Passing Summary and Study Guide

Nella Larsen


  • 33-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 12 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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Passing Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 33-page guide for “Passing” by Nella Larsen includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 4 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Passing and Isolation.

Plot Summary

Passing, a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, then a rising star in the Harlem Renaissance, tells the story of the friendship between two light-skinned black women, Irene and Clare. Irene “passes” for white, eventually abandoning her black heritage, while Clare, who can also pass, is proud of her racial background.

The novel begins with Irene receiving a letter from Clare, her childhood friend. Irene recalls the death of Clare’s father and how she eventually disappeared from their Chicago neighborhood. Irene then thinks of a chance encounter she had with Clare years later when she visited Chicago. The story then reverts to a flashback of that day.

Clare, on summer vacation in Chicago, goes to the Drayton Hotel to escape the heat, banking on being able to pass for white to gain entry. While enjoying a drink, she notices a blond woman staring at her, and worries the woman can tell she’s black. But when the woman approaches, Irene can see that it’s Clare, grown up and permanently passing for white. Clare and Irene discuss childhood friends, with whom Clare has had no contact, and Clare invites Irene for tea the next day. Irene accepts, but internally decides she will not actually go.

The next day, Clare calls incessantly until Irene shows up at the hotel. At tea is Gertrude, another childhood friend who, like Clare, married a white man. They discuss their fear of birthing a dark-skinned baby, which offends Irene, who has a dark-skinned son. Clare’s husband John arrives, horrifying Irene with his violently racist views. Irene wants to defend her people, but knows she would put Clare in danger.

Out of the flashback, Irene opens Clare’s letter, which expresses regret for living such a lie. She discusses this with Brian, her husband, who advises her not to encourage Clare to return to being black. She does not answer the letter. Several months later, Clare makes a surprise visit to Irene in Harlem. Hearing about a mixed-race dance Irene plans to attend, Clare asks to join. Irene is reluctant, but agrees. At the dance, Clare is the life of the party, dancing with various men including Brian. Brian offers to drive her back to her hotel, but Irene arranges for a cab.

Clare quickly inserts herself into Irene’s daily life. Irene worries that Clare’s husband will become suspicious of her many visits to Harlem, but Clare becomes emotional, insisting that being around other black folks is too important. It is now close to Christmas. Irene awakes early in the very morning to Brian’s news that Clare is downstairs, hurt that Irene had not invited her to a tea party that coming afternoon. Irene tells Brian that her other guests don’t like Clare, and notes his anger and defensiveness. Brian, she realizes, has been sleeping with Clare. Irene hosts the party that day dazed and grief-stricken. Over the next several weeks, Irene tries to come to grips with the affair and schemes about how to get rid of Clare. Irene debates telling Clare’s husband about her race, but ultimately feels to do so would be to betray her entire race.

While out shopping with a black friend, Irene encounters John, Clare’s husband, but ignores him, opting not to disclose Clare’s race. Clare comes to Irene’s house as Irene is dressing for a party. Irene decides that she can live with her husband’s affair as long as he does not leave their home. But Clare tells her that she has no feelings for John but stays with him for their daughter, and Irene knows she could easily run away with Brian. Just then, John bursts into the party, screaming at Clare that he knows what she is. In the chaos, Clare is pushed out an open window and falls to her death. Did she jump? Was she pushed by John, or by Irene herself? In any case, Irene rushes downstairs, worried that Clare isn’t dead, but learns that she died on impact.

Written during a time of both intense racism towards black Americans and a stirring of racial pride, Passing explores the issues of race and its connection to identity and community. Though both Irene and Clare are light-skinned enough to “pass” as white, Clare rejects her race while Irene embraces it as a source of strength. In the end, Clare’s abandonment of her ethnic community is her undoing, as she experiences isolation and loneliness, ultimately turning to Irene and the people of her childhood for friendship and solace.

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