Nella Larsen

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Passing: Part 3, Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Although in the previous section Irene thinks that she can live with Brian and Clare’s (unsubstantiated) affair, and it does not matter, the narrator states in this section that it does in fact matter. Irene mulls over Brian’s impulse to move to a different country and sees his supposed affair with Clare as the result of his restlessness. Irene tries to forget about the idea that they are sleeping together, but she cannot.
Clearly, Irene’s efforts to repress her feelings about the alleged affair do not work. In this section, Irene links Brian’s desire to move away from the United State to sexual desire for Clare. Irene feels she cannot satisfy Brian’s libido, and obsesses over the idea of him and Clare together.
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Still, Irene remembers, she has no real evidence of this alleged affair, only suspicion. Irene tries to dispel the suspicion from her mind, thinking of the fact that Brian has never cheated on her before, so she should not assume he is doing so now. Irene wonders why Brian inviting Clare has caused her to be so jealous and suspicious. Anyway, Irene thinks, if they are having an affair, Brian would not leave her because of their children and John Bellew. Yet despite her reassurances to herself, Irene continues to worry.
Irene tries to remember that the affair is not actually proven, reminding the reader of her own unreliability in the process. Irene’s obsession with the idea of their affair could be understood as an inappropriate manifestation of her own desire for Clare, as she imagines and reimagines Brian and Clare together sexually.
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Christmas comes and goes, and Irene is happy that it was so busy, because it kept her from thinking too much about Brian and Clare. Irene is also happy that Clare has not been around much because John was home for the holiday. Brian, meanwhile, is withdrawn and sullen. Though his habits have not changed and he continues to sleep in the room next to Irene’s every night, he is very distant from her.
Here, the narrator clues the reader into the celibacy of Irene and Brian’s marriage when she notes that Irene and Brian sleep in separate rooms. Again, Larsen never portrays Brian and Irene doing anything remotely sexual— the only kisses in the novel are when Clare kisses Irene.
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Irene tells herself that Brian’s behavior is not necessarily because of Clare, but she wishes it were Spring already, when Clare will be on her way back to Europe. Irene looks forward to having Clare gone from her life, and hopes something will make that day come sooner—even, she thinks, if it involves Margery getting sick or dying, or John discovering Clare’s black ancestry.
Irene fantasizes that Clare could be removed from Irene’s life for dark reasons, which reflects Irene’s progressively worsening mental state. Though Irene often condescendingly reminds Clare of her duty to Margery, Irene doesn’t hesitate to wish for Margery’s death in order to remove Clare.
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Irene entertains the idea of telling John that Clare is black in order to get Clare out of her life. However, Irene feels that, out of loyalty to Clare as a fellow black woman, she cannot tell John. Irene is caught between loyalty to her race and loyalty to herself. She begins to wish, for the first time in her life, that she were not black. Irene thinks that she suffers enough as an individual and as a woman, let alone suffering as a black person. But despite her loyalty, Irene still wishes that John would find out somehow that Clare is spending time in Harlem. Irene thinks that this discovery would be enough to get Clare out of her life forever.
Irene professes that her refusal to tell John about Clare’s black ancestry is due to racial loyalty. Clearly, Irene cares greatly about advancing black people as a group. Irene feels torn between her own desires and protecting Clare as a fellow black woman. It’s possible, also, that this racial loyalty is layered with loyalty to Clare because of Irene’s feelings of love or lust toward her, which are less palatable to Irene than racial solidarity.
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