On the boat back to America, the narrator meets a large, dignified African American man, ("the doctor"), a graduate of Howard University. They strike up a friendship and discuss the race question. The doctor is "broad-minded" and believes that "Negroes" are progressing, although he sympathizes with certain aspects of the white, Southern perspective. The narrator stays with his new friend in Boston for a few days and then accompanies him to Washington D.C., where the doctor lives. The narrator becomes quickly acquainted with the doctor's friends, all educated African Americans, who earn "good salaries and [have] a reasonable amount of leisure time to draw from" (112). The doctor, meanwhile, is very critical of who he deems "the worst" of the race.
The narrator reflects positively on his time in Washington but then moves on to Macon, Georgia. On the way, he ends up in the smoking car of the train. The men gathered there are cordial and convivial; they include a Jewish cigar maker, a white professor, an ex-Union soldier, and a boisterous Texan planter. The race question comes up. The Jewish man takes neither side but listens and comments politely. The professor is flustered and does not participate. The argument is mostly between the old soldier and the Texan. The Texan does not believe in racial equality at all while the Union soldier argues for it. The Texan tries to claim the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, but the soldier ably and eloquently explains that all of the accomplishments of the Anglo-Saxons are built on discoveries made by other races. The Texan is impressed, but jovially says his mind will never be changed. The narrator cannot help but admire his steadfastness, but also hopes that the mental attitudes of Southerners can be changed one day.
In Macon, the narrator decides to leave his things behind and travel through the country. He sees rural African Americans for the first time and is not impressed. He is also annoyed with the poor cooking and accommodations of the South, wondering if his millionaire friend was right. He discourses for some time on the differences between the North and the South in their feelings on "the colored man".
While he is in the South, the narrator also attends a "big meeting", which is a large religious gathering. It is a boisterous and exciting atmosphere. The narrator observes one impressive preacher, John Brown, and a music leader, Singing Johnson. Brown demonstrates "all the arts and tricks of oratory" and holds his listeners spellbound with his sermons about heaven and hell. Meanwhile, Johnson knows all of the spiritual songs and is a master at leading the congregation. The narrator marvels at the wonder of his songs' production. He feels inspired by this meeting.
The narrator decides to stay with a young African American schoolteacher for a few days. This man strikes the narrator as being too earnest about the race question, but intelligent and ambitious nonetheless. They retire to a boarding house but the narrator is stirred awake by a frantic sounds outside. He hears a rumor from the people flowing past the house that a crime has been committed. Defying the schoolteacher's warnings, the narrator leaves the house and joins a crowd at the station. It is mostly white people with some black people at the fringes. A "poor wretch", a black man, is dragged into the circle. The white people throw up a fiendish "rebel yell", resembling "savage beasts". They tie the man to a stake and burn him alive.
The narrator is horrified and dazed, but he is also humiliated that he is part of a race that can be victim to such horrible crimes. He is also in disbelief at how "a people that can find in its conscience any excuse whatever for slowly burning to death a human being, or for tolerating such an act, can be entrusted with the salvation of a race". He ultimately decides that he will not claim or declaim his blackness and will simply pass for whatever people assume his race to be. He departs for New York.
Back in New York, the narrator feels lost but decides to amuse himself for a few days before looking for a job. This endeavor is depressing and he decides to enroll in business school. It is not long before he becomes a clerk in a wholesale house. He lives frugally and then begins investing in real estate, at which he is extremely successful.
He passes for white and is content with this until the day he falls in love with a woman. She is a singer and the narrator describes her as "the most dazzlingly white thing I have ever seen". They begin courting and he decides he wants to marry her; this makes him wonder if he should tell her the truth about his face. He agonizes over this decision for some time. One Sunday afternoon the narrator and the girl run into Shiny on the street. Now a professor, Shiny is in town to work in a summer school before getting married. The girl is very kind to Shiny and interested in him after he leaves, and the narrator therefore feels comfortable that she will accept his secret. He tells her and she is shocked into silence until she begins weeping. This, the narrator says, is the only moment he ever feels "absolute regret at being colored". The girl goes away for the summer and they do not have any communication. The narrator is heart-sick. A few months later, he learns she is back in town and they run into each other at the theater. They meet again at another party and there she confesses that she loves him too.
