Chicago and New York during the early decades of the 20th century
Narrator and Point of View
Third-person narration, dealing almost exclusively with the perspective and memories of Irene Redfield, a prosperous and educated woman of African-American descent.
Tone and Mood
Tense and retrospective. Irene spends large portions the novel reflecting on her relationship with Clare Kendry, a black woman who is deceptively "passing" as white. Throughout, Irene expresses discomfort with Clare's plot and with Clare's vexed relationship with the black community.
Protagonist and Antagonist
Protagonist: Irene Redfield; Antagonists: Clare Kendry (temporarily) and John Bellew (temporarily)
The most dramatic conflict in the narrative centers on Clare's attempts to reenter African-American life, despite her marriage to a white bigot. Clare's efforts are linked to ongoing problems involving Irene's tense state of mind and Irene's unsettled marriage.
The climax occurs at the Freelands' party; John Bellew's arrival and Clare's fall from a window represent the points of highest drama in the text.
- Clare's loose, youthful ways and her liaison with a man at the Drayton foreshadow other romantic misadventures, such as her possible affair with Brian.
- Irene's musings about what would happen if Clare were to die foreshadow the end of the novel, which in fact revolves around Clare's death.
- The story of Noah, Ham, and Noah's other children (Bible)
- References to popular black entertainers (Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters)
- Strong and consistent attention to weather and climate
- Precise description of physical features (eyes, skin, hair)
- Attention to distinct physical objects (Clare's letters, women's clothing)
- Clare wants to return to exactly the community that she once shunned (African-American society).
- Clare is accepted by all members of Irene's household except for Clare's first contact, Irene herself.
Metonymy and Synecdoche
- Clare's case could be a representative instance of a broader trend of "passing," since (as Hugh and Irene admit) determining true ethnicity can be difficult.
Passing Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Passing is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.