“It was as if the woman sitting on the other side of the table, a girl that she had known, who had done this rather dangerous and, to Irene Redfield, abhorrent thing successfully and had announced herself well satisfied, had for her a fascination, strange and compelling.”

This quotation is from Part One, Chapter Two, when Irene and Clare first reunite at the Drayton. Clare’s story of how she has come to live as white full-time fascinates Irene because at every juncture, Clare has chosen her own self-interest over loyalty to family, friends, and race. Clare’s choices are a strong example of Larsen’s theme of the conflict between self-interest and loyalty. Although Irene can understand Clare’s decisions rationally, she believes she herself could not have abandoned her race and connections as easily as Clare has. By placing this moment in a setting in which Irene has chosen to pass for personal convenience, Larsen underscores the irony of this belief. Whatever she believes about herself, Irene’s coming to the Drayton shows that she, too, will put her self-interest ahead of loyalty to her race. Unlike Clare, Irene has at this point in the story never faced a real test of that loyalty. Larsen continues to explore the conflict between loyalty and self-interest throughout the novel, as Irene’s beliefs and choices are tested.

"They always come back. I've seen it happen time and time again."

"But why?" Irene wanted to know. "Why?"

"If I knew that, I'd know what race is."

This conversation between Brian and Irene comes in Part Two, Chapter One, as they discuss the letter Clare has sent, asking to see Irene in New York. Brian tells Irene he is unsurprised by Clare’s willingness to risk her passing status and her marriage by socializing with people living openly as Black, showing an element of Larsen’s theme of the conflict between self-interest and loyalty. Clare’s self-interest would dictate that she stay away from Irene and Harlem, to protect herself from the possibility of Bellew realizing she is Black, which would certainly end her marriage and her comfortable life as a wealthy woman. Irene believes Clare feels no loyalty to her race, but in Brian’s view, Black people feel that loyalty on an unconscious level no matter the risk to their self-interest. Throughout the book, Larsen explores the meaning of race. In this instance, she suggests through Brian’s words that part of being Black is the desire to be with other Black men and women, even if one seems to have rejected them for selfishly motivated reasons.

“Horribly clear, she could now see the reason for her instinct to withhold—omit, rather—her news of the encounter with Bellew. If Clare was freed, anything might happen.”

In Part Three, Chapter Four, Irene resists telling Clare about meeting Bellew while walking with Felise and wonders why she does not warn Clare that Bellew may suspect her of being Black. In this scene, Larsen shows the conflict in Irene between loyalty and self-interest. When she sees Bellew, Irene pretends not to know him, a reaction born of her loyalty. Even though she is angry with Clare, she will not betray another Black woman to a racist white man. However, when she sees Clare later, she unconsciously avoids telling her about meeting Bellew. Once she admits to herself that Clare and Brian are having an affair, Irene understands that she withheld the information out of self-interest. Irene fears that Clare might use her meeting with Bellew as a reason to leave her husband, which would put Irene in danger of losing Brian. If the affair continues in secret, Irene’s family remains intact. Although Irene is often portrayed as deeply loyal to her race, in this moment she chooses self-interest over loyalty.