Passing

Passing Part 2, Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator opens this section by saying that Irene’s memories of the dance afterward seem unimportant to her. From this frame of retrospect, the narrator lists events that Irene remembers, starting with when Irene tells Brian about the fact that Clare is coming to the Negro Welfare League dance. Brian smiles contemptuously to mask his annoyance.
When the narrator uses Irene’s “unimportant” memories to recount the Negro Welfare League dance retrospectively, Irene’s perspective becomes even more unreliable. Because of the narrative’s unreliability, it is unclear if Brian is actually annoyed at Clare’s presence.
Themes
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The next memory is Irene coming downstairs just before the dance to find Clare standing in the living room with Brian. Clare wears a black taffeta dress and looks extremely beautiful. Irene feels plain in comparison. She then regrets that she did not tell Clare to wear something inconspicuous, in order to avoid attention that could cause her to be recognized. Irene wonders what Brian will think of Clare’s showy outfit, but he does not seem concerned. Clare explains that they have introduced themselves to each other while Irene was upstairs.
Irene compares her plainness to Clare’s beauty, feeling bad about her own looks. Irene obsesses over Clare’s beauty, feeling both threatened and enthralled by it. Brian, on the other hand does not seem to really notice Clare’s outfit. This suggests that Irene’s attraction to Clare—rather than Clare’s objective beauty—that makes Irene so attentive to Clare’s looks.
Themes
Beauty and Race Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
In the car, Clare expresses her excitement, which annoys Irene. Once they are at the dance, Irene watches Clare dance with both white and black men, including with Brian. Later in the night, Irene talks with Hugh Wentworth. Together, they are watching the diverse crowd, a mix of ages, races, sizes, etc., from a box above.
Larsen’s description of the crowd at the Negro Welfare League dance highlights the crowd’s diversity—not just of race and skin color, but also of age, size, etc. In doing so, Larsen draws attention to how skin color is an arbitrary trait by which to segregate people.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Irene turns to Hugh and recites a nursery rhyme that speaks to the diversity of the crowd. Hugh says that it seems like “everybody” is there. He then states that he is trying to figure out the “name, status, and race” of a certain beautiful blond woman, meaning Clare. Irene explains that they are childhood friends, and that Clare had mentioned wanting to meet Hugh.
As Hugh describes trying to figure out Clare’s identity including her race, the reader might wonder why, in such a diverse crowd of such progressive people, Hugh continues to see race as divided into binary and discreet categories.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
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Hugh remarks that Clare is dancing with more black men than white. Meanwhile, he says, all the white women in the room, including his own wife, Bianca, are dancing with black men. Irene counters that it must be because black men are better dancers than white men. Hugh disagrees, saying he thinks it’s some other kind of attraction, especially to black men with very dark skin. Hugh points out one such man, Ralph Hazelton, and asks Irene if she finds him especially attractive.
Hugh’s hypothesis that white women are attracted to dark-skinned black men explores the question of race and physical beauty, which Larsen has already brought up many times throughout the book. Hugh’s question, and his inquiry into it, shows how deeply linked aesthetics are to the social understanding of race.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Beauty and Race Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Irene says that she does not find Ralph especially handsome, and argues that she thinks the others do not either. Instead, she proposes that they feel “emotional excitement” because very dark skin is “at the opposite end of the pole from all…accustomed notions of beauty.” She says that the same thing happens with black women and white men. Hugh tells Irene that he thinks her hypothesis is interesting, and says they will have to talk about it more sometime in the future. Hugh says Clare is the perfect example of Irene’s theory.
Irene’s suggestion that white women’s attraction to dark-skinned black men is due to their deviation from tradition beauty standards offers one theory of how race and beauty affect one another. Irene acknowledges that traditional standards of beauty are not objective, but rather are affected by societal power structures. Moreover, these beauty standards can be totally inverted.
Themes
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Then Hugh lights a cigarette and asks if it’s true that Clare is a perfect example, implying that she might not be as white as she appears. Irene laughs and tells Hugh that he is clever, and asks what he thinks. Hugh says he cannot tell, and says that he sometimes thinks he can tell and other times he is stumped. Irene assures him that no one can just tell someone’s race for certain just by looking at them.
The reader might notice that Irene’s description of the emotional excitement of non-normative attraction could be read not just along racial lines, but also along gender lines— Irene’s attraction to Clare might fall in this category.
Themes
Beauty and Race Theme Icon
Irene tells Hugh about a woman, Dorothy Thompkins, that she met several times before realizing she was white. Irene tells Hugh she can’t pinpoint exactly what tipped her off. Hugh says that he understands, and that “lots of people pass all the time.” Irene resists this, saying that lots of black people pass as white, but it is harder for white people to pass as black. Hugh admits he’d never thought of that.
Irene and Hugh discuss the nuances of passing. When Irene comments that it would be easier for black people to pass as white than for white people to pass as black, it is perhaps because of the strength of black community— earlier, Irene is surprised that no white people asked Clare about her family history.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
At the end of the dance, Brian offers to drop Irene off first and then take Clare home. Irene tells him he does not have to do so, because Irene asked Bianca Wentworth to take her. Brian worries that Irene has told the Wentworths that Clare is black, but Irene says that she told them nothing, and that it is better for Clare to be taken home by white people anyway. Brian shrugs. The narrator ends the section by noting that, besides these select memories, the dance blurs together in Irene’s mind.
Considering that this section ends with Brian’s offer to drive Clare home, the reader might think that Irene is looking back on the dance after she has already begun to suspect that Brian and Clare are having an affair. This would explain why the narration ends with this memory, which could seem suspicious in retrospect.
Themes
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