Passing Summary and Analysis of "Re-Encounter," Chapters 2, 3, and 4


Chapter 2 of "Re-Encounter" begins five days after the events described in the previous chapter. Irene has not had any further contact with Clare, and her feelings of aversion towards her onetime friend have only become stronger. She decides to dispose of any further messages that Clare sends; such complete silence, on Irene's part, is designed to discourage Clare from any sort of communication. For Irene, the only real bond between her and Clare is their common racial heritage--and Clare has disavowed that part of her past.

The chapter then transitions to an evening towards the middle of October. Irene is listening to the voices of her sons, and reflects on their differences of personality: the older Brian Junior is decisive and determined, while Ted is canny and thoughtful, much like his father. Her thoughts segue from these issues to more unsettled reflections on Brian's discontent, which is controlled but still clearly discernible enough to be troubling.

Irene's troubled reflections are interrupted by an announcement from her maid, Zulena: a woman who describes herself as ‘Mrs. Bellew’ has made her way to the Redfield's quarters and wants to see Irene. Though shocked and extremely reluctant at first, Irene finds that she has no choice but to see Clare. Irene has not responded to any of the letters that Clare sent her, so Clare decided to make her way to Harlem in person--a maneuver that Irene finds risky and ill advised. Yet Irene's advice--for Clare to be more cautious--only leads to an outburst on Clare's part. At this point in her life, Clare feels so alone within white society that she is willing to take the risk of reconnecting with a racial community that feels more welcoming.

In a new effort to keep Clare away from Harlem, Irene attempts to appeal to Clare's sense of family and motherhood. But before Irene can fully articulate her argument, she is interrupted by a telephone call from Hugh Wentworth, a white author and traveler who frequents Harlem, and who will be attending the dance that Irene is planning. Clare finds Hugh's willingness to visit Harlem odd; however, Irene explains that both entertainment and simple curiosity draw educated white people to Harlem.

Now that she has learned about Irene's plans, Clare is determined to attend the dance that Irene is in the process of organizing. Clare also meets Irene's sons before her visit concludes; Irene even introduces Clare as a childhood friend. Yet at the end of this entire reunion, Irene feels that she has been successfully and unpleasantly manipulated by Clare, who has not shed the calculating personality that has been a feature of hers since childhood.

Chapter 3 of "Re-Encounter" offers a depiction of the Negro Welfare League dance that Irene has been helping to arrange and that Clare has decided to attend. Irene's own memories of this event are fragmentary, dominated in some ways by seemingly insignificant events. Clad in a magnificent black gown, Clare accompanies Irene and Brian to the dance in high spirits. Once there, Clare dances with partners of different races, while the more subdued Irene strikes up a conversation with Hugh Wentworth.

Hugh observes the large and varied crowd, but he informs Irene that his attention is particularly drawn to Clare. Irene notifies Hugh that Clare was a childhood friend of hers. They eventually transition to the broader topic of racial difference, and observe that white visits to Harlem are motivated in part by a sense of escape and excitement.

Irene then challenges Hugh to identify Clare's true race. He finds that he is unable to do so, though this difficulty is by no means unusual; the conversation then shifts to a woman named Dorothy Tompkins, a woman who could easily be mistaken for black but turned out to be white. Aside from this exchange with Hugh, Irene's other strong memory of the dance involves a conversation with Brian, who wants to know whether Irene revealed anything regarding Clare's true race. Irene says that she has not. The rest of the event registers as something as a blur, an episode interchangeable with other, similar dances that Irene will probably attend.

The very brief Chapter 4 of "Re-Encounter" details an important shift in Irene's lifestyle. Clare has settled into the Redfield household, and has won over both Irene's children and Irene's servants. For his part, Brian has learned to tolerate Clare's presence. Nonetheless, he does not find Clare to be especially beautiful, and jokes that he is more clearly drawn to darker women.

Clare's own presence among the Redfields is determined, to some extent, by the travels and absences of Jack Bellew. Clare's daughter Margery is also absent, studying in Switzerland. At one point, Irene raises the topic of children with Clare. Initially, Clare claims that there are more important aspects of life than children, a viewpoint that Irene vigorously challenges. Clare's own attitude changes rapidly: she praises Irene's virtues and admits that she is not safe. The chapter ends with Clare crying and with Irene looking on at her companion in puzzlement.


For much of Passing, Clare has presented something of an elegant facade to her companions; she is witty, physically beautiful, and calm even in the most uncomfortable situations. However, in these sections of "Re-Encounter," Clare begins to manifest a very new aspect of her personality: vulnerability and discontent. Clare's life story is one of facing misfortune (the death of her father) and discouragement (life with her relatives) and somehow getting what she wants. It becomes increasingly clear, though, that Clare's efforts have not led her to lasting satisfaction. Now she yearns to disregard her supposed signs of victory over limitations (a wealthy husband, a place in the white world) and pursue a new place in a new community.

Clare herself attributes her urgency to reenter African-American society to a specific cause. As she explains, reconnecting with Irene in Chicago made her "want to see other people. It just swooped down and changed everything. If it hadn't been for that, I'd have gone to the end, never seeing any of you" (227). This reaction to the chance meeting calls attention to the oddly asymmetrical nature of Clare and Irene's relationship. For Irene, the meeting with Clare was an irritation, something that she has endeavored to put out of mind during her life in New York. For Clare, the meeting was a turning point, a catalyst for her larger desire to access her racial roots.

Ironically, the Harlem society that Clare works her way into is probably not too different from the society that Clare normally inhabits. Remember that, in terms of mannerism and sophistication, Irene was by no means out of place in Clare's own home. By migrating into Harlem, Clare is not so much escaping her lifestyle as finding a different version of the same lifestyle--just with acquaintances of a different race. Both Irene's and Clare's home lives are marked by privilege, and both women partake of the same culture. Clare, for instance, knows Hugh Wentworth's writings fairly well, while Irene knows the man himself.

This sense of irony and indeterminacy informs the storyline in other ways. By this point in the narrative, it would have been possible for Larsen to deliver a definitive judgment--whether of praise or condemnation--of a tactic such as "passing." Instead, she continues to mine her central motif for complexity and ambiguity. When Irene challenges Hugh to determine whether Clare is black or white, he responds with a statement of ambivalence: "Damned if I know! I'll be as sure as anything that I've learned the trick. And then in the next minute I'll find I couldn't pick some of 'em if my life depended on it" (236). If even a man as worldly and perceptive as Hugh Wentworth is unable to tell black ethnicity from white, then Clare's secret appears to be safe--and Clare's situation will thus continue to be a sort of intrigue.

By the end of "Re-Encounter," Clare appears to have obtained much of what she desires; she has re-ingratiated herself into black society, and has finally established consistent contact with Irene. Nonetheless, this entire section of Passing ends on a dour note: "Clare Kendry had begun to cry, audibly, with no effort at restraint, and for no reason that Irene could discover" (241). This statement goads the reader to speculate about the causes of Clare's tears. Is she overcome with regret about her past life, or is she fearful about the risks that the future might present? One way or another, the events of "Re-Encounter" have not fully resolved the emotional and racial tensions in Clare's life--tensions that will propel Passing through its next, and final, section.