Helga Crane is a complex, fascinating, and contradictory character, and at the end of the novel readers are left wondering what motivates her. The circumstances of Helga’s life offer only partial insight into why she makes the choices she does. Helga is an intelligent, well-educated, and beautiful biracial woman. Her black father deserts his white wife and biracial daughter when Helga is young and her mother remarries “someone of her own race.” They have other white children and Helga grows up, in her words, “an unloved little Negro girl” who does not fit in with her white family. Helga is sent away to a “Negro school” and grows up apart from her family. She soon realizes she does not fit in at the “Negro school” either. Helga’s soul is at times white, and at times black. Throughout her life, she struggles to establish harmony between these two identities and the novel is a chronicle of this psychological struggle.
Helga is introspective and brooding. While her mood and thoughts vacillate between anger, arrogance, despair, contempt, ecstasy, and dozens of other emotions, she is unable to sustain contentment no matter where her life takes her. She resists the rigid social order of “Negro society” at Naxos, the southern school “for Negroes” where she teaches. She flees the “hostile white folks in Chicago” and the inconsistent black folks in Harlem who condemn white people on one hand while imitating their lives on the other. She feels physically free in Denmark among the enlightened Danes, who view her as an exotic beauty, but spiritually free “among Negroes” in prejudiced America.
Helga attempts to fit into the various environments in which she finds herself—from Naxos, to Chicago, to Harlem, to Denmark, to Alabama—yet her coping skills are unreliable. She can emerge with her dignity intact after sharing a passionate kiss with her friend’s husband one moment and stumble stupefied into a charismatic church service in the next. She is an assertive woman confidently preparing for her departure from one city but an impulsive adolescent with no plan of action for surviving in the next. Helga desires sexual fulfillment yet she is conflicted by an equal desire for social respectability. She has two chances to achieve that social respectability, with James Vayle and Herr Axel Olsen, yet she rejects them both. The possibility of sexual fulfillment with Dr. Anderson scares her, yet when she finally achieves sexual fulfillment with her ill-suited husband, it becomes her ultimate quicksand.
Helga’s behavior is consistent with borderline personality disorder. She continues to follow a repetitive pattern of disorganization and instability in her self-image, mood and behavior. These destructive patterns cause problems for her in her relationships. In fact, Helga really does not have any close friends. People who try to befriend her wind up scared of her, for which she despises them. Consistent with this disorder, Helga is intelligent and appears friendly and competent, but she can only sustain this appearance for awhile. Soon her defenses crumble and she feels restless and trapped once again. Helga shifts frequently from an empty, lonely depression to irritability and anxiety. This is then followed by her unpredictable and impulsive behavior, such as marrying a backwoods preacher who just so happens to be sitting next to her in church when she is “saved.”
Should Helga be pitied or admired? It is a conundrum, just like the character herself. On the one hand, Helga can be viewed as a victim of racism, sexism and class—forces which in the end succeed in crushing a once vibrant young woman full of potential. Yet Helga is also her own worst enemy. She is so focused on how others can make her happy, how things can make her happy, that she loses herself in the process of trying to discover herself. She never gives herself a chance to make herself happy, depending always on others and always being disappointed. Should this be blamed on her dysfunctional upbringing? Perhaps. Helga does not grow up with a support system. There is no strong parental figure telling her, “You can be anything you want to be, honey.” She does have opportunities to connect with people throughout her life, though—her fiancé James Vayle, her friend Anne Grey in New York, Herr Axel Olsen, who proposes to her in Denmark, or even Robert Anderson. Yet when Helga does marry, she picks a totally ill-suited man, and what admiration the reader may have had for Helga Crane disintegrates into overwhelming pity.
Anne Grey Anderson
Anne Grey is a beautiful, wealthy widow who befriends Helga in Harlem. Helga is introduced to Anne by Mrs. Hayes-Rore, who is Anne’s deceased husband’s aunt. Anne is a prominent Harlem socialite, well-dressed and well-bred. She is also assertive, but kind. Helga describes Anne as “almost too good to be true—almost perfect.” Anne is a native New Yorker and a person of distinction, “financially independent, well connected and much sought after.” Anne is an outspoken activist who is “obsessed with the race problem.” Helga soon develops a love/hate relationship with Anne over what Helga describes as Anne’s inconsistencies. Anne preaches against social inequality, yet her own life is a prime example of social inequality. Anne condemns whites on the one hand, yet “apes their clothes, their manners and their gracious ways of living” on the other. Anne becomes engaged to Dr. Robert Anderson while Helga is in Denmark and Helga returns for the wedding.
Dr. Robert Anderson
Robert Anderson is the young headmaster at the Naxos School at the beginning of the novel. He has recently been appointed to this post but spends a lot of time away from the school on fund-raising tours. He tries to persuade Helga not to resign from Naxos, telling her that she is a good example to the students. He almost convinces Helga to stay because of his commitment to the students and hope for the future. He tells Helga that “lies, injustice and hypocrisy are a part of every ordinary community,” but that there are fewer evils at...