Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Conflict between Self-Interest and Loyalty

Throughout the novel, Larsen develops a theme of the conflict between self-interest and loyalty. At the start of the book, Irene disapproves of Clare’s lack of loyalty to her race. In the action preceding the novel, Clare has by necessity put her self-interest above loyalty to race, family, and friendship. She has abandoned the Black community and her friends from the old neighborhood in favor of passing as white, and she has abandoned her white aunts by marrying Bellew. Irene, in contrast, values loyalty to race so much that she finds herself in a double bind when Bellew calls Clare a racist nickname. She cannot defend herself or Blackness in general without putting Clare at risk, which would violate her code of race loyalty. Similarly, Irene rejects Brian’s proposal that they move to Brazil principally because of her loyalty to her country, even though moving would please Brian and would remove a major source of tension in their marriage. 

By the end of the novel, Larsen shows that Irene, like Clare, will choose self-interest when loyalty to race puts her sense of security at risk. Although she believes it is loyalty to race that prevents her from greeting Bellew in the street and in that way putting Clare’s marriage at risk, she realizes later that the reason she doesn’t tell Clare about the meeting is self-interest. If Bellew divorces Clare, Clare will be free to pursue Brian more openly, which may well end Irene’s marriage. When Bellew arrives at the Freelands’ party and confronts Clare, Larsen describes Irene as “possessed” by fear of what will happen to her marriage if Clare is free. While Larsen leaves some ambiguity around whether Irene pushes Clare to her death, by the end of the book there is no question that her self-interest has supplanted her loyalty. 

The Risks and Rewards of Passing

Larsen explores the risks and rewards of passing throughout the novel. At the beginning of the book, Irene marvels at Clare’s comfort with danger. Irene, who values security above all else, is anxious at the idea of being ejected from the Drayton if she is caught passing. Clare, on the other hand, has much more on the line if Bellew realizes she is Black, yet she laughs along with his joking slur of a nickname for her. Pregnancy is the only risk she says she would not take again, since she spent the whole period terrified that Margery would be born with dark skin and reveal her secret. Clare’s comfort with risk is a lifelong aspect of her character, as indicated by her taking the money she had earned back from her father in order to buy fabric for a new dress. Just as that risk paid off, Clare seems to take all the risks of passing without consequence, enjoying the rewards of status and wealth that passing can provide her.

As the novel continues, Clare takes increasing risks and for a time reaps only rewards from her double life. At first she is careful, for instance, giving Irene only a post office address for a reply to her letter, rather than risk telling Irene her actual address. However, she refuses Irene’s advice to stay away from Harlem, arguing that if total safety is impossible, another risk does not matter compared to the joy she finds having the company of Black people again. Again, only motherhood gives her pause, when Irene points out the danger her visits to the Black community pose to Margery. Still, Clare progresses from private visits to Irene’s house to the public danger of the Negro Welfare League dance. Until the final scene of the book, when the risks of passing catch up with Clare in the form of Bellew’s enraged arrival at the Freelands’, Clare seems to have managed to combine the rewards of passing with the pleasure of Black society.

The Heightened Awareness of Marginalized People

Throughout the book, Larsen builds a theme of marginalized people’s heightened awareness of race, color, and class dynamics. This theme most obviously surfaces in the more sophisticated understanding of race seen in the novel’s Black characters as compared to the white ones. Bellew is so convinced of the inherent evil of all Black people that he cannot see Clare’s Blackness. However, Wentworth, who socializes with Black people regularly, also cannot tell that Clare is Black, perpetrating Irene’s belief that white people are not good at seeing Blackness where they do not expect it. 

Larsen also explores dynamics of skin-color privilege among the book’s Black characters. Irene takes offense when Gertrude and Clare express their relief over their children’s light skin, since Irene has a dark-skinned child and finds her dark-skinned husband beautiful. However, she herself is light enough to pass, an experience that gives her a less sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of skin color than Brian or Junior hold. When she tells Brian about her anger over Bellew’s use of a slur as a nickname for Clare, he points out that Bellew did not actually call her that name. Although Irene says hearing the word was just as unpleasant as being called it, Brian clearly disagrees. Brian and Junior have both experienced being the targets of racial slurs, which gives them a deeper understanding of racism than Irene possesses. 

Clare’s experiences at both ends of the spectrum of wealth give her greater insight into class than Irene has. Although she is quite wealthy as Bellew’s wife, she began life as a janitor’s daughter, doing errands for a dressmaker and sewing her own dresses. As a teenager, she did her aunts’ housework as a punishment for being born Black. These experiences help explain her friendly relationship with Irene’s maids, which Irene, who has never been poor or had to work, finds exasperating. Irene feels similarly excluded by Clare’s decision to invite Gertrude to visit her in Chicago. Irene finds it strange that socialite Clare would be friends with a butcher’s wife, but she reflects that their lives have followed similar patterns. Irene has socialized only within the upper class for her whole life, while Clare’s past poverty and working-class life experiences give her a greater ability to connect with others.