Nella Larsen

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Passing: Part 3, Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

The next day, coincidentally, Irene runs into John on the street. It is a cold day and Irene is with Felise Freeland downtown. As they turn a corner, they collide with John. John recognizes Irene, smiles, and holds out his hand to shake. However, his smile fades when he sees that Irene is with Felise, who he recognizes as black. Irene does not take John’s hand, and instead looks at him as if she does not know him. Then she walks past John, pulling Felise along.
In this moment, the potential danger of passing comes to fruition as Irene, walking with Felise, runs into John Bellew, and John realizes she is not white. That John realizes Irene is black because of Felise emphasizes how profoundly perceptions of race are shaped through environment and relationships to other people.
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Felise dryly asks Irene if she has been passing, and says that her presence revealed Irene’s secret. Irene solemnly agrees. Felise, recognizing that Irene did not take that as a joke, says that Irene seems to care a lot that she was recognized, and apologizes. Irene tells Felise that she has only ever passed before to get into restaurants and cinemas, never in social situations, except in front of John. Felise asks Irene to tell her the story behind it, but Irene insists she cannot.
Felise clearly means her teasing Irene about passing to be a joke, but Irene, fully understanding the danger of the situation for Clare, does not take it that way. Again, Larsen shows how asymmetry of knowledge can make jokes take on entirely different meanings and implications than intended.
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Felise becomes distracted by a coat she admires. Meanwhile, Irene thinks about the fact that, if she had introduced John to Felise, John might realize that Clare has been spending time in Harlem and take her away. Irene thinks that it was her racial loyalty that kept her from betraying Clare. Irene wonders why she couldn’t let go of this loyalty, and separate Clare from their race. Irene tells Felise she is going to go home, and Felise decides to continue shopping.
Irene continues to feel conflicted about her loyalty to Clare, questioning the meaning of racial solidarity. Irene sees racial loyalty as something that comes in conflict with individual fulfillment. The reader sees this tension in the act of passing—by passing, a person can attain personal privilege, neglecting other members of their race in the process.
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Irene wonders if she should tell Clare that she has run into John, since, although Irene did not betray Clare, he still might be suspicious. However, Irene convinces herself that getting in touch with Clare would be too difficult, and that there is nothing they could do about it. Irene feels satisfied that she might be rid of Clare in the end anyway.
Irene, unable to actively betray Clare as a fellow black woman, but unwilling to actively help Clare by warning her of the run-in with John, chooses to do nothing. Irene, forever censoring her thoughts, convinces herself it would be too difficult to contact Clare.
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Still, Irene plans to tell Brian about running into John. But that evening, each time she has the opportunity to say something to him, Irene hesitates and stays quiet. The whole evening passes without Irene telling Brian, and she wonders why she doesn’t. Irene tries to read, but is too distracted. She wonders what might happen if John divorces Clare, and thinks that it “if Clare were free” it would be the worst outcome. Irene then begins to imagine what would happen if Clare were to die, though she knows it is a bad train of thought.
Irene imagines that, if Clare and John divorced, Clare would potentially ruin her marriage to Brian and thus disrupt her entire family and way of life. This shows how she values Brian more for the structure he provides in her life than for the love he gives her or she gives him. Again, Irene fantasizes about Clare’s death, showing how mentally unwell Irene is by this point in the novel.
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Irene hears the door open downstairs and knows Brian has gone out. She feels like she is going to cry but cannot. Irene lays in her bed, awake, thinking about her life with Brian and all their memories together. Irene realizes that, above all, she wants to keep her routine with him, and worries that Clare will ruin it. Irene prays that March, when Clare will leave, will come soon. She falls asleep.
Irene presumably takes Brian’s leaving as a sign that he is going to meet up with Clare. That Irene is in her bed as she ponders Brian and Clare’s potential affair highlights how Irene’s anxiety surrounding her marriage and Clare might be due to her sexual anxieties.
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