Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


The idea of a face becoming a mask surfaces several times throughout the novel as characters attempt to disguise something they don’t wish others to see. In different instances, Clare and Irene are both described as masked in public moments when they attempt to hide their deeper understanding of a situation from others, though those around them notice the transformation of their open faces to masked expressions. When Clare turns down Irene’s impulsive invitation to join her at Idlewild, her emotional expression moves from a mournful regret to an “ivory mask.” Although Clare hides her thoughts, Irene suspects this mask covers Clare’s scorn at Irene for entertaining old rumors that Clare may have been a prostitute in her youth, or for her ill-hidden concern about the scandal Clare’s presence at Idlewild might excite. Later, at Irene’s tea party, when Irene becomes concerned that Clare and Brian are having an affair, Clare’s face is masked, showing no emotion. In contrast, Brian’s face is “pitiably bare.” Unlike Clare, Brian lacks the skill of disguise. When Irene meets Bellew on the street while walking with Felise, instead of using the moment to turn him against Clare, Irene ignores Bellew and converts her face into a mask, treating him as she would a man who has made an improper advance. Irene uses a cold dignity to exclude him from the discovery of the truth about his wife, as Clare uses her mask to prevent outsiders from detecting her true thoughts. 


Larsen uses character foils to explore the complexities of race and racism. Clare and Irene, the two main characters, are the most obvious example of foils, but Larsen also sets up the women’s husbands, Bellew and Brian, as foils of one another. Both are ambitious, successful men with great anger about American race relations. Bellew is a white supremacist who calls Black people “devils” and believes they have an innate propensity to violence. He is horrified at the idea Black of people potentially infiltrating his private sphere, which he imagines to be all-white. Brian is Bellew’s inverse; a dark-skinned Black man with no ability to pass, Brian is driven by anger at the racism in America. He describes the U.S. as “hellish,” a description mirroring Bellew’s comparison of Black people to devils in its fervor. Although Brian’s world is not as segregated as Bellew’s, Brian fears that the trend of whites coming to Harlem for events like the Negro Welfare League dance will lead to loss of dominance in or exclusion from the one place rich Black men like him have power. Brian and Bellew share an attraction to South America as a place where they can each be powerful. However, their views on the continent diverge on racist lines. For Bellew, South America is a source of wealth, a place that would be wonderful if it were made only white. For Brian, South America offers the dream of an escape from American racism, a place where he and his sons can be free. 


Irene’s world of polite society offers limited opportunities to discuss uncomfortable topics frankly. Topics that inspire tension are referred to by the characters in the book as jokes, suggesting that it is only possible to touch those subjects glancingly, using humor to deflect from deeper consideration. When Clare describes her white aunts’ belief that Black people, including Clare, have been cursed by God to lives of hard labor, she reprimands Irene for laughing. Irene does not know how else to respond to Clare’s experience of unvarnished white supremacy. Likewise, Clare treats Bellew’s racial slur nickname for her as a joke. She even seems to enjoy Irene and Gertrude’s discomfort as they attempt to hide both their shock and their race, though Irene reflects later to Gertrude that the joke is “on him and us and maybe on her.” Sex is another topic impossible for Irene to talk openly about. Brian calls it “the greatest joke in the world,” a comment on the power sex has over people who cannot treat it with some level of detachment. Although sex and bigotry cannot be topics of polite conversation, they exert great power over the characters. Larsen calls attention to that uneasy relationship by showing how people joke to ease discomfort.