Nella Larsen Essay - Critical Essays


Along with the novels of Fauset, White, and W. E. B. Du Bois, Larsen’s works are often classified as “uplift novels,” the purpose of which was to persuade educated white readers that the black middle class was, in fact, not unlike them and, at the same time, to point out how irrational it was to discriminate against such obviously civilized people. In his pioneering work The Negro Novel in America (1958), critic Robert Bone called such writers the “Rear Guard” of the Harlem Renaissance because, in his opinion, they lagged behind the movement. Bone, however, admitted that even though they seemed to advocate the imitation of white people, these writers, if not nationalists or primitivists, were certainly not assimilationists. In their frequent treatments of the phenomenon called “passing,” they always made it clear that by rejecting their heritage, black people would lose their identities.

There is, however, considerable disagreement about Larsen’s intentions. Some critics believe that, in the “uplift” tradition, Larsen is presenting a favorable picture of the black middle class. Others believe that she means to satirize their affectations, their snobbery, and their hypocrisy. More recently, it has been argued that Larsen’s primary concern is black female sexuality, although again there are differences of opinion—for example, as to whether she is a moralist in sexual matters or an opponent of repression. It may be that Larsen’s novels reflect her own uncertainties. As a person of mixed parentage, as a member of the aspiring black middle class, and as an intelligent woman in a world dominated by men, Larsen could not have had an easy time sorting out her own identity. It is not surprising that her characters find the task virtually impossible.

Whatever her feelings about the black middle class, Larsen did, sensibly, restrict her writing to the kinds of people she knew and the types of settings with which she was familiar. In Quicksand, Helga Crane is shown first at a black college in the South, then among the Harlem elite and in European society, before her unlikely marriage to a preacher and her move to a small southern town. Significantly, critics feel that the final section of the book lacks Larsen’s usual sureness of touch. While they mention problems of characterization, they may also sense the author’s unfamiliarity with her setting. When Larsen describes spacious rooms filled with eighteenth century tables and Chinese tea chests, she is in her own environment; when she turns to washtubs and ironing boards, she is as ill at ease as her heroine.

Although some critics find either deliberate or unintentional satire of the black middle class in Passing, citing, for example, the breakfast scene at the beginning of part 2, it is difficult to believe that the fact that Larsen’s characters use grapefruit spoons and employ servants indicates any satirical intent on Larsen’s part. Instead, in her second novel, she is confining her subject matter to her own experience.

The kinds of people whom Larsen does attack in her novels are bigoted white people and, even more important, black people who exhibit contempt for their own race. The unlovely face of bigotry is seen in Quicksand in the white preacher who speaks so patronizingly to his audience at a black college and in the white wife of Helga Crane’s uncle, who denies any kinship between her husband and his sister’s child. In Passing, by his inability to converse about any subject except the black race, John Bellew reveals that he is not only a bigot but also a bore.

Larsen despises black people who, in one way or another, betray their own race. In Quicksand, her targets range from authoritarian black college administrators who produce subservient graduates to doctrinaire black racists such as Anne Grey, who, while professing their hatred of white people, reject their own rich heritage. It is hardly surprising, then, that Larsen shows Clare Kendry, the black woman in Passing who pretends to be white, as a person who deceives her husband and betrays her best friend, just as she has betrayed her race by denying it. If the selfish, self-centered Clare is meant to represent the kind of person who “passes,” it is clear that Larsen carries no brief for assimilation.

Feminist critics also point to the importance of gender issues in Larsen’s novels. While they do not have to contend with poverty, socialites such as Irene Redfield in Passing are keenly aware of their dependence upon their husbands, who provide their incomes, their positions in society, and indeed, their very identities. In the protagonists of her two novels, Larsen shows what seem to be the only two options, other than spinsterhood, for her own gender, which in the 1920’s was still so vulnerable in biological as well as in social terms. On one hand, Irene Redfield, whose husband no longer shares her bed, loses him to another woman; on the other, Helga Crane, whose husband rarely leaves her alone, is completely exhausted by childbearing and child-tending.

Given these examples, one can hardly believe that, as has been suggested, the purpose of Larsen’s novels was to glorify black female sexuality. Instead, one must conclude that, like so many other women writers of her period, Larsen could show how difficult it was for women to deal with the issues of sexual desire, marriage, and reproduction—but she could not suggest a solution.

What Larsen could do was to urge people to understand one another’s problems and to accept one another as...

(The entire section is 2306 words.)