In Irene’s flashback to “that time in Chicago,” she remembers the day being very hot. Irene is shopping for souvenirs for her two boys, Brian Junior (referred to throughout the book as Junior) and Theodore (Ted). Irene buys Junior a mechanical plane, but has trouble finding the drawing book that Ted had asked for. Outside of the sixth shop she tries, Irene witnesses a man either pass out or die from heatstroke.
In this section, Larsen shows that Irene is such a devoted mother that she will risk heatstroke in order to bring her boys the right presents. Irene’s commitment to her children is profound, but it seems foolhardy here, since she is putting herself in danger just for the sake of souvenirs.
As a crowd gathers around the man, Irene withdraws from the mass of people. She fans herself, then realizes that she is about to faint. Irene gestures to a man in a parked car nearby. The man jumps out and helps Irene into his passenger seat. The man suggests that he take her to the Drayton, where she can get a glass of iced tea. As they drive to the Drayton, Irene tries to “repair the damage that the heat and crowd had done to her appearance.” When they arrive at the hotel, Irene thanks the man and walks inside.
In this section, it becomes clear that Irene cares deeply about her appearance. After seeing a man potentially die of heatstroke, Irene’s thoughts do not return to him. Instead, she worries about how the heat may have affected her own looks. The juxtaposition of the man fainting and Irene’s superficial concerns highlight Irene’s vanity.
Irene sits at a table near the window. When her iced tea arrives, Irene enjoys it while observing the rest of the room. She orders another tea and wonders what she will do about the fact that she wasn’t able to get a coloring book for Ted. Irene notices a couple being seated at the table next to her. Their presence annoys her, because she was enjoying the peace and quiet, and thinks their conversation will disrupt her.
Again, Irene shows how important motherhood is to her, but her concern about the coloring book seems slightly misplaced. This materialism seems misguided, an obsession with appearing to be the perfect mother.
However, contrary to Irene’s expectations, only the woman sits down, and the man says goodbye to her and leaves. As Irene observes the woman, she notices that she is very beautiful, with dark eyes, light skin, and good taste in clothes. As Irene watches the woman order, she notices that she seems to be flirting with the waiter.
Irene’s evaluation of the woman’s looks again shows her preoccupation with appearances. Moreover, Irene seems especially interested in female beauty— she does not meditate on the attractiveness of the man in the couple, only the woman.
The waiter returns with the woman’s order, and Irene watches the woman prepare to eat the melon she asked for. Irene realizes that she is staring. She returns to her own thoughts, thinking about parties and Ted’s coloring book. Irene then feels someone staring at her. She turns around, meeting the eyes of the woman at the next table. The woman does not avert her eyes when they make eye contact, and instead continues to stare. Irene, surprised by the attention, wonders if her makeup is messy, or something is wrong with her dress. She finds nothing amiss, but still the woman stares at her. Irene decides to ignore her, but when she steals a glance at the woman, the woman’s dark eyes are still focused on her.
Here the reader again sees Irene as someone who focuses intently on her outward appearance. Irene immediately wonders if something is wrong with her dress or makeup when the woman stares at her. While this is certainly a natural reaction, it does draw attention to Irene’s consistent superficiality throughout the book. Later, Larsen shows how this superficiality intersects with the complicated racial beauty standards of the time.
Suddenly, Irene worries that the woman has realized that Irene is a black woman sipping tea in the Drayton, which is only for white customers. Irene dismisses the idea, thinking that white people always imagine they can clearly distinguish race, but then constantly mistake her for Italian, Spanish, or Mexican. Irene remembers that she always “passes” for white successfully whenever she is out alone, and assures herself that there is no way the woman could know her true identity. Irene then notes to herself that she is not ashamed of being black, but that she would not want to be thrown out of the Drayton.
Irene’s anxiety about being recognized as black and her thoughts about passing highlight how, although race is inherently linked to outward appearance, race cannot be separated neatly into visual categories. Irene mocks how white people think that sight will allow them to distinguish race, emphasizing that race in the 1920s is a false binary. Irene also shows here her ideological commitment to black identity.
Irene returns the woman’s gaze again, thinking this time that it does not seem hostile. Suddenly, the woman walks over to Irene and says, “I think I know you.” Irene, comforted by the friendliness in her voice, says the woman must be mistaken. Then the woman identifies her as Irene. Irene is surprised, and tries to recall how she would know a white woman, running through the few scenarios in which she interacts with white people. She confirms that she is Irene.
Irene’s surprise that the seemingly white woman recognizes her highlights just how racially segregated 1920s America was. This racial segregation is less pronounced in Harlem (as the reader will later see), but even Irene, who leads a cosmopolitan, progressive lifestyle, only has limited interactions with white people.
Irene continues to search her brain for the woman’s identity, and notices that her failure to do so seems to please the other woman. Irene continues to struggle, and then the woman laughs. Immediately, Irene identifies the woman as Clare Kendry. Irene is shocked. Clare orders two teas and cigarettes as Irene calculates that it has been twelve years since the two women last saw each other.
Irene first thinks that Clare, a childhood acquaintance, is white, and so she does not recognize her. Irene’s mistake highlights how, although Irene knows that physical features cannot always convey race, she cannot help but jump to racial conclusions based on outward appearance.
Irene then remembers that, after her father died, Clare went to live with family in a different part of Chicago. Clare used to visit their old neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago occasionally. She looked more and more distressed with every visit, so much so that Irene’s mother commented on it. Then Clare started to visit less and less frequently, until at last she stopped coming. Eventually Irene’s father, who had been a friend of Clare’s father, went to visit Clare, and was told that she had run away.
The descriptions of Clare’s childhood after the death of her father show that his death was extremely disruptive to her, even though he was not the best father. Clare’s childhood serves as a point of comparison to the childhoods of Clare and Irene’s children, which are described later in the book.
Though her father did not tell Irene much, Irene suspects that there was more to the story. She later heard many rumors about Clare’s whereabouts. Among the stories was the tale that Clare had been seen dining in a fancy hotel with white people. Another described Clare in a limousine with a white man. Irene remembers reacting to these stories with “eager shining eyes” and “lurking undertones of regret or disbelief.” She and the neighborhood girls would debate whether the stories were true. Someone always argued they must be true, since Clare had “a way with her.”
The reaction of Irene and her childhood friends to rumors of Clare consorting with white people shows how taboo passing and racial integration were in 1920s America. While the girls gossip about passing, Irene’s memory of their “eager shining eyes” suggests that they also envy Clare. This memory shows how passing is both condemned and admired among the black community.
Irene expresses her surprise at seeing Clare, who says she is not, in fact, surprised to see Irene. Clare says that she has thought of Irene over the course of the past twelve years, and speculates that Irene, on the other hand, has not given her a single thought. Irene thinks, but does not say, that this is true. Irene recalls the mysterious circumstances surrounding Bob Kendry, who went to college with some of the men in the neighborhood, but ended up as a janitor for some reason that Irene’s father would not tell her.
Once again, Irene thinks immediately of Clare’s father, highlighting the importance of the parental role for young people. Clare’s childhood is shrouded in disgrace because of her father, and Clare, used to feeling judged by the black community in Chicago, goes on to lead a life that her childhood community would not approve of.
Irene defends herself for having not thought of Clare, telling Clare that, like everyone, she is very busy with her present life. Clare says that that is natural, and asks what everyone in their old neighborhood used to say about her. Irene, embarrassed, says she cannot remember. Clare laughs, saying that she knows that Irene remembers, but it doesn’t matter because she already knows the kinds of things that were said about her. Clare recalls running into their former neighbors and receiving cold reactions in the past.
Throughout the book, Passing shows many characters, especially Irene, who struggle to conform to what is societally acceptable. Clare, however, ignores all the cultural stigma surrounding passing. She laughs when Irene hesitates to tell her what was said about her, showing that she is happy to defy social expectations.
Clare tells Irene that it was these rejections that made her decide not to go back to the South Side and say goodbye to Irene’s family before running away. Clare remembers how kind Irene’s family was to her, and she implies that, if she had received the same kind of cruel response from them as she did from the other neighbors, she would have been heartbroken. Clare’s eyes fill with tears.
However, Larsen also shows the reader that living outside of socially acceptable behavior is damaging to Claire. Although Claire laughs when Irene declines to answer her question, the rejection by her community because of rumors of her passing has clearly caused Clare immense pain.
Clare then asks Irene to tell her about her life, and if she is married. They talk for an hour over their iced teas about Irene’s move to New York with her husband Brian and her two sons. Irene also updates Clare on the status of their old neighbors. Clare listens attentively.
Once again, Larsen shows Irene’s focus on motherhood and her family as she describes her life to Clare. Clare, on the other hand, is much less forthcoming about her personal life, letting Irene talk.
