Passing

Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Theme Icon
Motherhood, Security, and Freedom Theme Icon
Beauty and Race Theme Icon
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Humor Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Passing, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon

Sex and jealousy feature prominently in Passing— obviously, since one of the book’s major plot threads is Irene’s speculation that Clare and her husband Brian are having an affair. Although the themes of sex and jealousy crystallize around Irene’s speculation about the unconfirmed affair, sex, sexuality, and jealousy are thematic undercurrents throughout the book.

Irene seems to be someone who is uncomfortable with sexuality. For example, when Irene finds out that one of her children is learning sex jokes from his friends, she wants to send him abroad to school, and fights with Brian about it. Her over-the-top reaction seems to indicate that Irene harbors some sexual discomfort or anxiety. Moreover, Irene’s marriage to Brian appears to be fairly chaste, as she notes that they sleep in separate beds.

Clare, on the other hand—or at least the Clare that Larsen gives the reader through Irene’s perspective—appears to have embraced her sexuality in a way that Irene finds transgressive. In the Drayton, Irene watches Clare part with a man that Irene assumes is her husband. Later, when Irene meets John Bellew, she assumes the man, who was not John, must have been a lover and that Clare is an adulteress. Additionally, before Irene even realizes who Clare is, she observes Clare talking with the waiter, and thinks she is being too “provocative. Irene constantly describes Clare as someone who plays up her sexuality, calling her “feline” (and so evoking the trope of cats used to represent feminine sexuality) and someone driven by desire.

It is unclear whether Irene is projecting this sexuality onto Clare or whether she actually exhibits these traits, because the narrative is so closely tied to Irene’s point of view. Likewise, Larsen never clarifies whether the affair that Irene obsesses over between Clare and Brian actually takes place, or whether it is a fantasy constructed from Irene’s many other jealousies surrounding Clare. However, while Irene consciously attributes this jealousy to her protectiveness over Brian, plenty of evidence suggests that Irene may be jealous because of her desire for Clare rather than her love for Brian. Throughout the book, Larsen portrays Irene’s thoughts about Clare’s beauty and attractiveness as not just appreciative, but obsessive. Irene catalogues Clare’s beauty compulsively, and her descriptions are often heavy with language that contains sexual connotations. Irene calls Clare’s mouth “tempting,” her face “caressing,” etc. Irene’s view of Clare as sexually transgressive, then, might not be the result of Clare’s behavior, but rather Irene projecting her own repressed desires onto Clare.

Irene’s desire for Clare bubbles up at one point in the novel, when Clare walks into her room and kisses her head. Irene feels an “inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling” in response, grasps Clare’s hands, and cries out that Clare is lovely. The moment’s excited nature and the intensity of Irene’s reaction suggest that Irene harbors underlying feelings towards Clare that are more sexual than she can consciously admit.

Irene’s resulting anger at Clare, then, might be less due to her jealousy over Brian, and more due to her inability to process her own homoerotic desire, which, in 1920s America, would have been considered taboo. Irene’s statement to Hugh that beauty is “emotional excitement… in the presence of something strange, and even, perhaps, a bit repugnant to you,” could describe Irene’s feelings of attraction to Clare, which are mixed with internalized homophobia that make her own desire “repugnant” to her. Perhaps it is this repugnance, mixed with the many other complex, conflicting feelings that Irene has for Clare, that drives her to fantasize about Clares death (though whether Irene actually pushes Clare through the window is left ambiguous).

The complexity of sex, sexuality, and jealousy in Passing overall highlights the unreliability of Irene’s perspective, and charges the novel with an underlying tension that persists even to the final scene.

