Passing

Passing Part 3, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next day, Irene eats breakfast with Brian in near silence. Then she watches the snow falling out the window until Zulena tells Irene that Clare is on the phone and wants to speak with her. Irene asks Zulena to take a message, and continues to stare out the window. She wonders if John has confronted Clare about running into Irene on the street, and if Clare is calling to tell her about it. When Zulena comes back, she tells Irene that Clare called to tell her she will be going with Irene and Brian to the Freelands’ house that night. Irene thanks Zulena for the information.
Irene and Brian’s silence at breakfast shows how tense their marriage has become. Meanwhile, Irene’s run-in with John is still on her mind, and when Clare calls, it is the first thing Irene thinks of. The phone call might invite the reader to ask themselves why Irene has not asked Brian about the alleged affair, and why Irene continues to consent to Clare’s presence.
Themes
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
After a slow day, Brian, Irene, and their children eat dinner together. Brian tells Irene about a lynching he read about in the newspaper. Ted asks why only black people are lynched, and Brian says it is because the people lynching them hate black people. Irene exclaims “Brian!”, imploring him to not say such things in front of the children.
This section reminds the reader that, although Harlem is a very progressive community where white and black people comingle amicably, most of 1920s America was a hotbed for racial violence against black Americans.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Brian ignores her, however, and when Ted asks why they hate black people, Brian explains that they are afraid of them. Irene tries to cut Brian off, and Brian tells Ted that he will tell him about it some other time, when Irene is not there. Ted says they can talk about it on the way to school, and Brian agrees. Irene says “Brian!” again, and Junior points out that that is the third time she has done so.
When Ted asks about the lynching he read about in the newspaper and wants to understand why some people hate black people, Brian clearly thinks that the best way to address this painful subject is to confront it head on. Irene, meanwhile, seems to disagree, wanting to protect Ted.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Once the boys have gone back upstairs, Irene tells Brian that she wishes he would not talk about lynching in front of Ted and Junior, at least not until they are older. Brian vehemently disagrees that they should wait to address such things. He says that since they have to live in the United States, the boys should know what kinds of dangers they will face as black men. Irene disagrees, wanting them to have happy childhoods free of racial prejudice.
Irene expresses her discontent with Brian’s way of handling Ted’s questions about racial violence; she seems to think that her sons are too young to talk about it. Brian, meanwhile, says that they need to understand the danger they face in the US, heavily implying that they should have moved to Brazil.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Get the entire Passing LitChart as a printable PDF.
Passing.pdf.medium
Brian, however, thinks this is impossible. He reminds Irene of how they tried to keep their children from learning the word “nigger,” and then the children learned it anyway when someone called Junior “a dirty nigger.” Irene continues to insist that they not discuss racism in the house, and Brian continues to insist that they must. Brian calls Irene’s view “stupid.”
Brian recounts trying to keep the racist slur “nigger” from his children, only to witness someone use the word to address his son. Larsen conveys the particular heartbreak that black parents face in preparing their children for the hate they will inevitably experience.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Irene asks rhetorically if it is stupid to want her children to be happy. Brian asserts that it is stupid if being happy will impede the children from preparing properly for the life ahead of them. He reminds Irene that they would not have the same future to prepare for if the family had moved to Brazil together like Brian had wanted to. Brian tells Irene “don’t expect me to give up everything.” Irene is silent, and Brian leaves the room.
Irene and Brian clearly have very different parenting styles. Irene wants to protect her children from the outside world and create a safe, loving environment, while Brian feels that keeping the outside world at bay is impossible, and it is better to teach their children how to handle living in a racist country.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Irene sits shivering alone in the dining room, wondering what Brian meant when he said “don’t expect me to give up everything.” She thinks he might have meant Clare. She tries to talk herself down from this idea. Irene remembers that Clare will soon be at the house, and that she must start getting ready. Irene rises from her chair and goes upstairs to dress. As she gets ready, she wonders again why she did not tell Brian about running into John, and the narrator notes that she will not admit to herself the real reason.