When the clock strikes the hour, Irene jumps up and says she must go. Irene remembers that she has not asked Clare anything about herself, but realizes she does not really want to know. Irene debates whether or not she should ask, since the rumors of Clare’s life are so scandalous, but she is curious. Finally, Irene decides not to ask, and repeats that she has to leave.
As Irene debates whether she should ask about Clare’s life, she shows that she has a similar attitude towards passing as she did as a child— one of ambivalence, a mixture of interest and disgust, curiosity and fear.
Clare begs Irene not to go, and asks to see her again, saying she will be in Chicago for a month. Clare asks if Irene will come to dinner with Clare and her husband John that night. Irene declines, saying her schedule is full. Clare then invites her to tea, where Irene could meet both her husband and her daughter, Margery. Irene declines again, saying she is busy.
Irene’s ambivalence towards Clare’s lifestyle translates into reluctance to associate herself with Clare. Also, Clare mentions here for the first time that she, too, is a mother.
Irene then impulsively invites Clare to go to Idlewild (a lake resort that, unlike most 1920s resorts, allows black visitors) with her that weekend, where there will be lots of people from their old neighborhood. She immediately regrets the invitation, imagining all the attention it will bring. Irene’s worry is premature, however, because Clare declines. She says that, while she would theoretically love to go, “it wouldn’t do” for her to join them. Clare tells Irene that she is grateful to have been asked, though, since she knows “just what it would mean for you if I went.”
Although Irene seems reluctant to spend time with Clare, she impulsively invites Clare to her summer resort. Irene imagines the attention Clare will draw, because Idlewild is a primarily black resort and Clare looks like a white woman. Clearly, navigating racialized spaces, even black spaces, means a constant interrogation of identity for anyone who is racially ambiguous.
Irene has the feeling that Clare is mocking her, but is not sure why. But she admits to herself that she is glad Clare did not accept the invitation, as it will be much easier for her socially. Still, the idea that Clare read Irene’s thoughts disturbs her. The waiter brings Clare the change from the bill she paid.
Irene’s feeling that Clare is mocking her highlights Irene’s own cowardice and discomfort at the idea of facing social backlash from bringing a woman who looks white to a primarily black space.
Still, Irene does not leave. She is curious about Clare’s life, and her choice to pass in white society, but unsure how to ask about it. Clare solves this problem by telling Irene that she wonders why more of the women they grew up with did not pass like she did, since it is, according to her, “frightfully easy.” Irene suggests that it must be hard to enter white society without inquiries about one’s family and background—but Clare tells Irene that it has not been a problem for her.
Irene is curious about Clare’s life, but she feels that asking about it might seem inappropriate. This shows Irene’s ambivalent attitude towards passing and towards Clare in general. Clare’s assertion that passing is “easy” suggests that the racial barriers of 1920s society, although seemingly rigid and certainly dangerous, are not as solid as one might think.
Irene is shocked that Clare has not had to explain her background, and Clare seems amused by her surprise. Clare says she did not even have to make up a past, since she lived with her aunts. Irene suggests that they were also white passing, and Clare corrects Irene, telling her they were in fact white. Irene remembers that Bob Kendry’s father was white, and figures that the aunts must be his father’s sisters.
That Clare has not had to reconcile passing with her origins in the black community shocks Irene, perhaps because Irene herself is so attached to the black community. Irene’s assumption that Clare’s aunts were white-passing rather than white shows again how race is not neatly distinguishable in 1920s America.
Clare goes on to describe her aunts, who were poor and religious, and felt morally obligated to take Clare in when her father died. Clare did the housework to earn her keep with her aunts, who believed that black people should do hard work, and harbored racist ideas about black people that they justified with Bible stories. Clare tells Irene that it was hard for her, but that they provided for her materially and gave her a religious education. Irene comments that religion is used to justify a lot of cruelty. Clare responds by saying that her experience made her who she is.
The racism that Clare experienced in her aunts’ household shows how pervasive racism is, even among people who are close with or related to black people. Racist ideology poisons even familial relationships. Clare’s own ambivalence towards her aunts, compared with Irene’s condemnation of them, shows that Clare is accustomed to experiencing racism.
Clare describes her determination to get away from her aunts. Clare then tells Irene that when she went back to visit their neighborhood, she was jealous of everyone who had “all the things [she] wanted and never had had.” She goes on to describe how her aunts were clearly ashamed that their brother had a black child, and thus a black granddaughter, and would not let her talk about her race.
Clare’s aunts’ refusal to let Clare talk about race explains why Clare has had an easy time rejecting her black identity and passing as white. After being shunned by her community, Clare is not allowed to develop positive associations with blackness at her aunts’ house.
