Catlike. Certainly that was the word which best described Clare Kendry, if any single word could describe her. Sometimes she was hard and apparently without feeling at all; sometimes she was passionate and rashly impulsive. And there was about her an amazing soft malice, hidden well away until provoked. Then she was able of scratching, and every effectively too. Or, driven to anger, she would fight with a ferocity and impetuousness that disregarded or forgot any danger, superior strength, numbers, or other unfavorable circumstances.
This quotation occurs early in the narrative, and establishes a standpoint for assessing Clare's behavior as Passing progresses. In some ways, the adult Clare does indeed seem "catlike": her way of looking at the world can be highly emotional, yet her life is structured around a calculated scheme to hide her true identity. In other ways, Irene's idea of the "catlike" Clare doesn't quite play out. The "anger" that Irene detects, for instance, never really erupts as the adult Clare's life runs its tragic course.
Irene could only shrug her shoulders. Her reason partly agreed, her instinct wholly rebelled. And she could not say why. And though conscious that if she didn't hurry away, she was going to be late to dinner, she still lingered. It was as if the woman sitting on the other side of the table, a girl she had known, who had done this rather dangerous and, to Irene Redfield, abhorrent thing successfully and had announced herself well satisfied, had for her a fascination, strange and compelling.
Here, Larsen establishes the attitude of strong, even confusing ambivalence that Clare inspires in Irene, who is both horrified and fascinated by Clare's departure from her African American roots. And this initial moment of strongly conflicted emotions sets the stage for the rest of the narrative. Irene continues to be repulsed by Clare and worried about the nature of Clare's "passing" attempt, yet cannot deny Clare's charm and liveliness--nor can she quite banish Clare from her thoughts or her household.
Clare began to talk, steering carefully away from anything that might lead towards race or other thorny subjects. It was the most brilliant exhibition of conversational weight lifting that Irene had ever seen. Her words swept over them in charming well-modulated streams. Her laughs tinkled and pealed. Her little stories sparkled.
In this excerpt, Clare moves a tense conversation of race relations towards matters that her guests--Irene and Gertrude--would find more agreeable. Irene is overcome with admiration, yet Larsen has decided not to record Clare's "little stories" directly. By leaving the exact content of Clare's talk open to uncertainty, Larsen encourages her readers to form independent ideas of Clare's qualities. Both in this brief excerpt and in the narrative as a whole, Clare is both shadowy and impressive.
She dropped Clare out of her mind and turned her thoughts to her own affairs. To home, to the boys, to Brian. Brian, who in the morning would be waiting for her in the great clamorous station. She hoped that he had been comfortable and not too lonely without her and the boys. Not so lonely that the old, queer, unhappy restlessness had begun again with 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 now it sprang up at gradually lessening intervals.
Occurring at the end of the first major segment of Passing, this quotation indicates Irene's desire to eliminate Clare from her thoughts (and her life) completely. It seems that, with her departure from Chicago, Irene has arrived at a new point of peace and resolution. Yet, in one of the novel's harsh ironies, Irene's repose will be short-lived. Her vexed relationship with Clare will be renewed, and Brian--whose troubles are indicated briefly in the quotation itself--will also emerge as a major source of tension in Irene's life.
Most likely she and Clare would never meet again. Well, she, for one, could endure that. Since childhood their lives had never really touched. Actually, they were strangers. Strangers in their ways and means of living. Strangers in their desires and ambitions. Strangers even in their racial consciousness. Between them the barrier was just as high, just as broad, and just as firm as if in Clare did not run that strain of black blood. In truth, it was higher, broader, and firmer; because for her there were perils, not known or imagined by those others who had no such secrets to alarm or endanger them.
Here, Irene registers many of the central differences between herself and Clare. Despite Clare's apparent desire to reconnect with life in Harlem, Clare appears to lack the African-American "racial consciousness" that is such an evident feature of Irene's own social life. But even though Irene (rightly) believes herself to be more accepting of her race of origin and more averse to risk than Clare, Irene also omits the fundamental similarities between Clare and herself. Both women are well-spoken and socially adept--and harbor richer emotional lives than one might initially expect.
