or intellectual compatibility, but Irene’s determination to keep her routine with Brian.
Irene, alone, ponders how she will pin Brian down. Her plan had been to suggest sending Junior to a European school and let Brian take him there so he could travel and have a break from the New York City monotony. She is mad at herself for not succeeding in her plan, but she eventually calms down and decides to bring it up again later. For now, Irene assures herself that Brian will not leave her because he loves her, and because of their children. The narrator notes that she does want him to be happy, as long as it’s according to plans of her own design.
Although Irene clearly cares deeply about her children and wants what is best for them, she also uses her parenting concerns as ways to pacify and control Brian. When Irene assures herself that Brian will not leave her because of the children, it is obvious to the reader that their marriage is not very fulfilling for the couple.