Willful, pretty, motherless Clare was pitied in their old neighborhood, because her janitor father was a drunk. After he was killed in a saloon fight, Clare went to live with her father’s relations in another part of the city. He was white, her mother black. Her visits to the old neighborhood lessened and then she vanished altogether. There were rumors, which Clare airily confirms. She has married a rich white businessman who does not know she is black; their daughter is in school in Switzerland. Irene’s instinct is to stay clear of Clare, who has done this “abhorrent and dangerous thing.” She tells herself that she is not a snob, that she doesn’t care about “the petty restrictions . . . with which what called itself Negro society chose to hedge about itself,” but she has an aversion to the “gossip and scandal” which Clare’s presence in her life would expose her to.
However, she is strangely moved by Clare and agrees to call on her before she returns to New York. At Clare’s hotel, Irene finds another old acquaintance. In a remarkable scene, Irene, a light-skinned black woman with a black husband, listens to two other light-skinned black women, one married to a white man who doesn’t know she’s black, the other married to a white man who does, discuss the strain of their pregnancies, their relief when their babies came out pale, and their fear of having more children, because they may turn out to be too dark. “They don’t know like we do, how it might go way back, and turn out dark no matter what color the father and mother are.” Irene informs them that her husband couldn’t pass.
Matters worsen for Irene when Clare’s husband, John Bellew, arrives unexpectedly. His nickname for his wife is “Nig.” He teases her about having got darker since they married. “I tell her if she doesn’t look out she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.” He roars with laughter, because he knows she’s no “nigger”; he’s met her white aunts. He assumes he’s talking to white ladies. “No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.” His tirade against “niggers” goes on and Larsen can do it all—Clare’s innocence and composure, the comic discomfort of their old acquaintance, Irene’s struggle not to betray her anger and therefore Clare. She remembers that Clare likes to take risks and doesn’t consider the feelings of anyone else. But she can’t understand why Clare has subjected the two of them to the insults of her husband.
Clare’s letters pursue Irene, back in New York. She tells her indifferent husband, “It’s a funny thing about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it.” Clare comes to New York, and Irene continues to ignore her letters. But Clare is not to be denied. As soon as Bellew leaves on business, Clare appears at her door. “You don’t know, you can’t realize how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh.” She never sounds more white. Once Clare has penetrated Irene’s mahogany fortress there is no stopping her. The pace of the novel accelerates as Clare wheedles her way into Irene’s parties and conquers her friends with her insolent beauty and spectacular clothes and glamour. Irene’s circle is racially mixed, and not even the character based on Van Vechten can tell if she is or isn’t one thing or the other.
Larsen shows Irene at first trying to protect Clare from herself, and her reckless game. Nervous about the excuses Clare gives her husband, Irene becomes a hapless conspirator in Clare’s clandestine affair with Harlem. Then she shows Irene trying to defend her home against the assault of Clare’s charm. The scene in which Irene realizes that her husband and Clare are having an affair is tersely told. “It hurt. It hurt like hell. But it didn’t matter, if no one knew. If everything could go on as before. If the boys were safe.” Bitter, robbed of her self-assurance, Irene has a moment of wishing she had not been born Negro. It was “enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well.”
Clare’s husband has been closing in on her deceits. Irene has gone from hoping Bellew didn’t find out what Clare was doing to desperately wanting him to know, without her being the one to tell him. But when he tracks Clare down at a Harlem party, and angrily confronts his smiling, uncaring wife, Irene sees the danger in letting him cast Clare aside. “It was that smile that maddened Irene.” One moment Clare is there, “a flame of red and gold.” She is leaning backward in a window; then she is gone. Bellew is like a beast in agony. The grief of Irene’s husband tells her she has lost his heart.