Passing

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Anchor Books edition of Passing published in 2001.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

This, she reflected, was of a piece with all that she knew of Clare Kendry. Stepping always on the edge of danger. Always aware, but not drawing back or turning aside. Certainly not because of any alarms or feeling of outrage on the part of others.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield
Related Symbols: Doorways, Windows, Thresholds
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote appears in the first few pages of the first chapter of the text. Irene has just received her second letter from Clare, which she recognizes because the type of paper and ink are exactly the same as the letter she received two years before. Irene’s thoughts on the letter help to establish for the reader the relationship between the two women—it’s clearly one of mixed feelings, and Irene’s ambivalence toward Clare will continue throughout the book.

Irene’s descriptions of Clare as “on the edge of danger” foreshadow Clare’s deadly fall from the window at the book’s end. Moreover, the idea that Clare is in danger because she is perched on a threshold between two spaces is a consistent theme throughout the book, since Larsen uses Clare to explore the liminal space of “passing” and being part of both black and white communities. As the book goes on, it becomes clear that the in-between-space Clare occupies, although beneficial in many ways, also takes an enormous toll on her emotionally.

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You can’t know how in this pale life of mine I am all the time seeing the bright pictures of that other that I once thought I was glad to be free of….It’s like an ache, a pain that never ceases.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew (speaker), Irene Redfield
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

Clare writes this quote in her second letter to Irene, describing the pain she feels at her alienation from the black community. Clare has received many privileges through passing, including insulation from racial violence, financial security, and the ability to spend time in all-white spaces. However, despite these benefits, Clare is still clearly extremely unhappy and feels tremendously lonely. When Clare describes her life as “pale,” she plays on the idea of paleness as both a complexion and a lack of vibrancy. Through Clare, Larsen conveys the psychological toll that passing can take on black people.

Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means: fingernails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a Gypsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro. No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn’t possibly know.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

A kind stranger has dropped Irene off at the Drayton (an all white hotel in Chicago) after Irene nearly fainted from heatstroke while souvenir shopping. Here, Irene is sitting at the Drayton sipping tea and reflecting on the fact that nobody there can tell that she is black.

Irene expresses her belief that the idea of being able to definitively determine someone’s race through a series of physical clues is stupid. Irene associates this folly with white people, whom she describes as being obsessed with decoding race through specific physical features or body parts. Irene takes pleasure it the fact that no white person ever succeeds in guessing her race when she is alone, and she revels in being the example that disproves the idea that, by scrutinizing physical features, someone can definitively determine another person’s race.

Irene’s resistance to the idea that race can always be read through physical clues is radical because race, at least in the imagination of 1920s America, was understood to be a series of discreet categories rooted in physical and genetic difference. Passing as white challenges the very idea of race because it suggests that race is uncontainable in strict physical categories.

Her lips, painted a brilliant geranium red, were sweet and sensitive and a little obstinate. A tempting mouth. The face across the forehead and cheeks was a trifle too wide, but the ivory skin had a peculiar soft luster. And the eyes were magnificent! Dark, sometimes absolutely black, always luminous, and set in long, black lashes. Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about them. Ah! Surely! They were Negro eyes! Mysterious and concealing. And set in that ivory face under that bright hair, there was about them something exotic. Yes, Clare Kendry’s loveliness was absolute, beyond challenge, thanks to those eyes which her grandmother and later her mother and father had given her.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield
Page Number: 190-191
Explanation and Analysis:

As Irene and Clare drink iced tea together and catch up at the Drayton after their chance meeting, Irene takes in Clare’s beauty, describing each part of her face in detail. This quote demonstrates one of the many instances in which Irene expounds upon Clare’s beauty, trying to make sense of her striking combination of features. Irene’s obsession with Clare’s beauty becomes quite noticeable as the book goes on, so much so that it transcends platonic aesthetic appreciation and approaches erotic desire.

Irene’s sexual attraction to Clare is even apparent in this quote. For example, Irene describes Clare’s mouth as “tempting,” suggesting that Irene is imagining kissing Clare. Meanwhile, Clare’s eyes “mesmerize” her, as they seem to contain something “withdrawn and secret” about them. By evoking language about enclosure and secrecy, Irene’s thoughts seem illicit, forbidden—like the possibility of Irene’s desire for Clare.

Moreover, although Irene has previously dismissed the idea of determining race through physical features, she entertains it here by referring to Clare’s “negro eyes.” Irene attributes Clare’s beauty to the interplay between her light hair and skin and her dark eyes, suggesting that Irene is attracted to the fact that Clare has an “exotic” look—Clare does not correspond to traditional beauty standards.