The two are married and have two children; unfortunately, the girl dies in the second childbirth. The narrator claims he will never marry again and devotes his life to his children. He expresses ambivalence about his "present position in the world". On the one hand, he is glad he passes as white for his children's sake. On the other hand, he sees prominent African Americans like Booker T. Washington and feels like an insignificant white man who has managed to make some money, a choice which deprived him of standing up for his race. He ends the novel by wondering if "I have chosen the lesser part...I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage".
In this section, the narrator travels to Europe and falls in love with Paris. However, he realizes that he needs to get back to his musical career and become a composer. He decides that the best place to do this is in the South, where he can be inspired by the African American music scene. The narrator’s confusion and vacillation between being black or white permeates all of his decisions; his ambivalence suggests that he will not ever achieve a hegemonic racial identity.
In these last two chapters of the novel, there are multiple depictions of African Americans. The narrator meets the doctor, who the narrator believes represents the best of the race, but back in the South, he is embarrassed by the downtrodden African Americans who populate the streets. He is inspired by the magnetic, impassioned, and authentic personages of Singing Johnson and John Brown, but is disgusted by the absolute debasement of a poor black man who is lynched by a white crowd. In this climactic moment, the anguished narrator comes to the conclusion that he can no longer live openly as a biracial man and that he will be content to pass for white. He decidedly rejects his heritage and embraces a life based on earning money and avoiding the difficulties and indignities that arise from being biracial. It is a willful self-denial seems to haunt him by the end of his story. By the end of the novel, the narrator's goals of making music that represents the traditions of his people and embracing his dual heritage are a distant memory. He is heavy with isolation and remorse.
Because the narrator is biracial, he is able to critique both races according to Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness. However, he rejects that potential source of power. He is ashamed of his blackness and wants to hide it. The critic Donald Goellnicht writes, “so complete is the obliteration of an African heritage, so complete is the cultural assimilation to Euro-American values, that psychical bondage is obviated; the compliant subject policies himself.” The narrative is destabilized by the inversion of what the reader assumes will occur –the narrator’s becoming a “race man”, a man like the doctor on the ship. His ultimate choice to pass as white is unpredictable and disappointing to many readers.
On the other hand, it is possible to view the narrator’s choice to pass as a veritable slap in the face to fixed notions of the racial divide. The narrator has an African American parent but is able to live and make money in a society dominated by white people without their even knowing it. This begs the question - does it even matter that the narrator is half-black? The marriage between the narrator and his wife would have fallen under the category of miscegenation if he revealed his racial background. The mere fact that the narrator chooses to pass as white may be viewed as a profound example of power and autonomy. He is an individual who chooses the path that he believes is right for himself and, later, for his family.
Many critics have claimed that the novel is “ironic”, but if it is, it is better viewed as a postmodern form of irony that does not rely on a stable referent. The act of "passing" can be held up to this standard as well. Passing implies that a person must be racially homogenous, but most cases do not fall neatly on one side of the racial divide. Passing could be intentional or unintentional; it was not just an imposter trying to cross the color line. As critic Neil Brooks explains, “the physical manifestation of a psychological quest to understand oneself in a society where to be black was often not to have one consistent self, but to have a double self.” The narrator’s multiple identities and contradictions end up becoming his identity. He chooses the easier path but as a result, he cannot achieve any closure. This closure is a trope of the modernist reading of literature, but here is precisely why a postmodernist reading is more appropriate: “the narrator has created a world where all is organized around himself, but it can never truly be organized because the self he has placed at the center is as unstable as the external world he seeks to control.”
The narrator’s lack of a name also underscores his lack of a stable identity. This may indicate that he does not want to be labeled and participate in social classifications. Having always touted himself as the best at whatever he does, his namelessness is one further way for the narrator to overcome society’s barriers and achieve material success. The tragedy of his choice is that he can be neither black nor white, and society still propagates arbitrary categorizations that, Brooks writes, “cannot be applied adequately to the personal narratives of its individual members.” Since the narrator never embraces a stable identity, the act of passing becomes that identity. His “freedom from the societal meta-narratives of race” brings with it “the chaos of a disordered universe, which is also central to postmodern theory.” Try as he might, the narrator can never bring closure to his own story. Overall, the novel proffers the idea that ambiguity about race is certainly part of a larger conversation, but that it is ultimately irresolvable.