Irene is an elegant and affluent woman of African-American descent. She spent her childhood in Chicago but relocated to Harlem, where she lives with her husband Brian and her two sons, Brian Junior and Ted. Alternately levelheaded and sensitive, Irene spends much of Larsen's novel observing her outlandish acquaintance Clare Kendry and analyzing Clare's attempt to "pass" as a white woman.
Clare's largely successful attempt to "pass" as white despite her black ethnic heritage is the core of Larsen's novel. In terms of temperament, Clare is dramatic, outgoing, and willing to take risks; after all, she marries and has a daughter with a white bigot, John Bellew. Yet at the same time, Clare is eager to keep her link to African-American society vital. As Passing progresses, she gravitates to Irene Redfield--who was Clare's childhood friend in Chicago--and immerses herself in upscale Harlem life as an alternative to the affluent white society she once so eagerly sought out.
A doctor by profession, Brian is Irene's husband and the father of Brian Junior and Ted. Ironic and somewhat reserved in terms of personality, Brian often seems restless in his present circumstances and once dreamed of traveling to Brazil. Irene often notes his lingering, subtle displeasure.
A traveler and businessman who is Clare's husband and the father of Clare's daughter Margery. John or "Jack" Bellew is vehemently prejudiced against African Americans; he does not discover that Clare herself is part African-American until the very end of the novel, and this revelation has devastating results.
Clare's father, who died in a saloon fight while Clare was still a child. Bob Kendry worked as a janitor, and was the subject of rumors about the poor life decisions that he made.
A well-off African-American woman who is capable of being mistaken as Caucasian. Gertrude has married into white society, but is uncomfortable with the boldness of Clare's "passing" attempts.
The older of Irene Redfield's two sons.
The younger of Irene Redfield's two sons.
A traveler and author who is on close terms with Irene. Though he is white, Hugh often attends social events in Harlem.
Hugh Wentworth's wife.
A friend of the Redfields. Clare's catastrophic final confrontation with Bellew takes place at a party hosted by Dave and his wife Felise.
The wife of Dave Freeland. Bellew discovers that Irene is not white (and begins to discern the truth about Clare's ethnicity) when he sees Irene and Felise shopping together.
Passing Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Passing is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.