“Helga Crane sat alone in her room, which at that hour, eight in the evening, was in soft gloom.” These opening lines anticipate both the plot and characterization of Nella Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand (1928). The protagonist, Helga Crane, is a lonely, isolated woman whose life does become one of gloom. Helga is of mixed race; her mother is white and her father is black. Helga’s father abandons his wife and infant daughter and Helga’s mother soon remarries a white man. Helga now has a white stepfamily. The dark-skinned Helga grows up ostracized by both whites and blacks, surviving a lonely childhood only to spend her adult life continuing to seek acceptance wherever she goes.
When the novel begins, Helga is a twenty-two-year-old school teacher at Naxos, a Negro boarding school. Finding herself both frustrated by the complacent attitudes of the blacks in Naxos towards racism and unfulfilled as a teacher, Helga decides to leave Naxos and her fiancé, fellow teacher James Vayle, who is black. James’ family does not approve of the match because of Helga’s mixed ancestry. “Negro society,” Helga decides, is “as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society.” This proves true in Helga’s life, for as she travels from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark, she does not fit in anywhere. When she lives among blacks, she longs to experience the white side of her soul; but when she lives among whites, she misses being around black people.
In Chicago, her white uncle rejects her. She moves to Harlem, but there she finds a well-established and cultured black middle class full of hypocrites and obsessed with racial issues. All Helga wants to do is transcend race, but she is unable to do so either in black or white society.
Helga inherits a good deal of money from her mother’s brother. This enables her to move to Denmark where she is welcomed by her white relatives. The Danes, however, go beyond mere acceptance of the beautiful young woman, treating Helga as an exquisite and exotic beauty. In Denmark, she is a supra-being, not a fellow being. “[I]t’s hard to explain,” she states when refusing the marriage proposal of a celebrated white Danish artist who is in love with her. “I simply can’t imagine living forever away from colored people.”
Helga returns to Harlem. Plunging into depression, she wanders the streets on a windy, rainy night and finds herself drawn into a charismatic church, where she finds God. She also finds her husband, the “fattish yellow man who had sat beside her” and converted her. Helga seduces and marries the Reverend Green and moves with him back to the South, completing the journey on which she embarked years before. Helga is ill-suited to the life of a rural black preacher’s wife. At first, however, she delves into her new role with enthusiasm, determined to be a good wife, determined to be happy. Eventually she awakens from the initial reverie of her conversion experience. She has three children very close together, who “use her up.” She seeks help from the black women of the church, asking them how they cope with being tired all the time. The black women are dumbfounded that the preacher’s wife would ask such a thing. Just make the best of it, they urge her. The novel ends with the once exotic, beautiful, intelligent Helga lapsing into depression, conquered by the “quicksand” of racial identity, social class and sexism that she has spent a lifetime trying to overcome.
Both this novel and Nella Larsen’s second novel, Passing, reflect the author’s own quest for acceptance. “You can probably get a pretty good idea of Nella Larsen’s personality from the depiction of her alter ego, Helga Crane, in Quicksand,” says T. N. R. Rogers in his introduction to the novel. Larsen was born in Chicago in 1891. Her mother was white and her father was black. Her mother remarried a white Danish man with whom she already had a white daughter who was one year old when they married. Larsen’s biographer, Thadious M. Davis, believes Larsen was sent to live in a shelter and eventually found her way to Denmark to live with relatives for a while before returning to New York where she became a prominent and respected voice in the Harlem Renaissance literary movement of the 1920s and 1930s.
While this is a difficult and ultimately depressing novel, it is also a powerful portrayal of the suffocating disillusionment and entrapment experienced by racial minorities during the time in which it was written.