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.

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.

Oh no Nig…nothing like that with me. I know you’re no nigger, so it’s all right. You can get as black as you please as far as I’m concerned, since I know you’re no nigger. I draw the line at that. No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.

Related Characters: John/Jack Bellew (speaker), Clare Kendry / Bellew
Page Number: 201
Explanation and Analysis:

John Bellew speaks this quote just after the uncomfortable laughing incident, as Irene, Gertrude, and Clare struggle to deal with John’s racism. Clare has just asked John if, after all their years of marriage, it would matter to him if it turned out that she had even a little black ancestry.

John insists that it would matter, repeating variations of the slur “nigger” four times as he does so. He insists that he will have “no niggers in [his family].” Of course, this is incredibly ironic because John is unwittingly married to a black woman, and the father to a child who is part black. At the same time, John makes it very clear that he would not tolerate finding out the truth about Clare, which reveals the danger of Clare’s situation. Interestingly, John separates skin color from race (he tells Clare he doesn’t care what her skin color is, as long as she’s not a “nigger”), and in doing so he undermines the very idea of race being based in a difference in skin-color. While John’s racism is clearly dangerous, it is also highly mockable and almost amusingly hypocritical, reflecting Larsen’s sense that even the darkest, most dire subjects can be jokes.

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

Not so lonely that that old, queer, unhappy restlessness had begun again within him; that craving for some place strange and different, which at the beginning of her marriage she had had to make such strenuous efforts to repress, and which yet faintly alarmed her, though it now sprang up at gradually lessening intervals.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield, John/Jack Bellew
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator describes Irene’s thoughts as she worries about her marriage to Brian. Irene thinks about the “old, queer, unhappy” restlessness that makes Brian want to move to South America, which has been a problem since the beginning of their marriage.

Curiously, the way that Irene thinks about Brian’s longing for South America is extremely intimate, as if Irene understands this “craving.” This seems odd, since Irene and Brian struggle with a distinct lack of communication in their marriage. In fact, the reader might wonder if Irene is using her own experience with a “queer, unhappy restlessness” to attempt to describe what she thinks it must be like for Brian.

The use of the word “queer,” paired with Irene’s consistent obsession with Clare’s beauty, makes the reader wonder whether Irene is also describing here her own attraction to women. Irene uses language that suggests closeted queerness, calling Brian’s desire (but perhaps her own as well) a “craving” for the “strange and different,” and something that Irene has had to actively repress. As usual, the unreliability of Irene’s perspective and Irene’s own lack of self-awareness leaves the narrative open to speculation.

Part 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

Brian, she was thinking, was extremely good-looking. Not, of course, pretty or effeminate; the slight irregularity of his nose saved him from the prettiness, and the rather marked heaviness of his chin saved him from the effeminacy. But he was, in a pleasant masculine way, rather handsome. And yet, wouldn’t he, perhaps, have been merely ordinarily good-looking but for the richness, the beauty of his skin, which was of an exquisitely fine texture and deep copper color?

Related Characters: Irene Redfield, Brian Redfield
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Irene is watching Brian read a letter and evaluating his attractiveness. In comparison to Irene’s many drawn-out, lush, and impassioned descriptions of Clare’s beauty, this description of Brian’s attractiveness (the only one in the novel) reads more like a catalogue of traits than a gushing, impulsive admiration. The contrast between Irene’s descriptions of Clare’s and Brian’s beauty serves as more evidence of Irene’s repressed queerness. Moreover, throughout this description, Irene takes note of exactly which features make Brian “not… pretty or effeminate,” suggesting perhaps that Irene pays close attention to gender in evaluating beauty.

Irene also takes note of Brian’s dark skin and suggests that his attractiveness is cemented by his dark coloring. Irene’s appreciation is aesthetic, as she admires its “deep copper color.” But, considering Irene’s commitment to racial justice, Irene’s appreciation might also be political. Irene wants to embrace blackness, which has been dismissed by traditional, racist beauty standards.

It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield (speaker), Brian Redfield
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Irene speaks this quote after she and Brian have moved from talking about Clare’s second letter to discussing the nuances of the phenomenon of passing as white. This quote could almost be taken as the book’s thesis on passing, and it is one of the few moments in the book that gives the reader clarity on the subject.

