Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Drayton

The rooftop of the Drayton Hotel, where Clare discovers Irene, represents the world of white wealth and privilege. At the suggestion of a cab driver, Irene comes to the Drayton in search of refuge from the heat and chaos of the Chicago streets. Larson compares the elevator ride up to the Drayton’s roof café to a magic carpet ride into an oasis of calm, a quiet world separate from the sweltering chaos of the public street. Later in the novel, Irene expresses some contempt for Clare’s decision to make her life easier by passing as white, but in this moment while entering the Drayton, Irene easily accepts the privileges afforded by her own ability to pass in a segregated space. By introducing Irene and Clare’s relationship in a space in which both women are passing, Larson complicates the idea that by living as Black, Irene has made a more ethical choice than Clare.

The Teacup

The teacup Irene breaks during the party at her house represents Clare and her eventual fall. During the party, Irene watches Clare flirt with her husband, Brian, and later with Felise Freeland’s husband, Dave. As she reflects on Clare’s ability to captivate their Black husbands and the real danger Clare poses to her own marriage, Irene’s rage builds, and the teacup falls from her hands and shatters. Like Clare, the teacup is delicate, and its broken fragments are described as white, also like fair-skinned Clare. Hugh’s suggestion that he pushed Irene and caused her to drop the cup is a kind gesture, as he appears to be attuned to the source of her distress. Irene, however, insists that he did not. This exchange foreshadows the question at the end of the book: Did Irene push Clare or did she just fall?

When Hugh asks about the teacup, Irene tells him a strange story in which she describes the cup as if it had been an enslaved ancestor of Brian’s, owned by Confederates and brought North on the Underground Railroad, as if the white cup, like the seemingly white Clare, were a Black person. While telling the story, Irene states that she has been longing to be rid of the cup and has only just discovered the solution: to break it. Though her statement indicates that the act was intentional, Hugh seems to understand the true source of her distraction which caused the accident. This moment also reinforces Irene’s primal desire to be rid of Clare, as well as her propensity to become destructive when agitated.

The Cigarette

The cigarette Irene tosses from the window at the Freelands’ party is another symbol foreshadowing Clare’s fall. Irene smokes cigarettes at other times in the book, and Larson describes her as being careful with them. She chooses them carefully, drops her matches neatly onto a tray, and presses them out when finished. In this instance, she throws the cigarette from the window, a contrast with her usual orderly self-control and a suggestion that perhaps she did push Clare. Larsen describes Irene watching the “tiny spark” fall to earth. When Clare falls from the window, following the path of the cigarette, Irene remembers her presence the moment before as “glowing,” a “flame of red and gold.”

The Freelands’ Apartment

The Freelands’ apartment building and its garden, the final locations of the book, provide a contrast with the Drayton and the streets below in the early scenes. While the Drayton represents the calm sterility of the white world, separated from the chaos of the street, the Freelands’ apartment embodies the lively, joyful possibilities of an all-Black space. It sits above a beautiful but cold garden, a representation of whiteness with its cover of snow. In contrast to the effortless ascension to the Drayton via elevator, reaching the Freelands’ apartment requires climbing six flights of stairs, a journey Felise claims to value for its use in keeping people away, echoing the exclusivity of the Drayton. Once Clare and the Redfields reach the top, they are rewarded not with the impersonal tranquility of the white Drayton but with an untidy, crowded, intellectually vibrant party. Ironically, Irene feels less at home at the Freelands’ than she does at the Drayton, suggesting her hidden discomfort in all-Black spaces.