Passing Imagery

Reencountering Clare

When Irene first sees the adult Clare in the Drayton, she is struck by Clare's beauty even before she determines Clare's identity: "An attractive looking woman, was Irene's opinion, with those dark, almost black, eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin" (177). Even as Clare and Irene's relationship intensifies--at times becoming a source of vexation and distress on Irene's part--Irene remains in admiration of Clare's beauty. But this stark first impression serves another purpose in the broader narrative of Passing: it shows how easily Clare can, in fact, pass as white. Nothing that Irene observes immediately and indisputably identifies Clare as black, and the description of Clare's "ivory skin" indicates just how little trouble Clare has establishing her guise as a white woman.

Gertrude's Faded Beauty

Early in Passing, Irene is reunited with Gertrude Martin, another black woman who could be easily mistaken for white. The changes that have occurred in Gertrude--who was once a woman of considerable beauty--make a powerful impression on Irene: "She had grown broad, fat almost, and though there were no lines on her large white face, its very smoothness was somehow prematurely aging" (195). It is significant that Gertrude's poorly-aged "white face" is one of the features that Irene views negatively. Indeed, as registered through Irene, Gertrude's unpleasant physical appearance may be meant to indicate the moral unpleasantness that Irene associates with ethnic "passing."

Brian's Attractiveness

Irene admires the appearance of her husband Brian, and her admiration is to some extent bound up with questions of race and skin tone: "And yet, wouldn't he, perhaps, have been merely ordinarily good-looking but for the richness, the beauty of his skin, which was of an exquisitely fine texture and deep copper color?" (214). Throughout Passing, Irene attempts to differentiate herself from women such as Clare and Gertrude, who find dark skin problematic in their children and (naturally) unacceptable in their mates. As a woman who is comfortable within her ethnic community, Irene, in a complementary fashion, is comfortable with the idea that dark skin can itself be a subtle yet powerful source of physical beauty.

The Broken Cup

After she intuits that Clare and Brian may be having an affair, Irene gives way to a moment of agitation and breaks a teacup. To the narration of Irene's own experience of the event, "There was a slight crash. On the floor at her feet lay the shattered cup. Dark stains dotted the bright rug. Spread. The chatter stopped. Went on. Before her, Zulena gathered up the white fragments" (254). At other points in Passing, Larsen has used Irene's perspective to deliver detailed imagery regarding settings, clothes, and physical appearance. Here, the descriptive language ("white fragments") is more limited, but the departure from Irene's usual elaborate style and the use of short sentences captures Irene's state of tension. The cup is important not because of how it looks, but because its fate is a sign of how deep Irene's turmoil runs.