Irene’s statement expresses the deep ambivalence that the black community feels toward passing. Irene describes the simultaneous feelings of contempt and admiration that passing elicits in black people, and this shows that passing is a fraught but established aspect of the black experience in the United States. Irene’s description of ambivalence towards passing reflects the broader ambivalence that categorizes Irene’s feelings about nearly everything throughout the book—passing, Clare, Brian, etc.

Well, what of it? If sex isn’t a joke, what is it? And what is a joke? …The sooner and the more he learns about sex, the better for him. And most certainly if he learns that it’s a grand joke, the greatest in the world. It’ll keep him from lots of disappointments later on.

Related Characters: Brian Redfield (speaker), Irene Redfield, Brian Junior (Junior)
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

Brian speaks this quote as he and Irene drive to the printshop so Irene can print tickets for the Negro Welfare League dance. Irene has just brought up her concern that Junior is learning dirty jokes about sex from the other boys at his school, and Brian, already angry at Irene because of his job frustrations, lashes out at her.

As Brian articulates his frustration with Irene’s worries—asking what her problem is with jokes about sex—Larsen again calls into question the appropriate use of humor. Brian sees “serious” subjects like sex as being compatible with humor, while Irene would like to separate the two. Clearly, the implication of Brian’s statement (that learning that sex is a joke will save Junior from “lots of disappointments later on”) is that Brian’s sex life with Irene is a disappointment. This hurtful comment displays how troubled their marriage is, and Brian’s lack of fulfillment in it.

Part 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

Clare had come softly into the room without knocking and, before Irene could greet her, had dropped a kiss on her dark curls… Redfield had a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling. Reaching out, she grasped Clare’s two hands in her own and cried with something like awe in her voice: “Dear God! But aren’t you lovely Clare!”

Related Characters: Irene Redfield (speaker), Clare Kendry / Bellew
Page Number: 224-225
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Irene is upstairs in her room when Clare drops by. Clare enters the room and, as described in this quote, kisses Irene on the head. Irene reacts to Clare’s kiss with “a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling,” then holds Clare’s face and tells Clare that she is “lovely.”

Irene’s reaction to Clare’s physical touch is extremely emotional, especially considering that nothing similar ever occurs in the book between Irene and Brian (in fact, they never kiss, while Clare kisses Irene several times). Irene feels an “onrush of [affection]” and has “awe” in her voice as she compliments Clare, despite the fact that Irene professes to dislike Clare. This intimate moment serves as more evidence of the possibility that Irene harbors erotic and romantic feelings for Clare.

Irene…had the same thought that she had had two years ago on the roof of the Drayton, that Clare Kendry was just a shade too good-looking. Her tone was on the edge of irony as she said: “You mean because so many other white people go?”

Related Characters: Irene Redfield (speaker), Clare Kendry / Bellew
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Clare is asking Irene about the Negro Welfare League dance, which Irene is helping to organize. Clare has just remarked with surprise that white people attend the Negro Welfare League dance, and she has asked if she can go, too. Irene clearly feels threatened by and jealous of Clare’s beauty, and in an attempt to slight her, Irene asks if Clare wants to go “because so many other white people go.”

Although Irene knows that Clare has black ancestry and grew up in a black community, Irene is essentially implying that Clare is a white person. This question, clearly intended to be hurtful, shows the precariousness of racial identity for someone like Clare who is white-passing. Clare is not “black enough” according to Irene, and this could be for a multitude of reasons: the fact that Clare is so light-skinned, that she pretends she has no black ancestry in public, or that she benefits from white privilege. Meanwhile, to Clare’s racist husband, any black ancestry would make Clare wholly black in his eyes and would cause him to reject her. This scene between Irene and Clare showcases the difficulty of navigating society as someone who is straddling two racial identities, and who, as a result, is not totally welcome among either black or white people.

You didn’t tell him you were colored, so he’s got no way of knowing about this hankering of yours after Negroes, or that it galls you to fury to hear them called niggers and black devils. As far as I can see, you’ll just have to endure some things and give up others. As we’ve said before, everything must be paid for.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield (speaker), Clare Kendry / Bellew, John/Jack Bellew
Page Number: 231
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Irene and Clare are talking about Clare’s marriage to John Bellew. Clare has just expressed her martial frustration and despair, saying that she would like to kill John. Irene dryly responds that capital punishment is still the penalty for murder, and then lectures Clare about her own culpability in her situation.

