Passing opens by setting out the nature of the relationship between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two childhood friends who have grown apart in adulthood. Although the adult Irene is determined to keep Clare at a distance, Clare eagerly seeks out Irene's company and intimacy: "I am lonely, so lonely . . . cannot help longing to be with you again, as I have never longed for anything before; and I have wanted many things in my life" (174). The irony, here, resides in the complete asymmetry of the relationship between the two women. Irene is at times vehemently averse to being in Clare's presence, while Clare is so caught up in reconnecting with Irene that she does not notice -- or care about -- Irene's aversion.
Bellew's Racism (Dramatic Irony)
In one of the most striking ironies in all of Passing, John Bellew voices his bigoted views concerning African Americans in front of women who are, in fact, African Americans passing as white. As Bellew tells Clare, in front of the silently aghast Gertrude and Irene, "I know you're no nigger. I draw the line at that. No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be" (201). In this double-leveled irony, Bellew is unaware of both the immediate context of his remarks and of the truth about his family; his ignorance of the situation has led him into a statement that is astoundingly insulting and inaccurate.
Brian's Approach to Honesty and Secrecy (Situational Irony)
Some aspects of Brian Redfield's personality enter into radically ironic contrasts as Passing proceeds. At times, Brian emerges as a proponent of honesty and communication, as in his attempts to educate his sons in the realities of the world. As he states to Irene at one point, regarding Brian Junior, "you needn't think I'm going to let you change him into some nice kindergarten kind of a school because he's getting a little necessary education. I won't!" (220.) However, honesty and communication are exactly the values that Brian rejects elsewhere in his family life; after all, he is unwilling to discuss some of the tensions that surround his desire to travel, and may well be carrying on a clandestine affair with Clare Kendry.
Clare's Beauty, and Clare's Transgressions (Situational Irony)
By the time Passing reaches its final stages, Irene's discomfort with Clare's passing maneuvers and her distaste for Clare's presence in the Redfield home have become unmistakable. However, Irene still has moments of admiration for Clare. During the tea at the Redfield home, for instance, Irene observes Clare and "couldn't remember ever having seen her look better. She was wearing a superlatively simple cinnamon-brown frock that brought out all of her vivid beauty" (253). Ironically, even as Irene rebels against Clare in virtually every other respect, Irene cannot shake her admiration for Clare's most easy and immediate appeal: her physical beauty.
Passing Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Passing is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Irene is an elegant and affluent woman of African-American descent. She spent her childhood in Chicago but relocated to Harlem, where she lives with her husband Brian and her two sons, Brian Junior and Ted. Alternately levelheaded and sensitive,...