Quote 1

“Everything must be paid for.”

This line occurs twice in the novel. The first instance is in Part One, Chapter Three, when Gertrude and Irene are visiting Clare at her hotel in Chicago. Gertrude and Clare, married to white men, are discussing their fears during pregnancy that their children might be born with skin darker than theirs, essentially revealing their own Blackness to the white world. Clare refers to herself as a “deserter” of her race and quotes her father’s warning during childhood. Here, the words are an acknowledgment that her passing comes with the risk of discovery and ruin. This is an example of the novel’s theme of risk. Throughout the novel, Clare is willing to accept far more danger than Irene is. Irene at first imagines that Clare is unaware of the danger she puts herself in, but this quotation shows that Clare does know and is simply willing to trade the likely or even inevitable future discovery and loss for a luxurious present. 

This line is repeated in Part Two, Chapter Two, when Clare first visits Irene’s home in New York. In this instance, Irene reminds Clare of the expression with a different context and meaning. Here, Irene is unsuccessfully trying to convince Clare not to come to the Negro Welfare League dance. She uses the phrase to mean that the price Clare must pay for her life passing as white is the loss of socializing with Black people. This reflects the theme of morality in the novel. Irene believes strongly that adhering to a set of social rules is the correct thing to do and will result in a secure and happy life. She believes that her own acceptance of the burdens of living as a Black woman in a racist world entitles her to access to the joys of Blackness, while Clare has turned her back on Blackness and cannot therefore partake in its pleasures. Clare, in contrast, will not accept that the choice she has made to pass requires her to sacrifice what she desires. Irene attempts to use Clare’s own words to chasten her, but Clare refuses to live her life by Irene’s rules. Irene’s frustration with Clare in this scene foreshadows the book’s ending and the ultimate price Clare will finally pay for living a double life.

Quote 2

“No, Clare Kendry cared nothing for the race. She only belonged to it.”

This line is from Part Two, Chapter One, as Irene considers the letter Clare has sent asking to meet her again for the first time since their Chicago encounter two years prior. In this section, Irene’s thoughts concern the theme of duty to one’s race. Irene feels a duty to defend both Black people as a group and individual Black people. Clare’s decision to pass as white places those duties at odds with one another. In meeting Clare’s husband, Irene found herself in a double-bind. She was unable to challenge Bellew’s racism without revealing her own race and potentially endangering Clare. By staying silent to protect Clare and failing to defend her race, Irene has herself been trapped into passing. 

Irene passing as white out of a sense of duty to her race is an example of irony in the text. Larsen heightens the irony of this situation when Irene reflects that Clare herself does not share this sense of duty. By choosing to pass, Clare has claimed the ultimate benefit of whiteness: the freedom to live as only an individual driven by her own desires and with no sense of responsibility to a group. Throughout the book, Clare seeks to enjoy the pleasures of belonging to the Black community while avoiding the realities of daily racist discrimination and the heaviness of duty to help uplift the race. Clare’s passing functions as a refusal to accept a duty to the race, while in her introduction to Bellew, Irene’s passing is an example of accepting that duty. This contrast is an example of Clare as a character foil to Irene.

Quote 3

“She belonged in this land of rising towers. She was an American. She grew from this soil, and she would not be uprooted.”

This passage comes in the final chapter of the book, as Irene admits to herself that Clare and Brian are having an affair. With this realization, she shakes off the emotional turmoil she has been feeling and reacts with resolve and determination to ensure her own security. Larsen expresses this firmness of purpose by reiterating Irene’s identity as an American even though the United States at this time did not always accept Black people as full citizens. While Clare has sought to escape American racism by living primarily in Europe, and Brian longs to move his family to South America, Irene refuses to run away or give up. This parallels her refusal to deal with discrimination by passing as Clare has. Although Irene could pass for white and potentially have an easier life, she lives as Black and works to improve the lives of Black people. Rather than leaving her race, Irene insists on her right to have a better life while remaining Black. By metaphorically comparing Irene to a tree, Larsen implies that Irene belongs in the United States, as a tree unquestionably belongs where it has grown, and that she is strong and stable.