Irene immediately thinks that Brian is talking about Clare when he tells Irene not to expect him to give up everything. To the reader, however, it seems more likely that Brian is telling Irene not to expect him to give over all parenting choices to her. Irene chalks up all of their marital problems to the supposed affair between Clare and Brian, rather than their own incompatibility.
Themes
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Clare arrives at the house, looking beautiful, while Irene is still getting dressed. Clare kisses Irene on the shoulder and Irene shrinks away from her touch. Clare tells Irene that John is unexpectedly in Philadelphia, which is why she ended up being able to come to the party at Felise’s. Irene expresses concern that Philadelphia is not too far away. She thinks about telling Clare that she ran into John on the street but does not. Clare laughs and says Philadelphia is far enough for her.
Again, the reader sees Irene basking in Clare’s beauty. Moreover, for the third time in the novel, Clare kisses Irene. When Irene shrinks away from Clare’s touch, it could be because of Irene’s anger at Clare for the affair she believes is going on. Alternatively, Irene could be struggling with her own repressed desire for Clare.
Themes
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Irene, feeling guilty, covers her eyes with her hand so she does not have to look at herself in the mirror. She then asks Clare if she has thought about what it would mean for her if John ever found out the truth. Clare says “yes,” and smiles. Clare’s response fills Irene with dread, and she asks her to say more. Clare, slouched in her chair, responds that she would move to Harlem to live. Irene asks what she would do about Margery, and Clare responds that if it weren’t for Margery, she would have left John already. Clare then asks Irene if John divorcing her “lets [her] out.” Irene, still paranoid about the possibility that Clare is having an affair with Brian, reads Clare’s words as a veiled threat.
Irene is concerned about what would happen if Clare and John divorced— would Clare pursue Brian, breaking up Irene’s marriage? Or, if Irene is secretly attracted to Clare, how would she process this desire with Clare now unattached? Irene, who values security and routine above all, cannot picture the consequences for herself should Clare end her marriage. Irene begs Clare to think of Margery, but Clare seems to think of her daughter only as an obstacle to her return to the black community.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Irene is determined not to reveal her thoughts and worries to Clare. She tells Clare to go downstairs and talk to Brian. As Clare gets up and goes downstairs, Irene realizes that it is a good thing to send Clare downstairs, since she will not bother her. Anyway, Irene thinks, it does not make a difference if Clare and Brian spend more time together, considering everything that Irene is convinced has already happened between them.
The fact that Irene does not mind leaving Brian and Clare alone together, despite her conviction that they are having an affair, seems somewhat strange. Again, it seems as if Irene is distilling her other anxieties into the idea that Clare and Brian are sleeping together.
Themes
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
At this point, Irene acknowledges that she is completely certain that Clare and Brian are having an affair, and that she is beyond trying to convince herself otherwise. Irene realizes that now that she is totally convinced, she is no more upset than she was before. Irene wonders if it is because she has already endured so much fear and humiliation, but decides that is not it. Irene thinks about the word “security,” and wonders if she can only obtain it by giving up love and happiness. Irene cannot answer these questions, but knows that, to her, security is the most important thing.
Irene describes her greatest desire as “security” and discusses the possibility that her commitment to achieving security has prevented her from experiencing real love and happiness. Irene’s desire for security manifests itself in a profound need for control—over Brian, over how she raises her children, over every aspect of her life. Clare is the only person in the book that Irene truly has no control over, and it terrifies her.
Themes
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Irene feels relieved to have realized this, and returns to plotting how she can achieve that security and ensure that Brian will stay with her and that they will not move to Brazil. Irene thinks both she and Brian belong in America, and that Brian’s duty is to her and their sons. Irene wonders if Brian is anything more to her than the roles he fulfills in her life as her husband and the father of her children.
The reader can see how what Irene describes as “security” is, in fact, micro-managing when she proceeds to plot how to preserve her relationship with Brian. Irene thinks of their parenthood as the reason that they need to stay together, and she worries about her role in his life.