Irene’s condescending response puts the blame for Clare’s situation on Clare, as Irene reminds Clare that she has subjected herself to John’s racism since she never told him about her race. Irene’s belief that “everything must be paid for” reflects Irene’s sense that by living as a white person and benefitting from white privilege, Clare must sacrifice her black identity and community—to Irene, it’s ridiculous for Clare to expect to hold onto both. Larsen shows the reader how passing can be both beneficial and damaging to the individuals that choose to pass as white, helping them financially and socially but damaging them psychologically.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

She…let her gaze wander over the bright crowd below. Young men, old men, white men, black men; youthful women, older women, pink women, golden women; fat men, thin men, tall men, short men; stout women, slim women, stately women, small women moved by.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield
Page Number: 234-235
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, which Irene remembers in retrospect, Irene sits next to Hugh Wentworth and observes the crowd at the Negro Welfare League dance. Irene takes in the scene, noting how different all the members of the crowd are from one another. In Irene’s observation about diversity, she takes in not only the mix of races and the spectrum of skin colors, but also the crowd’s breadth of ages and sizes. This shows how many factors can categorize a person, which suggests how arbitrary it is that, in the 1920s, segregation is based purely on race and skin-color. Moreover, when describing the skin colors of members of the crowd, Irene not only uses terms like “black” and “white,” but also “pink” and “golden.” This suggests that the terms usually used to describe skin-color (“black” and “white”) create a false racial dichotomy, and don’t represent the breadth of human diversity.

I think what they feel is—well, a kind of emotional excitement. You know, the sort of thing you feel in the presence of something strange, and even, perhaps, a bit repugnant to you; something so different that it’s really at the opposite end of the pole from all your accustomed notions of beauty.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield (speaker), Clare Kendry / Bellew, Hugh Wentworth
Page Number: 236
Explanation and Analysis:

Irene says this to Hugh as they discuss the connection between race and beauty. Hugh remarked that he thinks that white women prefer to dance with dark-skinned black men instead of with white men. Irene counters Hugh’s thesis with this thought, reframing what Hugh described as attraction as “emotional excitement.”

Irene’s view of the social phenomenon that Hugh describes suggests that white women are attracted to dark-skinned black men because of an attraction to what is “strange,” forbidden, and even a little bit “repugnant” to them. Irene notes how beauty standards, rather than being purely aesthetic, are inflected through the societal view of race. White women’s attraction to black men, Irene hypothesizes, comes from their sense that these men are the opposite of what they are “supposed” to want.

Since Irene and Hugh were just talking about Clare, the reader might imagine that Irene is still thinking of Clare as she describes this attraction. Irene could easily be describing her own queer attraction to Clare as she talks about feeling the object of her desire is the opposite of what she should be expected to want. Moreover, if Irene is using her own attraction to Clare to analyze this phenomenon, her sense of attraction paired with “repugnance” could be due to her own internalized homophobia.

Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

“Children aren’t everything…There are other things in the world, though I admit some people don’t seem to suspect it.” And she laughed, more, it seemed, at some secret joke of her own that at her words.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew (speaker), Irene Redfield, Margery
Page Number: 240
Explanation and Analysis:

Clare says this to Irene as she and Irene discuss the fact that Clare is leaving New York in March. Clare laments her impending departure and wonders if she can find a way to stay. Irene, not wanting Clare to stick around, reminds Clare that she will finally be able to see her daughter Margery, who has been at school in Switzerland for a long time. Clare, however, who has very different views of motherhood than Irene does, waves off this notion, telling Irene “children aren’t everything” and then laughing. Irene bristles after hearing this, believing that Clare is making fun of her.

This scene highlights the two women’s extremely different experience of parenting—Clare does not especially enjoy motherhood, and thinks of her identity as separate from her role as a parent. For Irene, on the other hand, her children are her entire world. Clare’s laughter and Irene’s woundedness at Clare’s mocking tone show how differently the two women view parenthood. While Clare feels that she can joke about it, Irene thinks parenting is serious, and therefore cannot be made humorous.

Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

Brian. What did it mean? How would it affect her and the boys? The boys! She had a surge of relief. It ebbed, vanished. A feeling of absolute unimportance followed. Actually, she didn’t count. She was, to him, only the mother of his sons. That was all. Alone she was nothing. Worse. An obstacle.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield, Brian Redfield, Brian Junior (Junior), Theodore (Ted)
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Irene contemplates the potential consequences of Brian and Clare’s alleged affair. She wonders what the affair would mean for her and her children. Upon remembering that she is tied to Brian through their shared offspring, Irene first feels a strong sense of relief. Then, however, this relief dissipates, replaced by a feeling of unimportance. Irene thinks that, to Brian, she is nothing more than the mother of his sons. This passage suggests that, through fulfilling the traditional feminine role of an extremely careful and devoted mother, Irene has lost something of her selfhood, at least in the context of her marriage to Brian. Rather than being connected because of who they each are as people, Irene feels connected to Brian only because of Junior and Ted. This suggests one drawback of motherhood for women: it can potentially eclipse other aspects of life, leaving them hollow.

Did you notice that cup…It was the ugliest thing that your ancestors, the charming Confederates, ever owned…What I’m coming to is the fact that I’ve never figured out a way of getting rid of it until about five minutes ago. I had an inspiration. I had only to break it, and I was rid of it forever. So simple!

Related Characters: Irene Redfield (speaker), Clare Kendry / Bellew, Brian Redfield, Hugh Wentworth
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

Irene says this to Hugh Wentworth during the tea party at her house. Irene has just begun to suspect that Brian and Clare are having an affair, and as she watches them talk, she becomes so upset that she drops her teacup, which smashes on the floor. When Hugh takes the blame for the cup breaking, Irene assumes—in a somewhat convoluted way—that he does so because he knows that Irene suspects Brian’s infidelity. To try to regain her dignity, Irene makes up the story above.

Irene uses race to cover up her suspicions, saying that the cup was Confederate and implying that that is part of the reason that she thinks that it’s ugly. In this moment Irene, as she often does, is displacing her own emotional reactions by using charged concepts (like race and motherhood) to distract from them or explain them. Although Irene does care a lot about race, as with motherhood, she is clearly willing to use it for her own means, in order to shape how others see her.

Moreover, the cup’s fall, and Irene’s comment that “I had only to break it, and I was rid of it forever,” foreshadow Clare’s fall to death later in the book, and Irene’s possible culpability in it. If there is a parallel between the two, then Larsen may be suggesting that, as with the cup, Irene uses race and motherhood as larger excuses to obscure her personal dislike of Clare. In this moment, the reader sees Irene explicitly narrating her own life in a way that is unreliable, emphasizing the unreliability of the narrative according to Irene’s perspective in general.

Part 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her…Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a Negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Irene is contemplating her complex, conflicting feelings towards Clare, who she believes is having an affair with Brian. Irene feels conflicted because she is ideologically and emotionally committed to solidarity among black people, and so she feels that she cannot expose Clare’s lie about her race. While Irene has often found purpose and community in this solidarity, she now feels that her obligation to protect other black people is “suffocating,” which makes Irene wish for the first time that she weren’t black and therefore didn’t have a responsibility to her race. Larsen draws attention to the frustration that black people might feel in being caught between a commitment to advancing and supporting other black people and a commitment to their own desires.

Irene also brings up her suffering as a woman, which she rarely emphasizes during the rest of the book. It is unclear whether Irene is simply bringing up womanhood as a way to make her self-pitying more convincing, since Irene often uses larger social roles or issues to obscure her individual emotions and responsibilities. It’s also possible that the aspects of womanhood that Irene has up until this point narrated without complaint are, in fact, oppressive to her. For example, while Irene consistently asserts that she loves motherhood, she also clearly feels an intense pressure to be a perfect mother (think of how she risks heatstroke to find the right coloring book for Ted). When Clare describes mothering as “the cruelest thing,” Irene actually agrees with her, suggesting that, despite her insistence that she loves mothering, Irene might also find motherhood constraining.

Additionally, Irene’s obsession with security, and consequential need to maintain her marriage, imply the fact that, for women in the 1920s, being unmarried could be dangerous or at the very least extremely difficult. Irene lacks income of her own, she finds herself tied to Brian without any romance because, without him, Irene would find herself completely financially insecure.

Part 3, Chapter 3 Quotes

Above everything else she had wanted, had striven, to keep undisturbed the pleasant routine of her life. And now Clare Kendry had come into it, and with her the menace of impermanence.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield
Page Number: 262
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Irene thinks about the potential consequences that Clare and Brian’s alleged affair could have on her carefully curated life and routine. Irene clearly blames this supposed affair on Clare, rather than splitting the blame between Clare and Brian (or even on herself for her lack of communication and care for her husband). Moreover, Irene is not upset about the idea that Brian’s infidelity might mean that he doesn’t love her, or that it might indicate the hollowness of their marriage. Rather, Irene is worried about maintaining the structure of her life, even if the content of it is a sham. It’s also worth noting that Clare’s potential threat to Irene’s relationship is not only because of the alleged affair; Clare has also upended Irene’s world because of Irene’s attraction to her.

