Passing Literary Elements


Realistic social and psychological fiction

Setting and Context

Chicago and New York during the early decades of the 20th century

Narrator and Point of View

Third-person narration, dealing almost exclusively with the perspective and memories of Irene Redfield, a prosperous and educated woman of African-American descent.

Tone and Mood

Tense and retrospective. Irene spends large portions the novel reflecting on her relationship with Clare Kendry, a black woman who is deceptively "passing" as white. Throughout, Irene expresses discomfort with Clare's plot and with Clare's vexed relationship with the black community.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Protagonist: Irene Redfield; Antagonists: Clare Kendry (temporarily) and John Bellew (temporarily)

Major Conflict

The most dramatic conflict in the narrative centers on Clare's attempts to reenter African-American life, despite her marriage to a white bigot. Clare's efforts are linked to ongoing problems involving Irene's tense state of mind and Irene's unsettled marriage.


The climax occurs at the Freelands' party; John Bellew's arrival and Clare's fall from a window represent the points of highest drama in the text.


- Clare's loose, youthful ways and her liaison with a man at the Drayton foreshadow other romantic misadventures, such as her possible affair with Brian.

- Irene's musings about what would happen if Clare were to die foreshadow the end of the novel, which in fact revolves around Clare's death.




- The story of Noah, Ham, and Noah's other children (Bible)

- References to popular black entertainers (Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters)


- Strong and consistent attention to weather and climate

- Precise description of physical features (eyes, skin, hair)

- Attention to distinct physical objects (Clare's letters, women's clothing)


- Clare wants to return to exactly the community that she once shunned (African-American society).

- Clare is accepted by all members of Irene's household except for Clare's first contact, Irene herself.



Metonymy and Synecdoche

- Clare's case could be a representative instance of a broader trend of "passing," since (as Hugh and Irene admit) determining true ethnicity can be difficult.