She remembered Clare's saying, as they sped northward: "You know, I feel exactly as I used to on the Sunday we went to the Christmas-tree celebration. I knew there was to be a surprise for me and couldn't quite guess what it was to be. I am so excited. You can't possibly imagine! It's marvelous to be really on the way! I can hardly believe it!"
This quotation marks Clare's reentry into Harlem society: she is traveling to the dance hosted by the Negro Welfare League in the company of Brian and Irene. Clare's exclamations may seem at first to do little more than confirm what readers already know well about her--namely, that she is eager to reconnect with her African-American roots and that she can be highly emotional at times. Yet this excerpt, which records what Irene "remembered," also points to an important narrative strategy. As Passing nears its end, Irene will frequently process her interactions with Clare as striking, fragmentary moments such as this one.
"Children aren't everything," was Clare Kendry's answer to that. "There are other things in the world, though I admit some people don't seem to suspect it." And she laughed, more, it seemed, at some secret joke of her own than at her words.
Irene replied: "You know you don't mean that, Clare. You're only trying to tease me. I know very well that I take being a mother rather seriously. I am wrapped up in my boys and the running of my house. I can't help it. And, really, I don't think it's anything to laugh at." And though she was aware of the slight primness in her words and attitude, she had neither power nor wish to efface it.
Throughout Passing, Irene has expressed discomfort at Clare's apparent recklessness and at her somewhat irresponsible version of independence. In this quotation, such differences of approach are channeled into how the two women view their essential family bonds. In discussing children, Clare indicates that her priorities lie elsewhere--most likely, in her own pursuit of pleasure. Yet Irene embraces a stance that is more "prim," and more in keeping with her reservations about disrupting the traditional life that she has crafted for Brian and her sons.
Brian didn't speak. He continued to stand beside the bed, seeming to look at nothing in particular. Certainly not at her. True, his gaze was on her, but in it there was some quality that made her feel that at that moment she was no more to him than a pane of glass through which she stared. At what? She didn't know, couldn't guess. And this made her uncomfortable. Piqued her.
This quotation immediately precedes one of the most dramatic moments in Passing: Clare's first strong intuition that Brian and Clare have been having an affair. In retrospect, it is easy for a reader to detect signs that Brian and Irene have grown apart; for instance, the reference to Irene as a "pane of glass" casts her as an obstacle to Brian, but a non-factor in how he views the world. Yet what makes this quotation so powerfully realistic is how little Irene seems to detect signs of trouble, at least here. In her eyes, Brian may simply be manifesting the usual marks of his dry and somewhat disorienting personality, or may be responding to sources of vexation that have nothing whatsoever to do with Clare.
Sitting alone in the quiet living room in the pleasant firelight, 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. It was a brutality, and undeserved. Surely no other people so cursed as Ham's dark children.
This excerpt marks a strong departure from Irene's earlier attitudes. Throughout Passing, Irene has manifested discomfort with Clare's willingness to forsake her racial roots--and has sought to make a place for herself and her children within Harlem society. Yet the personal tensions that Irene has faced, in her marriage and in her life with Clare, seem to be taking a toll on her earlier loyalties. Ironically, while Clare has eagerly embraced life in Harlem, Irene has "for the first time in her life" questioned and wished to abjure the sense of community that has sustained her for so long.
How she managed to make the rest of the journey without fainting she never knew. But at last she was down. Just at the bottom she came on the others, surrounded by a little circle of strangers. They were all speaking in whispers, or in the awed, discreetly lowered tones adapted to the presence of disaster. In the first instant she wanted to turn and rush back up the way she had come. Then a calm desperation came over her. She braced herself, physically and mentally.
At this point in the narrative, Clare Kendry has already plunged to her death, and Irene--along with the rest of her companions--is left to attempt to make sense of the situation. Even in this cataclysmic moment, Irene remains strongly ambivalent about how she should relate to Clare: should she face the "disaster," or rush away? While this attitude carries through, this passage also represents a return to one of Larsen's most important methods for depicting Irene's thoughts. Generally, Irene experiences dramatic moments in fragments. True to form, Irene "never knew" exactly how she was able to sustain herself, much less what exactly happened in Clare's final moments.
Passing Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Passing is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.