Five days after Irene has received Clare’s second letter, she still has not replied. Irene notices that Clare has asked for Irene’s response to be sent to the post office rather than her house, which angers Irene because she thinks it implies that she is not trustworthy. Irene tears the letter in two and tosses it in the trash, so appalled is she by Clare’s lack of confidence in her good judgment and discretion.
Once again, Irene is uncomfortable with the idea of Clare having all the control over communication between the two of them. In this respect, it is the exact opposite of Irene’s relationship with Brian, over whom Irene has enormous amounts of control.
Irene later decides that it is better anyway to not answer Clare’s letter, thinking that Clare will get the message that way. Irene imagines Clare might write again, but she could just throw that letter away as well. Anyway, it is unlikely that she and Clare will ever see each other again. To Irene, they are practically strangers, especially in terms of engagement with each other and their racial consciousnesses.
Irene tries to assert control over her relationship with Clare by not responding to her at all. Irene’s rationale for this is that they do not know each other very well anymore (although whenever Clare does something Irene doesn’t like, Irene thinks it is “just like Clare”) and that their conceptions of race are too different.
The narrative fast-forwards to the middle of October. It is cold, and Irene is burning a fire in her room. Her boys, Junior and Ted, play upstairs. Irene thinks about the two boys, saying that Junior is similar to Brian in looks, but to herself in temperament. Ted’s personality, on other hand, is more like Brian’s. Irene’s thoughts migrate to Brian. She is still worried about Brian’s restlessness and she feels helpless.
As Irene thinks about her children upstairs, Larsen shows how Irene uses her children to feel close to Brian. Irene compares and contrasts the children with herself and Brian without really considering the children as individuals who might be different from their parents.
Since her first attempt to pacify Brian with the botched boarding school trip offer, Irene has become depressed. She worries that Brian will suddenly decide it is not worth it to stay with her in New York, and wonders what would happen to herself and her family if he left them. The boys upstairs become noisier, and Irene is about to go tell them to be quieter when the doorbell downstairs rings.
Irene and Brian’s deteriorating marriage is affecting Irene more profoundly than before, causing her mental state to worsen. Irene worries about Brian leaving not because of how she would miss him, but because she cannot picture what she would do otherwise.
Irene stops and listens to Zulena answering the door, walking up the steps, and then knocking on her bedroom door. Zulena stands in the doorway and tells Irene that Clare is there to see her. Irene hesitates, and then tells Zulena to bring Clare upstairs. Irene powders her nose and resolves to tell Clare immediately that she cannot associate with her.
As Clare arrives, Irene puts on makeup, highlighting her vanity and concern about her appearance. Clare makes Irene especially aware of her appearance, since Irene pays so much attention to Clare’s beauty.
Clare enters the room without knocking and kisses Irene on the head. Irene feels a sudden rush of affection for her, reaches out to touch Clare’s face, and tells her she is lovely. Clare ignores this comment, seats herself in a chair, and asks Irene, “didn’t you mean to answer my letter?” Irene averts her eyes, uncomfortable. Clare describes how she waited expectantly for a response, and asks Irene to tell her why she did not respond. Irene is silent while Clare lights a cigarette, trying to collect her thoughts.
Irene’s feelings of affection for Clare when Clare touches her in combination with Irene’s constant obsession over Clare’s beauty cast a sexual valence over Irene’s view of Clare. Irene’s reaction to Clare’s touch is far more erotically charged than any scene between Irene and Brian, including when Irene clinically assesses Brian’s attractiveness.
Irene tells Clare that she did not respond because she does not think Clare should risk being caught associating with black people because of John. Clare laughs, and tells Irene she hasn’t changed. Irene insists that it is too dangerous. As Irene talks with Clare, she has the surprising feeling that, although Clare is selfish, she is also deeper and more emotionally complex than Irene.
Irene lies to Clare about the reason that she didn’t respond to her letter, twisting it to seem like concern. Irene’s insistence that their friendship is too dangerous and Clare’s laughter at this idea shows how, like at the tea party, there is a thin line between humor and danger.
Clare becomes irritated, and tells Irene emphatically that she does not care about being safe. Irene sits down and tells Clare that she and Brian discussed it, and that they do not think associating with Clare is a good or safe idea for either of them. Clare tells Irene that she should have known that John was the reason that Irene is angry with her. Clare tells Irene that she doesn’t blame Irene for being mad, but that she thought that Irene would “understand.” Clare explains that John’s racism causes her to feel deeply lonely, prompting her to reach out again.
In contrast to Irene, who values security and routine above all, Clare is willing to risk her safety for emotional fulfillment. Meanwhile, Clare’s belief that Irene would “understand” Clare’s feelings of alienation due to passing in white society and the pain of the racism she endures at the hands of her husband suggests that Clare sees an emotional intimacy between the women.
Irene puts out her cigarette, feeling resentful, but her voice sounds pitying as she expresses sympathy for Clare, saying she did not realize that was how she felt. Clare begins to cry, and despondently acknowledges that there is no way Irene could have known, because she is happy, free, and safe. Clare’s words make Irene tear up, but she does not cry because, unlike Clare, she is an ugly crier.
