Passing Summary and Analysis of "Encounter," Chapters 3 and 4


Chapter 3 of "Encounter" begins with a depiction of the stiflingly hot weather on one memorable Tuesday, the day of Irene's intended meeting with Clare. It turns out that Clare has been insistently placing phone calls to Irene; finally, her nerves frayed, the reluctant Irene decides to answer. Over the course of a brief conversation, Clare manages to persuade Irene to join her for a short time. Irene hangs up, feeling that Clare's charms manipulated her.

When Irene arrives at Clare's quarters, she finds that her negative mood vanishes. Yet she is soon presented with something of a surprise: Clare has invited a third guest, a woman named Gertrude Martin who resembles Clare herself in a few ways. Both Clare and Gertrude have been out of contact with Irene for about twelve years. Both Gertrude and Clare married white men, though with an important difference in their arrangements: Gertrude's husband knows that Gertrude is actually black; Clare's husband does not know about his wife's true ethnic origins.

Clare spends some time describing the career of her husband, Jack Bellew, who is involved in international business and travels frequently. Gertrude also explains her husband Fred's activities; he operates a meat market in Chicago itself. During this time, Irene observes Gertrude and notices that Gertrude's youthful good looks have vanished with age.

The conversation then turns to children. Gertrude has twin boys of her own, yet both she and her husband had hoped to have a daughter. Childbearing was psychologically stressful for both Clare and Gertrude, on account of their marriages within judgmental white communities. If Clare or Gertrude had had dark children, then the true racial identity of each woman would have been revealed. Gertrude is led to make a comment about how, in her opinion, dark children are unwanted; Irene responds to this statement by pointing out that one of the Redfield sons is dark. Nor does Irene's husband possess the light complexion that would enable him to "pass" as white.

Despite signs of rising tension, the women continue to discuss racial issues. Clare brings up a man named Claude Jones, an African-American who decided to convert to Judaism. Although Clare and Gertrude find this change of affiliation comical and outrageous, Irene--taking a more charitable view--points out that Claude's embrace of Judaism might not have been dictated by personal gain. Clare by this point has sensed that the conversation could become unpleasant. In a stroke of conversational finesse that impresses Irene, Clare moves the discourse away from racial issues and towards more pleasant topics regarding world travel.

Eventually, the arrival of John Bellew interrupts the conversation. Irene finds him to be a well-built and somewhat pleasant man, but is soon shocked by how he addresses Clare. He calls her ‘Nig’, a nickname based on the fact that her skin tone has been growing darker. As Bellew settles in among the women, he begins to reveal more about his views on race. He is determined never to have African-Americans in his family or even working in his household, and he generally believes that African Americans are morally corrupt.

Even as they listen to Bellew's insulting views, Irene and Gertrude manage to maintain their composure. For her part, Clare steers the conversation back towards much more neutral topics. Bellew learns that Irene's husband is a doctor who practices in New York, and inquires about Gertrude's life in Chicago. He does not, however, discern that either woman is actually black. After a little more small talk, Irene and Gertrude depart together, remaining silent until they reach the street.

Once outside, Gertrude erupts in outrage. She is stunned by the risks that Clare's version of "passing" entails, and is angered by Bellew's derogatory comments about African Americans. Irene is less vehement; still, she agrees with Gertrude that the entire meeting had the air of a dangerous joke. Rain begins to fall, Gertrude and Irene part, and Irene reflects that she and Gertrude had, in fact, been exposed to a harsh embarrassment.

Irene realizes that she cannot easily erase Clare Kendry from her thoughts; she especially mulls over a sensation of fear that arose when she looked into Clare's eyes. Yet that night, she begins to put Clare out of her mind. Irene finds herself incapable of easing some of her qualms about Clare's fate, but can at the very least face her regrets about going to see Clare, and can resolve not to do so again.

The brief Chapter 4 describes Irene's departure from Chicago, which takes place on the day immediately after the meeting with Clare, Gertrude, and John Bellew. Irene has received a letter from Clare; after bidding her relatives farewell and boarding a train to New York, she opens the document. Clare has written to offer her thanks for their time together, and also to raise new questions about her status and her happiness in life. Irene tears up the letter and scatters it from the train. Her thoughts now turn to her husband Brian, a man with a restless personality, and the future of her household in New York.


The second portion of "Encounter" continues one of Larsen's characteristic tactics in depicting Clare Kendry. Like earlier, key aspects of Clare's personality continue to be revealed in a somewhat gradual manner, leaving Irene (and the reader) to piece the adult Clare's traits together. Clare's emotional nature and her talents as a conversationalist are both highlighted in this section. However, the most striking revelation involves her marriage to John Bellew, who is mentioned as an international businessman in earlier chapters but whose racist leanings are only disclosed here.

These chapters also give Irene extremely justifiable reasons to dislike Bellew (on account of his obvious racism) and Clare (on account of the awkward scenario she sets for Irene and Gertrude Martin). Yet even though Irene's distaste mounts, Irene remains incapable of completely dismissing Clare's charms as a host and conversationalist. Weirdly enough, even Bellew is initially appealing in appearance, and seems to know something about fitting into a witty social circle. He explains his disgust with African Americans, for instance, in the following manner: "I don't dislike them, I hate them. And so does Nig, for all she's trying to turn me into one" (202). His opinion is unpleasant and ignorant on its own terms, yet he tries to convey it in a pithy, clever manner that might win the approval of the women.

On the most obvious level, Clare's marriage to a bigot such as Bellew is a way of erasing doubts about her ancestry. Would anyone, after all, ever assume that a "passing" black woman could endure the company of a white racist, for any length of time? Indeed, these chapters present us with another black woman, Gertrude Martin, who finds Bellew's ideas intolerable. Yet Bellew may be more for Clare than a means of completing her disguise. Early on, Larsen established subtle, slow-burning aggression as one of Clare Kendry's key character traits; the marriage to Bellew appears to be a way of silently directing Clare's aggression at a man who thinks that he is her racial superior, but who is really being one-upped by her.

The marriage between Gertrude and her husband is very different, since Fred Martin is fully aware of his wife's true ethnic roots. There are other meaningful contrasts between Clare and Gertrude, and these contrasts have important implications for how Clare's character ought to be understood. It wouldn't be surprising to find that Clare, who strains to keep her identity a secret, would be more worn-down and ill-at-ease than Gertrude, who at least has her husband's support and recognition. The very opposite, however, is true: Gertrude's looks have faded and her attitude is prim and tense, whereas Clare has a splendid appearance and an eloquent way with conversation. This juxtaposition may be Larsen's way of indicating that there is no one way either to pass or to react to passing -- that original confidence and character continue to matter even after the "passing" guise has been adopted.

With the conclusion of "Encounter," all the fundamentals of Clare's life are laid out. Nonetheless, Clare retains her power to intrigue. At the end of her stay in Chicago, Irene finds herself "puzzling again over that look on Clare's incredibly beautiful face. She couldn't, however, come to any conclusion about its meaning, try as she might. It was unfathomable, utterly beyond any experience or comprehension of hers" (206). For Irene, and for the reader as well, Clare continues to be a source of complexity. Now that we have seen how the varied aspects of Clare's biography add up, we can turn our attention to analyzing the several aspects of her life -- her desires, her motives, her plans for the future -- that remain so often inscrutable.