As the first major section of Passing, "Encounter," begins, Irene Redfield is sorting through her morning mail. Among the final documents in her pile is a document composed on large Italian paper and addressed in dramatic purple ink. Irene feels an aversion to this particular letter, and senses that it may draw her back into the risky life of one of her acquaintances: Clare Kendry.
While sitting before the letter, Irene summons memories of Clare's youth. She first envisions a young girl sitting in front of a powerful, enraged man: this scene was typical of Clare's upbringing under her father, a janitor named Bob Kendry. After Bob's death in a saloon fight, the young Clare briefly gave way to an outburst of tearful emotion. However, her outburst was short-lived. Irene muses that Clare's nature could be summed up as ‘catlike’, since Clare's moods involve alternating moments of calculation and aggression.
Irene's thoughts eventually return to the letter immediately in front of her; she opens the envelope and begins to read. In the text of the letter itself, Clare explains that she feels lonely and alienated. She wants to reconnect with Irene (to whom she refers as "'Rene") and refers back to events that took place two years earlier. Irene herself looks back on the Chicago events with a combination of embarrassment and anger, yet finds her thoughts drawn to these occurrences. Here, Chapter 1 of Passing draws to a close.
Chapter 2 of "Encounter" begins with a description of an astonishingly hot August day in Chicago. Irene recalls the events of these days and is drawn into a flashback, which becomes the present time of the narrative from here on out. On this day in the flashback, she is shopping for her two sons, Brian Junior and Theodore; her attempts to find a drawing book for Theodore have so far been futile, and the heat has begun to take a toll on her. After watching a pedestrian crumple onto the sidewalk, Irene herself feels faint and decided to seek refuge in a cab. She has the cabman take her to the Drayton, an upscale hotel.
At the Drayton, Irene makes her way to the rooftop restaurant. She spends some time reflecting on the difficult natures of Theodore and of her husband, but soon finds that her thoughts gravitate to two of her fellow guests: a woman with a husky voice, and this woman's male companion. After the man leaves, Irene finds that the woman has begun to stare at her. Irene initially fears that the woman has identified her as African-American (a risk in a white-restricted hotel such as the Drayton), yet the woman dissipates this fear and addresses Irene by name. Struggling to place her new companion in her memories, Irene remains confused until she hears the woman laugh. This sound is the giveaway: it suddenly occurs to Irene that she has been talking to Clare Kendry.
Surprised by this encounter, Irene reflects on the news and rumors that surrounded Clare after the death of Bob Kendry. Clare had been absent from Irene's life for at least twelve years. Before Clare disappeared, though, Irene's father had made a visit to Clare's living relatives to try to obtain news of Clare's whereabouts; he discovered, from the relatives, that Clare had vanished. Gossip had sprung up around the young Clare in short order. Apparently, Clare had been seen in white high society; the adult Irene reflects on Clare’s escapades in this world of privilege.
Irene and Clare acknowledge that they have fallen almost completely out of contact, and then proceed to inform each other of the courses that their lives have taken. Irene explains that she is married and has relocated from Chicago to New York; Clare is pleased simply to hear Irene's news and recollections. After Irene declares that she must leave, Clare invites Irene to meet her husband Jack and her daughter Margery, who are also in Chicago. Because Clare's proposal does not fit Irene's plans, Irene invites Clare on a trip to Idlewild with other African Americans of her acquaintance. However, Clare cannot go: she cannot break her lifestyle of "passing" as white.
Irene turns out to be intensely curious about Clare's extending "passing" ploy. Naturally, Clare explains in great detail how she was able to enter white society. The relatives who took in Clare after Bob Kendry's death--Clare's aunts--were white themselves. These women attempted to instill in Clare a lifestyle of religiosity and hard work. Instead, Clare met her enterprising future husband, John Bellew, when he visited her white neighborhood, and ran off to marry him without notifying her aunts.
After making these revelations about her past, Clare asks whether Irene herself has ever considered "passing.” Irene states that she has not, since she has most of the things in life that she could conceivably desire. Yet Irene also realizes that some of Clare's virtues--her grace, her charm--are qualities that are innate, rather than qualities dictated by the privileges of white society. As the meeting draws to a close, Irene realizes that she wants to see Clare again. The two women make plans to meet on the coming Tuesday.
The two women part, and as Irene walks away from the Drayton she finds that her emotions have changed. Now, she feels irritation towards her plans to see Clare again. As she reaches the house of her father--who still lives in Chicago--Irene decides that she will keep the news of her unexpected meeting with Clare to herself. She also resolves that she will not see Clare again, under any circumstances.
Although Passing begins with an unremarkable routine--Irene opening her daily mail--the novel does not stay in this register of forgettable everyday occurrences for long. Clare's idiosyncratic letter represents a first, subtle departure from easy predictability. Moreover, as Irene's most immediate memories of Clare herself reveal, Clare is a woman with a dramatic personality and a fraught childhood. If anything, the early stages of Passing establish a strong contrast in attitude and background between Irene and Clare. Irene is seen ruminating on Clare's risky ploys, visiting family, and shopping for the Redfield sons; Clare is actually undertaking risky ploys and strikes out independently, disregarding her family and relatives.
To depict Clare, Larsen uses a few distinct narrative devices. First, Passing only gradually provides information about Clare's background; although Irene has some dramatic memories (such as the death of Clare's father), the full story of how Clare passed into adulthood is reserved for later on in "Encounter." Second, in a move that balances this sense of ambiguity and indeterminacy, Larsen is extremely precise when describing Clare's physical appearance. At the Drayton, for instance, Irene slowly "looked around, and into the eyes of the woman in the green frock [Clare] at the next table" (178). Clare's eyes, clothes, and gestures make a strong impression on Irene, and will continue to do so at other key points in Passing.
Larsen is equally adept at establishing the paradoxes in Clare's nature. In particular, it would seem natural that a worldly woman such as Clare would be jaded by her experiences of race and society. Yet when Irene talks of African-American life, "Clare drank it all in, these things which for so long she had wanted to know and hadn’t been able to learn" (184). There is a genuine enthusiasm, on Clare's part, for a lifestyle that is very different from the life she has built for herself while passing as white. She may have lost some of her illusions about white society, but has not lost her capacity for joy and pleasure.
While these early chapters are devoted primarily to establishing Clare's and Irene's personalities and situations, the broader question of race relations does enter the narrative, albeit in a somewhat ironic manner. As she recollects her white relatives, Clare explains that "They forbade me to mention Negroes to the neighbors, or even to mention the South Side. You may be sure that I didn't. I'll bet they were good and sorry afterwards" (189). The way to endure white society, it seems, is to approach racial matters in a spirit of caution and evasion; after all, Clare and Irene got into the Drayton simply by saying nothing about their racial roots. Similarly, Clare was able to marry a white man by remaining completely silent about her racial origins and by letting him make his own assumptions about her.
Whether such an evasive approach to race will persist is a different matter. Though calculating and elegant, Clare is also passionate and self-interested, at times to the point of running irrational dangers. (Here again, the stable and yet more fearful Irene--who quickly becomes anxious that she will be ejected from the white Drayton--is a useful foil.) It remains to be seen whether Clare will manage to reconcile the dramatically different sides of her personality, or whether her unique character will be the undoing of her lifestyle of passing.