Themes
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Regardless, though, Irene is resolved that she will make sure Brian stays with her, despite the fact that she now wholeheartedly believes Brian and Clare are having an affair. Irene thinks it is better to share him and close her eyes than lose him completely. Irene realizes that she has withheld the fact that she ran into John for fear that Clare would leave John and then “anything might happen.” Irene pauses her dressing routine, thinking of the day when Clare told her she would stop at nothing to get what she wants, and thinks that Clare will give up anything (money, Margery) to get Brian. Irene decides she must not tell Clare or Brian about meeting John, and will do whatever it takes to keep John from discovering the truth about Clare.
Irene, in a moment of self-awareness, begins to see all of her choices as actions intended to preserve her routine and security. As Irene considers Clare, it becomes clear to the reader how different the two women are. Clare is willing to sacrifice almost anything (including her daughter) for intimacy (Irene thinks with Brian, but Clare certainly also wants to be close again with the black community). Meanwhile, Irene is determined to keep her life exactly as it is, even if it means staying in a loveless marriage.
Themes
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
After a page break, Brian, Clare, and Irene are arriving at the party at the Freelands’. Brian asks Clare if she has ever been up to the sixth floor of a building, and Clare says of course—she and John live on the seventeenth. Brian asks if she has ever walked up. Clare laughs and tells him to ask Irene, who knows that as a child Clare used to walk up the stairs to her apartment.
Brian and Clare clearly enjoy a friendly relationship, joking around with each other as Brian teases Clare about her wealth and the fact that she only uses the elevator. While their joking shows their amicable relationship, it also excludes Irene, who sullenly walks along with them.
Themes
Humor Theme Icon
Clare asks why Felise lives on the sixth floor, and Irene responds that Felise says it discourages visitors. They discuss Felise’s choice and the apartment’s garden as they walk through the grounds to the building. Irene believes she feels chemistry between Clare and Brian. Irene and Clare each hold onto one of Brian’s arms. Irene points out the entrance, and Brian jokes that Clare should be careful not to get tired on the fourth floor, because no one will carry her up the last two flights. Irene snaps “don’t be silly!”
As Irene, Brian, and Clare all walk to Felise’s apartment, Irene’s thoughts are dark. Both women hold onto each of Brian’s arms, physically representing the competition that Irene sees between them. When Brian and Clare continue joking, Irene clearly does not think it is funny, and views the pair’s humorous rapport as threatening.
Themes
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Humor Theme Icon
The narrative resumes once the party is in full swing, describing how Dave and Felise are excellent hosts, Brian is witty (even biting, according to Irene), and Ralph Hazelton is an excellent conversationalist. Irene, however, is not happy. Someone asks Irene what the matter is, and jokingly inquires if she has taken a vow not to laugh. Irene responds that she is stunned by everyone else’s excellent conversation. Dave Freeland offers her a drink, and Irene asks for a ginger ale and scotch.
At the party, as everyone else amuses themselves, Irene is gloomy. Larsen shows how humor, rather than doing away with—or at least masking—discontent, reveals how upset Irene is. The idea that Irene has taken a vow not to laugh, although exaggerated, feels somewhat true, since Irene’s commitment to her hard-won security means leading a fairly joyless life.
Themes
Humor Theme Icon
Irene asks if she can open a window, because the room is hot. She does so. Outside the snow has stopped and night has fallen. Irene throws her cigarette out the window and watches it fall. Someone turns on music, and Irene thinks it is too noisy. Dave approaches Irene with her drink, and warns her not to stand by the window or she will catch a cold. He takes her arm and leads her across the room, where they take seats.
Irene opens the window through which Clare will later fall to her death. That Irene opened the window makes the possibility of Irene’s role in Clare’s death even more suspicious, as the reader wonders if, subconsciously, Irene is slowly putting the pieces in place for Clare’s demise.
Themes
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
The doorbell rings, and Felise answers it. Irene then hears John Bellew’s voice, and Felise responds that John’s wife is not there. John yells that she is there, and that he knows she is with the Redfields. He tells Felise to stand out of the way. Brian says that he is Redfield, and asks what is wrong with John. John enters the room and walks toward Clare. Clare, meanwhile, backs away from him. John calls Clare a “nigger.” At the sound of the slur, the men in the room jump up, and Felise warns John that he is the only white man in the room.