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Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy appears in each Chapter of Passing. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy Quotes in Passing

Below you will find the important quotes in Passing related to the theme of Sex, Sexuality, and Jealousy.
Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

Her lips, painted a brilliant geranium red, were sweet and sensitive and a little obstinate. A tempting mouth. The face across the forehead and cheeks was a trifle too wide, but the ivory skin had a peculiar soft luster. And the eyes were magnificent! Dark, sometimes absolutely black, always luminous, and set in long, black lashes. Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about them. Ah! Surely! They were Negro eyes! Mysterious and concealing. And set in that ivory face under that bright hair, there was about them something exotic. Yes, Clare Kendry’s loveliness was absolute, beyond challenge, thanks to those eyes which her grandmother and later her mother and father had given her.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield
Page Number: 190-191
Explanation and Analysis:

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Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

Not so lonely that that old, queer, unhappy restlessness had begun again within him; that craving for some place strange and different, which at the beginning of her marriage she had had to make such strenuous efforts to repress, and which yet faintly alarmed her, though it now sprang up at gradually lessening intervals.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield, John/Jack Bellew
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt

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Part 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

Brian, she was thinking, was extremely good-looking. Not, of course, pretty or effeminate; the slight irregularity of his nose saved him from the prettiness, and the rather marked heaviness of his chin saved him from the effeminacy. But he was, in a pleasant masculine way, rather handsome. And yet, wouldn’t he, perhaps, have been merely ordinarily good-looking but for the richness, the beauty of his skin, which was of an exquisitely fine texture and deep copper color?

Related Characters: Irene Redfield, Brian Redfield
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

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Well, what of it? If sex isn’t a joke, what is it? And what is a joke? …The sooner and the more he learns about sex, the better for him. And most certainly if he learns that it’s a grand joke, the greatest in the world. It’ll keep him from lots of disappointments later on.

Related Characters: Brian Redfield (speaker), Irene Redfield, Brian Junior (Junior)
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Part 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

Clare had come softly into the room without knocking and, before Irene could greet her, had dropped a kiss on her dark curls… Redfield had a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling. Reaching out, she grasped Clare’s two hands in her own and cried with something like awe in her voice: “Dear God! But aren’t you lovely Clare!”

Related Characters: Irene Redfield (speaker), Clare Kendry / Bellew
Page Number: 224-225
Explanation and Analysis:

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Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

I think what they feel is—well, a kind of emotional excitement. You know, the sort of thing you feel in the presence of something strange, and even, perhaps, a bit repugnant to you; something so different that it’s really at the opposite end of the pole from all your accustomed notions of beauty.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield (speaker), Clare Kendry / Bellew, Hugh Wentworth
Page Number: 236
Explanation and Analysis:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

Brian. What did it mean? How would it affect her and the boys? The boys! She had a surge of relief. It ebbed, vanished. A feeling of absolute unimportance followed. Actually, she didn’t count. She was, to him, only the mother of his sons. That was all. Alone she was nothing. Worse. An obstacle.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield, Brian Redfield, Brian Junior (Junior), Theodore (Ted)
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

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Did you notice that cup…It was the ugliest thing that your ancestors, the charming Confederates, ever owned…What I’m coming to is the fact that I’ve never figured out a way of getting rid of it until about five minutes ago. I had an inspiration. I had only to break it, and I was rid of it forever. So simple!

Related Characters: Irene Redfield (speaker), Clare Kendry / Bellew, Brian Redfield, Hugh Wentworth
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Part 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her…Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a Negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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Part 3, Chapter 3 Quotes

Above everything else she had wanted, had striven, to keep undisturbed the pleasant routine of her life. And now Clare Kendry had come into it, and with her the menace of impermanence.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield
Page Number: 262
Explanation and Analysis:

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Part 3, Chapter 4 Quotes

Drearily she rose from her chair and went upstairs to set about the business of dressing to go out when she would far rather have remained at home. During the process she wondered, for the hundredth time, why she hadn’t told Brian about herself and Felise running into Bellew the day before, and for the hundredth time she turned away from acknowledging to herself the real reason for keeping back the information.

Related Characters: Clare Kendry / Bellew, Irene Redfield, Brian Redfield, Felise Freeland
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Security. Was it just a word? If not, then was it only by the sacrifice of other things, happiness, love, or some wild ecstasy that she had never known, that it could be obtained? And did too much striving, too much faith in safety and permanence, unfit one for these other things? Irene didn’t know, couldn’t decide, though for a long time she sat questioning and trying to understand. Yet all the while, in spite of her searchings and feeling of frustration, she was aware that, to her, security was the most important and desired thing in life.

Related Characters: Irene Redfield
Page Number: 267
Explanation and Analysis:

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