Clare then talks about meeting her rich white husband, John, and how her aunt’s shame about her lineage helped her keep her race secret from him. Clare stopped going to their old neighborhood on the South Side in order to spend time with John, and then eloped with and married him. Irene asks why Clare’s aunts did not tell Irene’s father that she was married, mentioning that he went to ask about Clare after she stopped showing up on the South Side.
Interestingly, it is the aunts’ racist shame about Clare’s origins that allows her to slip so easily into white society and marry her white husband. This suggests that racist ideology can be used against itself. In silencing racial discourse, the racist system allows people like Clare to quietly move across racial boundaries.
Clare gets teary at the idea of Irene’s father asking about her, and explains that she didn’t tell her aunts why she had disappeared so that they could never tell John about her black heritage. Clare says that they probably assumed she was “living in sin,” and that that’s probably what they told Irene’s father. Irene says her father never mentioned that.
Clare’s assumption that everyone thought she was “living in sin” highlights how, in Irene and Clare’s childhood community, Clare became a symbol of sexual transgression. Irene continues to see Clare in this way, dwelling pruriently on Clare’s sexuality.
Clare returns to the subject of passing, asking Irene if she ever thought about trying to join white society. Irene says no in a somewhat aggressive manner, and when Clare seems offended, Irene quickly explains that she has everything she wants in life except extra money. Clare laughs and says that everyone wants that, and tells her that she thinks the money is worth the “price.” Irene instinctively disagrees with Clare, but she just shrugs. Irene thinks she will be late to dinner if she does not leave. Still, Irene lingers.
Irene’s response to Clare’s question highlights the tension underlying perceptions of passing. To Irene, Clare’s idea that Irene should pass implies that Irene’s life as a black person is not as good as Clare’s life as a white person, and thus it suggests Clare’s internalized racism. Clare, in turn, thinks Irene’s resistance implies that Irene is judging Clare’s life.
As Irene observes Clare, fascinated by her choices, she thinks that Clare has always had a somewhat arrogant manner, even before she was rich and passing as white. Irene then admires Clare’s beauty, evaluating her features and contrasting her light skin and hair with her dark eyes. Irene thinks Clare’s eyes are “negro” eyes, and that they are what make Clare so strikingly gorgeous.
Irene’s interest in Clare’s beauty becomes a reoccurring focus of the text. Irene’s belief that Clare has “negro eyes” contradicts Irene’s earlier criticism of the idea that one can determine race by looking at physical features. This also shows how Irene’s idea of beauty is racialized.
Clare asks if Irene can see her on Monday or Tuesday, and Irene tells Clare that she is busy those days, and will be going back to New York on Wednesday. She suggests, though, that she may be able to change something and come on Tuesday, and Clare implores her to try, saying she may never see her again otherwise. Irene asks if she should call Clare, or if Clare will call her. Clare tells Irene she will call Irene. Irene says she will do her best to be free on Tuesday, and the two women say goodbye and part ways.
As Clare and Irene negotiate meeting up, it becomes clear that Clare does not have many social engagements in Chicago. She appears to be completely isolated from the black community that she and Irene grew up in (the community Irene still sees when she returns home). Irene entertains the idea of making room for Clare in her busy schedule, implying that, despite her mixed feelings, Irene wants to see Clare.
After Irene is away from the Drayton and on her way back to her father’s house, she thinks over her encounter with Clare, harboring mixed feelings of irritation and pleasure. Irene is annoyed that she promised to make time to see Clare on Tuesday when Clare leads such a separate life from her now.
Back in her black neighborhood and away from the white hotel where she met Clare, Irene continues to struggle with her mixed feelings towards Clare and her mixed feelings toward passing in general.
Irene climbs the steps to her father’s house, thinking about what her father’s reaction will be when she tells him about seeing Clare. Irene then realizes that Clare did not tell Irene her married name, and that Clare has Irene’s contact information, but Irene has none of Clare’s. Irene wonders if this was intentional, and if Clare thinks that Irene is not trustworthy, and might tell her husband about Clare’s past. As she enters the house, Irene decides not to tell her father anything about meeting Clare after all, because she is so annoyed that Clare does not trust her. Irene resolves not to see Clare on Tuesday.
Clare seems to be trying to keep Irene from having access to her contact information, which annoys Irene. Irene thinks Clare keeps it from her because Clare believes Irene is not trustworthy. Irene is proud of her blackness, and the idea that Clare is trying to hide her own blackness from her husband offends Irene so much that she resolves not to see Clare again.