Passing opens with Irene Redfield finding a letter in her mail stack written in purple ink on Italian paper, just like one she received two years earlier. The letter is postmarked from New York City. Irene, knowing it is from a woman named Clare Kendry, thinks the letter is just like Clare — “always on the edge of danger.”
By highlighting the idea that Clare is “on the edge of danger,” Larsen foreshadows Clare’s later fall from the window and gives the sense that, because she is white-passing, Clare is caught precariously between two worlds.
As Irene looks at the letter, she imagines Clare as she knew her when she was a child, calmly and defiantly sewing a dress while her violently drunk father, Bob Kendry, threatened her. Irene remembers that Clare took her wages from her dressmaking job and, instead of giving them to her father as she was supposed to, kept the money to buy fabric for her dress.
Irene’s flashback to Clare’s childhood reveals Irene and Clare’s relationship and details of Clare’s character. Moreover, Bob Kendry offers an example of tremendously bad parenting, which helps to contextualize Irene and Clare’s parenting choices.
Irene then remembers the day Bob died in a saloon fight, when Clare was fifteen years old. She thinks of Clare standing and looking with “disdain” at his body before crying and running out the door. Irene thinks that, in retrospect, the weeping seemed more the result of “pent-up fury” towards her father than grief. Irene thinks of Clare as “cat-like,” due to her mood shifts and her temper.
Clare’s seeming lack of grief at the loss of her father shows their parent-child relationship is devoid of love. This section is narrated in a way that is intended to make Clare seem cold and selfish. However, since the narration is in Irene’s perspective, Irene may just be overly harsh.
Irene, returning her attention to the letter, opens the envelope and begins to read. The letter expresses Clare’s desire to see Irene again and to join Irene’s community—requests that Irene immediately wants to reject. The letter ends by mentioning “that time in Chicago” when Irene and Clare last saw each other. This line makes Irene flash back to the memory of that day, causing her embarrassment and pain.
Irene and Clare clearly have a fraught relationship, as is evident from the book’s very first pages. Clare’s request to spend time with Irene and the black community feels intrusive and presumptuous to Irene. Though passing has not yet been brought up, the reader can already see the tension it causes.