Although Irene insists in her own thoughts (evident through the close third person narrative) that she does not like or care for Clare, she clearly does. Irene tears up when she sees Clare’s pain. Perhaps Irene harbors feelings for Clare that are too difficult to admit, and so she represses them.
Irene tells Clare that no one is completely safe, happy, or free, and Clare points out that that’s all the more reason to take risks. Irene, however, tells Clare to think of her daughter Margery. This surprises Clare, who then says that she thinks motherhood is “the cruelest thing in the world.” Irene agrees softly, and then goes on to say that it is also the most responsible thing in the world. Irene proceeds to talk about the terrible things that could happen to Margery if John ever found out that Clare was black.
Irene, who finds purpose in her own motherhood, tells Clare to think of Margery as a reason that she should not risk John finding out about her race. Clare, however, clearly views motherhood as more of a burden than a bounty, evident when she calls motherhood “the cruelest thing in the world.” Irene agrees with her, but it’s not clear if this is genuine.
Zulena appears in the doorway and tells Irene that the telephone is for her, and that Hugh Wentworth is on the other end. Irene apologizes to Clare and picks up the phone in her room. Irene talks to Hugh for a few minutes and then hangs up. She explains to Clare that she was talking to Hugh about the Negro Welfare League dance, because she is on the ticket committee. Clare asks if that was “the Hugh Wentworth” and Irene responds affirmatively. The two women discuss Hugh’s books. Clare asks if Hugh is coming to the dance, saying it is strange that “a man like that” is going to a dance for black people. Irene informs Clare that in New York, plenty of well-to-do white people spend time in Harlem.
Clare’s comment that it seems strange that someone like Hugh would attend the Negro Welfare League dance speaks to how racially segregated most places in the country were in the 1920s. Irene’s response, meanwhile, speaks to how Harlem was a hub for progressive thinking and cultural exchange. Larsen, herself a writer in the Harlem renaissance scene, paints a picture of Harlem in the 1920s as a vibrant center of black culture as well as a racially diverse place.
Clare asks why they come, and Irene says that some come for the reason Clare is there (to “see Negros”) while others just socialize, enjoy themselves, and make money or connections. Clare says she will come to the dance too. Irene thinks to herself that Clare is a little too attractive, and she responds to her with a slight, asking if it is because “other” white people go. Clare blushes and says that she means that she would not be noticed in a crowd that big.
When Irene asks Clare if she wants to go to the Negro Welfare League because “other” white people go, Irene implies that Clare is white rather than black. Irene’s question, although intended as a slight, shows how ambiguous and amorphous racial identity can be for someone like Clare.
Irene suggests that a friend of John’s might be there, and Clare laughs in response, saying they needn’t worry about that. Irene continues to resist Clare’s begging, telling her that, as woman alone, she might be mistaken for a prostitute at the dance. Clare laughs and keeps imploring Irene, telling her that, if Irene does not invite her, she will buy a ticket and go anyway. Irene, rising from her chair and walking to the window, insists that she is concerned for Clare’s safety and her own.
When Clare laughs at the idea that one of John’s friends would be at the dance, it is clear that John is completely segregated from black people—so much so that even the friends of John’s friends would not consort with anyone who is black. Larsen highlights how, outside of the progressive community of Harlem, racial segregation is still rampant and extreme.
Clare becomes upset and curses John, saying that she expects she will kill him one day. Irene dryly says that there’s still capital punishment, and reminds Clare that she is mostly to blame for her situation, since she did not tell John that she is black. Irene then reminds Clare that “everything must be paid for.” Clare, however, insists that Irene does not understand how desperately she wants to be a part of the black community. Irene at last gives in, and tells Clare she can come to the dance.
Clare’s comment about killing John foreshadows Clare’s death at the book’s ending, which may or may not have been murder. Irene’s comment that “everything must be paid for” reflects her sense that, since Clare benefits from white privilege when she passes, Clare must pay for those benefits by not being a part of the black community.
Irene then invites Clare to meet her sons, and together they go upstairs. Clare stands in the doorway and asks the boys if she can come in. Ted says yes, while Junior is quiet. Irene chastises Junior for being rude, and introduces Clare to the boys, saying she is an old friend from childhood.
In this scene, the reader might notice that, while Irene’s children are present throughout the book, Larsen has never introduced Margery in person. This highlights that Margery plays a very small role in Clare’s life.
Clare leaves, and Brian calls Irene to tell her he will be home late. Irene is angry that she gave into Clare’s begging and invited her to the dance, especially after Brian specifically asked her not to. Moreover, she worries about the social consequences of bringing Clare. Irene thinks that Clare continues to always get what she wants. She thinks that despite her hardship, Clare seems unburdened by “uncertainty or suffering,” instead remaining exactly as she is.
Brian coming home late is another indication of Irene and Brian’s marital troubles. Irene refocuses this stress on Clare, thinking that Brian will be mad at her for inviting Clare. Irene continues to worry about appearances (this time social ones) as she thinks about what the social response to Clare might be.