Passing Summary and Analysis of "Finale"


As "Finale" opens, the action of Passing shifts to later in the same year as the previous station. It is now December, and the weather is usually warm. Although Christmas is nearing, Irene does not feel the high spirits characteristic of the holiday season. She spends a morning wandering around Harlem, and then returns home, where she is expecting guests for tea. After settling in, Irene reflects that Brian has changed in mood and temperament recently: he is more irritable and seems to be in a state of anticipation and secrecy.

Irene falls asleep; Brian wakes her in the late afternoon and informs her that the preparations for the tea guests have been completed. Clare will be among the guests. Irene is still vexed by Clare's consistent presence in her household, and she and Brian turn their talk to the possibility of a romantic linkage between Clare and Hugh Wentworth. Irene dismisses this idea, as she does not believe that Clare is sufficiently intelligent and sophisticated for a man with Hugh's subtle mind. Yet when Brian defends Clare--and defends Clare's presence at the party--he raises a new, unpleasant possibility in Irene's mind. It occurs to her that Brian himself may be having an affair with Clare Kendry.

At first, Irene finds the possibility of such an affair sickening and gives way to tears. Then, she decides that her best option is to go to the party and keep herself busy, in order to avoid her unpleasant thoughts about Clare and Brian. This maneuver works for a time: Irene is kept busy making future social arrangements, and even reverts to some of her earlier admiration for Clare's appearance. But at the thought of how Brian must regard her--as an obstacle--Irene gives way to a moment of strong emotion and breaks the teacup that she is holding.

Irene's moment of discomposure catches the attention of Hugh. Instead of engaging Hugh in an extended conversation, Irene jokes that the shattered teacup was an ugly Confederate relic that was better off obliterated. She then continues to socialize, mostly as a way of avoiding the psychological pain that she feels. Yet Irene decides that, so long as her sons are secure, her own extreme heartache does not matter.

After the party, Irene remains in a state of anguish even though, as she realizes, she does not have any concrete proof of an affair between Clare and Brian. Fortunately for Irene, Clare remains away from the Redfield home as the Christmas season progresses. Brian continues to act in a reserved and withdrawn manner, while Irene considers the possibilities before her. She desperately wants to be left alone by Clare, even (as she fleetingly thinks) at the cost of a calamity within Clare's family. She also reflects on her own racial roots, and feels regret, for the first time in her entire life, that she was born an African American.

One day after her anguished reflections on her identity, Irene has a chance encounter with John Bellew. This surprise meeting occurs when Irene and Felise Freeland are shopping together in downtown Manhattan. At first, Bellew is pleased to see Irene for a second time; however, when he notices Felise, whose features are more clearly indicative of her African-American roots, his expression changes to one of displeasure. Bellew quickly leaves the two women behind, and Felise somewhat jokingly suggests that Irene herself has been "passing." For her part, Irene is reminded of her loyalty to her own race by this encounter. She muses over what her next move should be, and weighs the potentially severe consequences of keeping her run-in with Bellew a secret from Clare.

The next morning, Clare places a call to Irene. Yet Irene asks her maid, Zulena, to take the message; Zulena reports that Clare will be accompanying Irene and Brian to a party hosted by the Freelands later in the day. The day seems to proceed with few incidents, at least until Irene's sons raise an unpleasant topic--lynching--over the course of dinner. Though Brian believes that his sons should be exposed to unpleasant social and racial realities, Irene argues that her sons should be given a happy childhood, one that is free from such broader worries.

Soon, Clare arrives at Irene's house. The two women exchange pleasantries, but Irene quickly conveys a pressing concern: the possibility that Bellew will find out that Clare is not white. Clare does not seem concerned by this prospect, and in fact believes that the discovery of her racial origins would free her from a marriage that she finds markedly unpleasant. For her part, Irene refrains from any direct mention of the meeting with Bellew. Her real goal is to stay secure in her lifestyle in New York, even if doing so results in ongoing anguish and personal sacrifice.

