Nella Larsen

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Passing: Part 2, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Though the dance does not stand out in many respects in Irene’s mind, it does mark the beginning of her friendship with Clare. After the dance, Clare often visits the Redfield household. Despite this new friendship, Irene remains ambivalent about Clare. Clare is an easy-going guest, and easily occupies herself by playing with Irene’s children or talking with Irene’s servants when Irene is busy. Irene thinks that Clare does not play with Margery nearly as much as with Irene’s children. Irene resents Clare’s presence, but cannot identify why.
Irene’s sense that Clare does not spend as much time with Margery as Clare does with Ted and Junior is yet another instance in which Irene judges Clare’s mothering. Irene continues to show her mixed feelings toward Clare, spending lots of time with her and admiring her beauty but also quietly resenting Clare’s presence and expressing contempt and jealousy towards her.
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Still, Irene does not request that Clare stop coming. Brian seems to tolerate Clare with amusement, and has stopped worrying about the potential danger Clare’s presence might bring. Irene asks Brian at one point if he thinks that Clare is “extraordinarily beautiful,” and Brian responds negatively, saying he prefers women with darker skin.
Irene continues to obsess over Clare’s beauty, even going so far as to ask Brian what he thinks of Clare’s looks. While it’s possible that Brian is lying when he says he prefers darker skin, it’s also possible that Irene is the one sexually attracted to Clare, not Brian.
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Clare sometimes attends social events with Irene and Brian, and occasionally goes with Brian alone if Irene is busy. Clare dines at their house, but, besides her good looks, is not an especially interesting dinner guest (at least according to Irene). Clare is accepted and liked in the Redfields’ social circles. Her visits are sporadic because they depend on John being absent on business. Irene, though, has stopped worrying so much about Clare being discovered.
Irene admires Clare’s aesthetic value at dinner parties before disparaging her general presence at dinner. That Clare is a bad dinner guest is hard to believe, considering Irene’s earlier descriptions of Clare’s charm and conversational grace. Irene’s narrative, clouded by jealousy, is becoming less and less reliable.
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Margery, meanwhile, is already back in Switzerland for school, and Clare and John plan on returning there in the spring. The idea of going back upsets Clare, but she feels there is no way out. Irene tries to pacify Clare, reminding her that she will be happy to see Margery after so much time apart. Clare, however, responds by saying that children aren’t everything, though there are plenty of people who can’t see that. Then she laughs. Irene says that Clare is trying to tease her, and tells Clare that she takes being a mother very seriously. Irene insists that her devotion to her children is not something to laugh at.
In this scene, Larsen clearly shows Clare and Irene’s starkly contrasting views of motherhood. Clare laughingly says that children are not “everything,” which Irene takes as a personal slight. Irene’s own motherhood encompasses so much of her identity that Clare’s comment stings. The reader also sees the women struggle over control of humor in the scene, with Clare mocking Irene and Irene insisting that the joke is not funny.
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Clare changes her tone and agrees with Irene, apologizing for poking fun at her. Clare reaches out and squeezes Irene’s hand, and tells her that she will never forget how good Irene has been to her. Irene tries to brush this off, but Clare insists that Irene is better than her, and explains that, unlike Irene, Clare would do anything and hurt anyone to get what she wants. Irene feels uncomfortable, and says she does not believe Clare, but cannot articulate why. Clare begins to cry.
Clare concedes to Irene and, in her apology, Clare insists that Irene is morally superior. Irene, even if she does not realize it, exemplifies the same ruthlessness that Clare identifies herself with. The scene perhaps reflects the fact that, as black women, both Irene and Clare have to struggle and sacrifice disproportionately in order to achieve their goals.
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