Passing Summary and Analysis of "Re-Encounter," Chapter 1


As "Re-Encounter" opens, the narrative of Passing returns to Irene Redfield in New York, contemplating Clare's letter. Irene's feelings of outrage at Clare's selfishness and Bellew's bigotry have not entirely abated. In particular, Clare's approach to race vexes Irene. Clare, in fact, avows a desire to reconnect with fellow African-Americans, but Irene is suspicious of such an impulse. Clare, in Irene's mind, is thoroughly motivated by self-interest.

The irritated course of Irene's thoughts causes her to shout a curse at Clare. This exclamation draws the attention of Irene's husband Brian, who inquires whimsically about Irene's negative feelings. Irene shows him Clare's letter, which he inspects. As he does so, Irene contemplates Brian's appearance; he has a ruggedly masculine appearance, but the coppery color of his skin is a feature that makes him especially handsome.

His overview of the letter finished, Brian asks if Irene intends to see Clare again--and Irene promptly rejects this idea. Alluding to Bellew's comments, she explains that she does not want to be insulted again on account of her race. Yet Brian claims that Irene had the advantage of knowing Bellew's real thoughts and weighs in on a few other complexities of the situation that surrounds Clare. As he sees it, African Americans who "pass" are almost inevitably drawn back to their communities of origin.

By this point in the narrative, Irene and Brian have finished dressing for the day and are settling down to breakfast. Both Irene and Brian agree that it would be best for Irene to break off all contact with Clare. Yet Irene is not done discussing the subject of "passing": as she points out, black people do not necessarily approve of this tactic, but they do condone and protect those who "pass" as needed. Brian attributes this attitude to the desire of the black race (and of almost any race) to survive and expand.

The two Redfields then discuss their immediate plans: Irene is in the process of organizing a dance, while Brian has a busy schedule in his medical work. He views some of his duties and patients with revulsion. Irene reflects on this attitude, and considers that Brian is blaming her (unfairly, in her opinion) for his present dissatisfactions. At one point, Brian had considered re-locating to Brazil. Irene had convinced him to stay in New York and raise the family in relative stability, yet she knows that his feelings of restlessness have not abated.

As it turns out, Irene's and Brian's differences of opinion had at one point erupted into a quarrel. Nonetheless, the two of them have succeeded in avoiding the topic of Brazil and in muffling Brian's apparent distaste for his surroundings. Irene, indeed, is convinced that Brian's negativity will only weaken more and more with time. The two of them leave their house and make their way to their car.

After the car begins to move, Irene raises another topic of some importance. Her son, Brian Junior, who is eleven, seems to be maturing fast, but not in a way that earns her approval: he has been talking to the other boys in his school and has learned crude, sexual jokes from them. Despite Irene's concerns, Brian believes that Junior will inevitably be exposed to such material, and that sheltering his son would only be a disservice.

Irene soon arrives at her destination, a print shop where she will pick up materials for the dance that she is helping to organize. She exits the car, slams its door, and curtly walks away from Brian. Now, she is disappointed not with Brian's personality but rather with the failure of some of her own better intentions. Knowing of Brian's restlessness, she had hoped to use the discussion of Junior's school to introduce a new plan: to send Junior to Europe for part of his education, and to send Brian (who would benefit from time away from New York) along for the trip. The more she reflects, the more she realizes that providing stability for Brian and her sons is her main priority. Irene is confident that Brian has affection for her, despite his dry and ironic manner, and she is determined to make sure that the life she has built is not disrupted.


With the opening of "Re-Encounter," Larsen adds a new angle to her narrative by introducing a new major character: Brian Redfield. It is true that Brian (and his restless ways) were briefly mentioned near the end of "Encounter”; yet in a move that recalls her treatment of Clare Kendry, Larsen depicts Brian by gradually immersing the reader in his ways of talking, acting, and thinking. In "Encounter," we learned that Brian is a doctor; only in "Re-Encounter" do we see his expressions of disdain for his patients and duties. "Encounter" ends with a reference to Brian's "old, queer, unhappy restlessness" (208); only in "Re-Encounter" is this restlessness clearly linked to "That strange, and to [Irene] fantastic, notion of Brian's of going off to Brazil" (217).

"Re-Encounter" also affords us our first glimpse of husband and wife within the privacy of their own home. The conversation between Clare and Bellew, after all, played out in front of Irene and Gertrude, and would naturally still have been constrained by clear standards of social decorum. Presumably, the private interactions between Irene and Brian would be easier and more comfortable, since the Redfields do not need to play to any visitors. But Brian’s disappointed demeanor, along with the tensions that accompany it, foils any expectations of this sort. In fact, being alone with a man she knows to be unhappy may be a greater source of stress for Irene than being surrounded by casual acquaintances and anonymous, unimportant pedestrians.

Married life is itself a treacherous terrain in Passing, one that must be navigated with suggestions, negotiations, and compromises. Nowhere is this more evident than in Irene's defeated attempt to send Brian and Brian Junior abroad. Irene's words have an effect that is exactly the opposite of what she had intended: rather than quelling Brian's dissatisfactions, she gives rise to a new conflict over child-rearing (already a touchy subject for a man who, on some level, wants to abandon a conventional lifestyle). Yet Irene's also fails to gauge the right strategy for winning Brian over. She attempts the kind of roundabout, small-talk approach that could work beautifully in a conversation with Clare, Gertrude, or another social acquaintance. However, Brian, as a man of dramatic desires and blunt opinions, is exactly the wrong audience for this approach.

Compare the state of the Redfield marriage with the relationship between Clare and Bellew, a relationship that is based on deception and that could (presumably) involve greater tensions than any that Irene and Brian experience. In one of the novel's strong ironies, Clare and Bellew actually seem to have an easier and more harmonious union than Brian and Irene. Already an adept socialite, Clare may simply be better at playing to her husband's whims and desires. Yet Clare may also benefit from the fact that the major challenge in her marriage (concealing her identity) is so stark and straightforward. Irene, in contrast, must play to the emotional complexities of a husband with none of Bellew's upfront bigotry, but with a character that is more oblique and multi-faceted than the raucous Bellew's.

Naturally, Irene regards Brian's desire to travel as a threat to her stable household. Does she see Clare's reemergence in the same manner? Clare has indeed taken a different, riskier, more adventurous course in life, and Irene may well be afraid that Clare's values will intrude upon and disrupt her own. As Larsen describes Irene, "all other plans, all other ways, she regarded as menaces, more or less indirect, to that security of place and substance which she insisted upon for her sons and in a lesser degree for herself" (221). Clare is clearly representative of one of those "other ways," yet, at this point of the narrative, it is not clear exactly how Clare could intrude upon the Redfields or exactly what kind of damage she could cause. Still, the very possibility of a new source of insecurity is enough to set Irene on edge.