Summary: Part One: Chapter One

New York, October 1927

Irene Redfield receives a letter from Clare Kendry, a childhood friend. Irene recalls that when Clare was a girl, she used to get paid to run errands for a dressmaker who lived on the top floor of the building where her father was a janitor. He was a drunkard who took all the money Clare earned. One day, he died in a fight. When policemen brought his body home, Clare reacted with a brief, theatrical outburst but otherwise displayed no emotion. Irene remembers Clare as sometimes “hard and apparently without feeling” but other times “affectionate and rashly impulsive.” Now, in the long, melodramatic letter just delivered, Clare asks to see Irene again. Clare ends by mentioning a meeting two years earlier, in Chicago. The reference makes Irene blush angrily. The postmark shows that the letter was mailed in New York the day before. Clare is in the city.

Summary: Part One: Chapter Two

Chicago, August 1925

Irene grew up on Chicago’s south side. Back in town for a visit, she is out shopping. Feeling faint from the brutal summer heat, Irene takes a break on a breezy hotel rooftop. A couple is shown to the next table over, but only the woman sits down; the man immediately leaves. The woman, strikingly attractive, soon begins staring openly at Irene. Irene wonders, nervously, whether the woman knows that Irene is a light-skinned Black person passing for white. If the hotel staff knew that she was Black, not Mexican or some sort of unusual European, they would politely ask her to leave.

The woman comes over and introduces herself. It is Clare, whom Irene knew as a child. Clare is also a Negro, but even lighter-skinned than Irene and easily able to pass for white. Irene had not even recognized Clare, but Clare recognized her. Irene remembers that Clare lost her widowed mother while still in school, and was taken in by relatives. In later years, there were reports of Clare’s being seen about town in the company of wealthy white people. Clare asks about Irene’s family. Irene lives in New York, married, with two boys. Her widowed father still lives at the same house on Chicago’s south side. That is where she is currently staying. Irene wants to know more about Clare, especially about her “passing” and evidently marrying a white man, but she does not know how to ask.

Then, without prompting, Clare tells her story. As a sixteen-year-old orphan, she was taken in by her two great aunts, who lived on the west side. They were white and very religious. Their brother’s brief affair with a Black girl had produced Clare’s father. The aunts made Clare do most of the housework but kept her race a secret. Clare, in turn, benefited from passing for white by marrying a white man, “Jack,” when she was eighteen. He had left the neighborhood as a boy and had come back from South America a rich man. Clare kept the marriage a secret from her aunts, fearing that they might quietly tell Jack about Clare’s race. Clare convinced Jack that the aunts were opposed to her marrying, and that they should be allowed to think she and Jack were living in sin. Soon, Clare gave birth to a girl, Margery, now ten years old. Like Irene’s family, they live elsewhere, but Jack currently has business in town.

Although Irene is passing for white, she would never dream of marrying a man while concealing her race from him. She is disgusted that Clare would do so. Irene has been trying to end the conversation, due to another engagement. Clare extracts from Irene a promise to meet again the next Tuesday. Clare will phone about details. Irene does not plan to show up for the Tuesday meeting, but she cannot contact Clare to cancel. She does not even know Clare’s married name.

Analysis: Part One: Chapters One–Two

In the novel’s opening chapter, Clare’s letter to Irene serves as a symbol of Clare herself. The letter is elegant in its long envelope of Italian paper, but it also stands out as extraordinary amidst the other letters in Irene’s pile of mail. Its appearance symbolizes how, throughout the novel, Clare is depicted as glamorous but also as an outsider to her social settings. The letter is also surreptitious as it sits unopened. These characteristics echo Clare’s secretive and deceitful nature. Throughout the book, Clare answers only to her own desires, is difficult to predict, and is impossible to control. Despite its sense of mystery, the letter, like Clare, is both persistent and ostentatious. Throughout the novel, nearly every character is mesmerized by Clare’s presence, her elegance, the danger she accepts in order to have the life she desires, and her willingness to take extra risks despite the barriers society and her own choices have put in her way. The letter provokes Irene to open it just as Clare challenges others to accept or reject her. 

The Drayton Hotel, the main setting for Part One, Chapter Two, is a white hotel that symbolizes the world of white wealth. Larsen also presents it in comparison to the Black world Irene ordinarily inhabits. In contrast to the sweltering heat of the crowded Chicago streets, where Irene has just seen a man faint or perhaps die, the Draytons’ rooftop restaurant is breezy and removed. The hotel’s elevator becomes a magic carpet that transports Irene to another world: a world of whiteness. Throughout this scene, Larsen emphasizes the coolness, comfort, and elegance of this world. The white world, Larsen implies, is simpler to move through than the complex street-level world where the main characters live. Irene has gained entry to this world by tacitly allowing the cab driver, waiter, and patrons to believe she is white. She becomes nervous, however, that she will be discovered as Black and be embarrassingly denied the privilege the Drayton provides. 

The scene at the Drayton introduces the novel’s major theme: the act of passing. Although Clare’s passing is the main focus of the scene and the novel, Irene is the first character Larsen ironically introduces as passing. Irene’s shift into whiteness is subtle. The cab driver’s suggestion that Irene go to the Drayton shows that he believes her to be white. The first mention of Irene’s race does not occur until, at the Drayton, she is stared down by a woman she suddenly fears has identified her as Black. In another example of irony, it is Irene who cannot see that the woman, whom she doesn’t recognize as Clare, is also Black. Irene’s questions about Clare’s passing show a lack of self-awareness about her own actions and motivations to temporarily pass as white in this scene. In entering the potentially unwelcoming environment of a white hotel and talking with another light-skinned Black woman, Irene has engaged in what she considers to be a dangerous and distasteful act. 

Larsen compares Clare’s face in the scene at the Drayton to an “ivory mask,” a metaphor that sets up a theme of disguise that continues throughout the book. Irene has impulsively invited Clare to join them at their vacation home, and Clare has refused, implying that coming and staying with Black people would jeopardize her passing as white. Although Clare appears genuinely regretful, Irene suspects she is insincere. Larsen’s description of Clare’s face as a mask establishes the instability that will characterize their relationship. Throughout the book, Irene finds Clare impossible to fully understand and therefore untrustworthy. With this mask metaphor, Larsen implies that Clare’s apparent whiteness is itself a disguise, but it is not all of what makes her mysterious. Her disguise goes beyond racial passing. Larsen describes her dark eyes as secretive, suggesting that Clare’s enigmatic qualities are part of her full nature and are not only related to her passing.