Nella Larsen

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Passing: Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

The next morning, the day Irene is to leave from Chicago for New York, she receives a letter from Clare. She tells herself she will not read it, as she is busy and does not want to be reminded of their infuriating meeting and the racism to which Clare subjected her.
Irene’s determination not to read the letter from Clare speaks to how intense Irene’s emotions surrounding Clare are, and attests to how deeply John’s racism upset her.
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Irene, however, cannot quell her curiosity and so reads the letter on the train home from Chicago. The letter thanks Irene for her visit, and acknowledges that Irene must be thinking that Clare should never have asked her to come. Clare says, though, that the visit made her extremely happy, that she hopes Irene can forgive her, and that she sends her love. In the letter’s postscript, Clare says it “may be” that Irene’s lifestyle is wiser and better than her own.
Clare’s suggestion that Irene’s lifestyle “may be” better than her own shows that Clare is pondering one of the central questions of the text: is it better to pass and benefit from white privilege, or to live in the black community despite the systemic racism and violence black people face? Larsen continues to develop this question over the course of the book.
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The letter does not assuage Irene’s anger or embarrassment about the meeting and John’s racism. Irene tears the letter into little pieces and then drops the pieces over the train’s railing onto the tracks.
Irene’s destruction of the letter clearly shows how deeply her encounter with Clare and John’s racism upset her.
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Afterward, Irene thinks she will never see Clare again, and that if she does, she will ignore her. Irene turns her thoughts back to her life in New York and her family. She worries about her husband Brian, who she feels is restless, and wants to move elsewhere. Irene has tried since the beginning of their marriage to suppress this impulse, but it occasionally springs back up.
Irene’s suppression of Brian’s efforts to move to South America shows that, as a wife, she is very controlling. Brian’s desire to move to South America is often compared to a sexual desire, which makes Irene’s suppression of Brian’s desire sexual repression.
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