Summary: Part One: Chapter Three

On Tuesday morning, Clare phones Irene’s father’s house repeatedly, until Irene finally takes the call. She agrees to come to Clare’s hotel. A mutual childhood friend of theirs, Gertrude Martin, is already seated when Irene arrives. Like the other two women, she is a light-skinned Black. Once admired for her looks, she has grown plump and is, Irene notes, unstylishly dressed. Gertrude married a white man who inherited his father’s meat market. To Gertrude’s husband and his family, her race does not matter. Nonetheless, Gertrude worried about giving birth to a dark-skinned child. She was relieved when her twin boys, like Clare’s Margery, turned out to be light-skinned. “Fred said I was silly,” Gertrude relates, but “of course, nobody wants a dark child.” Irene takes offense: “One of my boys is dark.”

In the awkwardness that follows, Irene confirms that her husband is too dark to “pass.” Clare skillfully steers the conversation to other subjects for a while. Eventually Clare’s husband, John Bellew, arrives. He is not the man Irene saw Clare with on the hotel rooftop. Bellew is a powerfully built man in his late thirties. He works in international banking. The Bellew family spends most of its time in Europe, but his work has brought him back to Chicago for at least a month. To Irene and Gertrude’s shock, he addresses Clare using a shortened form of the N-word as a nickname. Clare invites him to explain the nickname. When they were first married, Bellew says, Clare was lily-white, but she has been getting darker and darker. He says that one of these days, she may wake up and—using the N-word—"find she’s turned into a ______.” He roars with laughter.

The women laugh, too, but Irene laughs especially hard and long. With a warning glance to Irene, Clare encourages her husband to keep talking. He tells her she can get as dark as she pleases, since he knows she’s not actually Black. As Irene struggles to suppress more laughter, she notices a frightening, dark, and mysterious expression on Clare’s face. Bellew, meanwhile, goes on to say that he and Clare not only dislike Blacks but hate them. “I read in the papers about them. Always robbing and killing people.” Irene and Gertrude are appalled but manage to contain their outrage. The conversation turns to comparisons of Chicago and New York. Bellew learns from Clare that her husband, a doctor, practices in Manhattan.

As Irene and Gertrude leave together, they agree that Clare is taking “an awful chance,” and that it was strangely risky of Clare not even to tell them in advance of her husband’s feelings about race. After Irene and Gertude part ways, Irene continues to fume about being subjected to Bellew’s racist opinions. She wonders about the strange expression she saw on Clare’s face, but she decides she has more important things to worry about.

Summary: Part One: Chapter Four

The next morning, as Clare is about to return to New York, she receives a letter from Clare, apologizing for the unpleasantness of the day before. Clare had wanted to see Irene very badly, she writes. She acknowledges that Irene may have chosen the wiser course in life. Believing the letter to be insincere, Irene tears it to pieces and tosses the pieces off her train car. She resolves that if she ever meets Clare again, she will ignore her. Irene thinks of her husband, Brian, and of her boys, Brian, Jr. and Ted. She hopes that Brian has not been too lonely. In the past, his loneliness has stirred up a longing for faraway places. This problem has lessened in recent years but has not entirely gone away.

Analysis: Part One: Chapters Three–Four

This section of the novel underlines the novel’s theme of the dangers tied to racial identity. Throughout the novel, Clare takes risks Irene would not dare. In this section, Larsen shows the dangers inherent in Clare passing as white without her husband’s knowledge. Clare and Gertrude discuss their fear during pregnancy that their own Blackness would be revealed to the world if their children were born with skin darker than theirs. Irene has a dark son, but by marrying Brian and staying in the Black world, she has insulated herself from any danger of discovery. Gertrude, who is as light-skinned as Irene and Clare, has a white husband, but her race is not a secret to him, and so she does not face the dangers of passing. Gertrude was terrified of giving birth to a dark-skinned child, though, whose presence would advertise their mixed-race marriage to the public. But because her husband and his mother sought to reassure her, this suggests that her marriage itself was never in danger. Only Clare, whose white husband hates Black people, was in real danger during pregnancy. While she declares the strain of that risk was “hellish” and that she will not have more children for that reason, it is nevertheless a risk she was willing to take at least once. As Irene’s foil, Clare takes dangerous risks Irene would never dare to consider. 

Throughout the novel, Larsen uses a motif of jokes as a means to approach serious topics that characters do not fully understand or are unwilling to address. Their resultant laughter is also an example of irony. In this scene, Bellew addresses Clare using a racist nickname. In his eyes, the racist label is a joke because he would never marry a Black woman and he believes that Clare is white. However, the joke itself suggests he may have subconscious doubts about Clare’s race. As Irene later remarks to Gertrude, the joke is on all of them. The joke is on Bellew because despite his deep racism, he has married and had a child with a Black woman. The joke is on Irene and Gertrude because they were trapped into laughing at his slur and excusing Bellew’s racism. To show offense would betray Clare, and they feel a duty to protect other Black people. The joke is on Clare because she has given up her Black identity for the sake of a life free from discrimination, and now she finds herself married to a man who uses a racial slur as a pet name. Here and elsewhere in the novel, Larsen implies that jokes function as a way to talk around subjects that are too risky to approach directly.