Quicksand begins in Naxos, “the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country, north or south.” In fact, Naxos is much better than most schools for whites, according to Helga Crane, the main character. Naxos is based on the famous Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, founded by educator Booker T. Washington in 1881. Helga states that she wanted to teach at Naxos “to be part of this monument to one man’s genius and vision.” Although no dates are given in the novel, it can be assumed that the time frame is early 1900s, based the references to the Harlem Renaissance movement later in the novel.
Helga is a native of Chicago but has been educated at the fictional Devon School in Nashville, Tennessee. She accepts a position as a literature teacher at Naxos, hoping to find her place in life, but she feels out of place in the rural setting. Helga endures two years at Naxos, but the conformity and regimentation of life there stifles her. As she sits in her room contemplating her exodus from Naxos, she is surrounded by the elegant decor that she has chosen to decorate her room in the teachers’ quarters. Brilliant colors, stylish clothes, classic literature—these surroundings contrast greatly with the plainness of Naxos. Naxos has ceased to be a school for Helga. Rather, she sees it as a machine, a “show place in the black belt, exemplification of the white man’s magnanimity.” When a white preacher tells the “Naxos Negroes” that they are a fine example to the rest of the country because they “know their place” and “know where to stop” Helga decides she can no longer be a part of the hypocrisy and pettiness. At Naxos, Helga has discovered that Negro society is “as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society.” Helga leaves Naxos and for the rest of her life she refers to its people as “the snobbish black folk in Naxos.”
The name “Naxos” may have been based upon a large island in Greece. According to Greek mythology, Theseus abandoned Ariadne on Naxos after she helped him kill the Minotaur. Dionysus, god of wine, fell in love with Ariadne, but Ariadne still loved Theseus and either killed herself or ascended to heaven. This myth is depicted by Richard Strauss in his opera Ariadne auf Naxos, and could have had something to do with Larsen’s naming the school Naxos. The island had become a prison to Ariadne, and perhaps to Helga Crane as well.
Helga was born and grew up in Chicago, and it is to here that she returns after fleeing Naxos. Her benefactor, Uncle Peter, lives there and Helga is hopeful that she can rely on him to help her out. She recalls that Uncle Peter is the only one who “thought kindly, or even calmly, of her.” Uncle Peter had paid for Helga’s education and she hopes to borrow money from him if she cannot find a job. Helga arrives in cold, “gray Chicago,” which “seethed, surged and scurried about her.” The atmosphere reminds Helga of her sad and lonely childhood, growing up as an “unloved little Negro girl” in a white family. Helga recalls how her black father abandoned his family and her mother was forced to remarry someone “of her own race” to survive. Unfortunately, Uncle Peter has failed to tell Helga that he has...