To Irene, Clare is a “menace of impermanence,” and she represents a disruption to the architecture of Irene’s world. In the novel, Clare generally is a figure who disturbs preexisting notions of the limits and conditions of reality (including as they pertain to sex and race). As Clare undermines black-and-white views of race and sex, she challenges not only Irene’s marriage, but also the very structure of society.

Part 3, Chapter 4 Quotes

“I want their childhood to be happy and as free from the knowledge of such things as it possibly can be”….

“You know as well as I do, Irene, that it can’t. What was the use of our trying to keep them from learning the word ‘nigger’ and its connotation? They found out, didn’t they? And how? Because somebody called Junior a dirty nigger.”

Related Characters: Irene Redfield (speaker), Brian Redfield (speaker), Brian Junior (Junior), Theodore (Ted)
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

This dialogue takes place as Irene and Brian fight over how best to address racism with their children. Ted has just asked Brian why black people are being lynched and why white people hate black people. This discussion is timely—racist violence and hate crimes were on the rise throughout the country in the 1920s. Irene, however, does not want to address the problem with Ted and Junior, while Brian insists that they must.

Irene wants Ted and Junior’s childhoods to be happy and insulated from the racism that they, being black boys, will inevitably face. Irene consistently values security and the illusion of control over the truth throughout the book, and this is particularly apparent in how Irene parents and in how she screens her own emotions and desires from view as she narrates the story. Brian, on the other hand, insists that they have to address racism with their children, since it will inevitably be a part of their lives. He cites one occasion when they tried to prevent their children from learning the significance of the word “nigger,” and then someone called Junior a “nigger” anyway. This poignant example shows how painful it is to navigate racism when parenting black children in a world that is so hostile to black people. It also shows the pitfalls of Irene’s tendency towards denial.

Drearily she rose from her chair and went upstairs to set about the business of dressing to go out when she would far rather have remained at home. During the process she wondered, for the hundredth time, why she hadn’t told Brian about herself and Felise running into Bellew the day before, and for the hundredth time she turned away from acknowledging to herself the real reason for keeping back the information.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield, Brian Redfield, Felise Freeland
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote describes how Irene’s mind wanders after her fight with Brian over their parenting choices. Irene’s thoughts stray into ruminating, again, about running into John Bellew with Felise. Irene’s mental state is clearly deteriorating by this point in the book. Whereas before Irene loved to socialize, she now dreads getting dressed and leaving the house.

This description of Irene’s thought process also highlights how deeply unreliable Irene’s perspective is; here, Irene admits to the reader her own tendency to omit thoughts that make her uncomfortable. While the narrator notes that Irene “turned away from acknowledging to herself the real reason” that she didn’t tell Brian about her run-in with John, the book—like Irene—never specifies what those reasons are. However, the reader can probably guess what those reasons might be (complex feelings of contempt and jealousy for Clare, and possibly attraction as well), Irene cannot face her own emotions. This quote reveals Irene to be someone who is deeply repressive of her own impulses and desires.

Security. Was it just a word? If not, then was it only by the sacrifice of other things, happiness, love, or some wild ecstasy that she had never known, that it could be obtained? And did too much striving, too much faith in safety and permanence, unfit one for these other things? Irene didn’t know, couldn’t decide, though for a long time she sat questioning and trying to understand. Yet all the while, in spite of her searchings and feeling of frustration, she was aware that, to her, security was the most important and desired thing in life.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield
Page Number: 267
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, as Irene thinks over the possibility (which Irene has now decided is a certainty) that Brian and Clare are having an affair, Irene meditates on her desire for security above all else in her life. Irene wonders if, in order to obtain security, she has to sacrifice other aspects of her life, including love and “ecstasy.” This tradeoff highlights how devoid Irene’s marriage to Brian is of affection and intimacy.

The word “ecstasy” connotes sexual pleasure, suggesting that, if Irene were to give up her marriage to Brian and the security it affords, she could potentially find not only love but also physical intimacy. Clare, for whom Irene harbors confusing feelings of affection and attraction, represents everything that security is not. This suggests that, while Irene professes to worry about Clare stealing Brian from her, it is possible that Irene is, in fact, subconsciously worried about giving in to her desire for Clare.

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