Irene, Brian, and Clare arrive at the Freelands' building, where they make their way to Felise and David's quarters on an upper floor. The party is lively and festive, yet Irene's spirits remain low. Suddenly, a commotion arises. The voice of John Bellew breaks through the sounds of the party. Clare's enraged husband storms into the room; Irene rushes over to Clare. From there, Irene's memories become imprecise. Clare has suddenly disappeared, and Bellew is calling out Clare's nickname, ‘Nig’.

Irene's next few memories are of voices and footsteps within the building. She makes her way down to the ground level, where a small crowd has gathered around the body of Clare, who has fallen from a window. Clare, according to Felise Freeland, had most likely died upon impact. A strange man approaches the crowd; this newcomer asks if Clare's husband (Bellew has since disappeared) perhaps pushed her from the window. Irene rejects this possibility vehemently, and finds her strength rapidly giving way. She then hears the strange man recommending an inspection of the window from which Clare had fallen. With this statement, the narrative of Passing draws to an end.


The final segment of Passing only covers a short span of narrative time, and takes up less space in the text than either "Encounter" or "Re-Encounter." However, of all the sections, "Finale" seems to be the one that is most loaded with incidents. In short order, Irene senses that Clare and Brian are having an affair, comes face-to-face with John Bellew, and witnesses Clare's fatal fall from the Freelands' window. Larsen, by cramming these pages with such dramatic incidents, could simply have been trying to deliver the most dramatic send-off possible for her characters. Still, the sheer drama of "Finale" could also be a sign that Clare's act of passing was, as a risky and unconventional approach, always doomed to meet a sudden, hectic, and tragic end.

Yet Clare is not the only character who is brought low in this final segment. Irene, whose anxieties about Brian and his discontent have long been a source of discomfort, is given reason to believe that Brian and Clare have formed an erotic attachment. This possibility is an affront to everything that Irene has worked to provide for the Redfield household, but is doubly painful because Irene--in order to maintain her household--must live with any infidelity that Brian commits. The most that Irene can do is distract herself from her doubts and fears. As she reflects during her tea party, Irene "wanted no empty spaces of time in which her mind would immediately return to that horror which she had not yet gathered sufficient courage to face" (251). Her best defensive mechanism, and perhaps her only defensive mechanism, is to relegate the possible affair to the background of her thoughts.

Irene applies a similar strategy to another apparent crisis: the reemergence of John Bellew. Her instinct in this case is not to warn Clare, but rather to try to restore some semblance of normality to her own life by, once again, saying nothing and prioritizing stability: "Above everything else she had wanted, had striven, to keep undisturbed the pleasant routine of her life. And now Clare Kendry had come into it, and with her the menace of impermanence" (262). Yet Irene's silence on Bellew may serve a second purpose: it may be a way of lashing back out at Clare. Since Clare has disrupted Irene's "pleasant routine," Irene may (at least subconsciously) be withholding sensitive information to exact a possible vengeance.

One of the greatest sources of complexity in these final episodes is Larsen's treatment of Irene's perspective. In moments of stress, Irene's thoughts become fragmented; this tendency arises during specific social events at which Clare is present, and reaches its most striking expression at the Freelands' party. Such mental disarray is a clear register of the difficulties that Irene faces. It is also a sign that Irene may not be as adept at controlling her emotions as she likes to think. After all, when Bellew storms into the Freelands' party, Irene "ran across the room, her terror tinged with ferocity, and laid a hand on Clare's bare arm" (271). An emotion such as "ferocity" is more characteristic of the impulsive, romantic Clare; Irene's display of this emotion, and her subsequent confusion about Clare's death, is a sure sign that Irene's defenses of propriety and self-control are breaking down.

The final paragraphs of Passing offer few definitive answers about how Clare fell, where Bellew went, or whether Brian and Clare were in fact having an affair. (Brian's awkward and sentimental reaction to Clare's death, though, seems like a strong suggestion that there was a connection between them.) In light of all this ambiguity, does Passing offer a definitive statement on race relations? Here, a few possibilities arise. Clare's demise could be a sign of the costs of turning one's back on a nurturing ethnic community, a tacit condemnation of a life lived under false pretenses. Yet Clare is a unique character, a remarkable woman even within the elevated social circles that Larsen's characters inhabit. Her tragedy may be purely personal, her character too unusual to carry any message about a broad social group.