John’s presence and all the terrifying racism that he represents, immediately change the tone of the party. The racism behind John’s words throughout the book reaches its inevitable conclusion. All the violence that Irene suspected was underlying his speech is on full display: John makes explicit the violence that is implicit in the casual use of racist slurs and thoughts.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Clare stands by the window, surprisingly composed and smiling slightly. Her smile infuriates Irene, who runs across the room and touches Clare’s arm. She desperately thinks that Clare cannot be free of John. John meanwhile, is speechless. The next thing Irene knows, Clare is gone, and, later, Irene does not allow herself to remember what happened. John gasps and calls out for Clare, calling her “Nig.”
Irene, seeing this moment as one that will precipitate Clare and John’s divorce, panics. It is unclear whether Irene pushed Clare out the window or whether Clare fell on her own. Meanwhile, John’s use of the racial slur “nig” as his wife falls to her death is positively grotesque.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Everyone except Irene rushes downstairs. Irene sits down and processes the fact that Clare has fallen out the window. Irene is shocked, and wonders if the others think Clare has fallen, or committed suicide, or that Irene has pushed her. Irene does not even know whether she did push Clare or not. She mutters to herself that it was a terrible accident. People are coming back up the stairs, and Irene shuts herself in the bedroom.
Irene’s own uncertainty about how exactly Clare fell reflects how extremely unreliable Irene is as a narrator. The fact that Clare died by falling through a window, moreover, is significant, and seems to represent the potential danger of passing from “inside” a group to “outside.”
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Irene wonders if she should have stayed so long upstairs, or if she should rejoin the others. She wonders what questions they will ask her. Irene feels cold. She listens to the voices outside. Irene then wonders if she should put on her coat. Irene gathers Brian’s coat and opens the bedroom door. She finds the apartment empty and goes downstairs.
Irene expresses concern about whether her behavior after Clare fell indicates her guilty conscience or her utter shock. After recovering, Irene goes downstairs to face the loss of Clare, and all the things that means for her.
Themes
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Irene wonders what she will say once she gets to the bottom, and worries she will look suspicious because she did not go downstairs with the rest of them. Irene panics when she thinks that it is possible that Clare might not be dead, and feels sick at the idea that her beautiful body might be permanently injured. Finally, Irene arrives at the bottom of the steps, where all the other partygoers are gathered in a circle. Irene braces herself emotionally.
That Irene is upset at the idea that Clare might not be dead, but rather permanently injured, shows Irene’s continued interest in Clare’s physical form. Specifically, Irene describes Clare’s body as beautiful as she worries, displaying again the possibility that Irene’s aesthetic obsession with Clare is a sexual one.
Themes
Beauty and Race Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Dave announces that Irene is there, and says that they had all concluded that she had fainted. Felise leans on Dave, looking sick. Irene walks to Brian, who looks deeply upset. Irene asks if Clare is dead, not managing to completely get the words out, and Felise responds that Clare’s death seems to have been instant. Irene starts to sob, feeling “thankfulness,” and Brian tries to comfort her. Ralph Hazelton comments that Clare must have fainted. Brian repeats, “it’s impossible!” Dave ask Irene what she saw, since she was right next to Clare when she fell.
As Irene sobs from “thankfulness,” it is unclear exactly why. Certainly, Irene is relieved that Clare is dead. But is it because she is afraid Clare would have stolen Brian from her, disrupting her life? Is it because Clare forced her to confront her own lack of intimacy in her marriage, and with her gone, Irene can go back to blissful ignorance? Or is it because Irene could not handle her desire for Clare?
Themes
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
An official (perhaps a police man) asks Irene if she is sure Clare fell, or if it is possible that John pushed her. Irene notices that Bellew is absent from the scene. Irene insists that John did not push her and she is sure that Clare fell. Irene begins to moan, and then faints. When she comes to, she hears a man’s voice saying that Clare died a “death of misadventure,” and telling the group that they should go have a look at the window.
The disembodied voice commenting on Clare’s death suggests that Clare died because of a “misadventure.” Is this misadventure passing? Or adultery? Was Clare pushed? The ending leaves the reader with more questions than answers, rendering the narration unreliable to the very end.
Themes
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon