Quicksand is more than a novel about a person’s search for identity. It offers a critical commentary on diverse cultural and racial societies—their oppressive institutions, outmoded traditions, false values, and distorted ways of perceiving reality. Because the protagonist is a woman of mixed racial heritage, Nella Larsen can easily shift her character from one different community to the next. Furthermore, because Helga’s less-than-full commitment to either black or white society provides her with special insight, Larsen can illustrate and criticize the distinguishing elements that make up the different racial cultures.
Larsen communicates many important ideas to readers through Helga’s central consciousness in the novel. The Naxos school is a black middle-class training ground where new ideas are not tolerated and individual freedom is discouraged. The name “Naxos” is probably used by Larsen as an anagram for “Saxon,” to denote the school’s obedience to the dominant Anglo-Saxon society. This kind of life is in contrast to the free and joyous existence of the black residents of Harlem, where Helga temporarily finds escape. In Harlem, however, she soon realizes that there, too, black men and women are imitating white patterns of life, even as they denounce the actions of white persons. Furthermore, she finds the sensual excesses practiced in Harlem to be repulsive to the values of her moral upbringing.
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
Nella Larsen opens Quicksand with these lines from the poem “Cross” by Langston Hughes. It is a fitting introduction to a novel that portrays the challenges encountered by a biracial woman struggling to escape the oppressive forces of race, class, gender, and religion in early twentieth-century America. Quicksand is a bildungsroman that explores the psychological, moral, and social shaping of a sensitive young woman searching for answers and experiences. Larsen harshly criticizes the forces that have shaped the cultures of both black and white society while narrating the story of a woman who, much like herself, sought but never found happiness.
Helga Crane is well suited to evaluate the elements of both black and white cultures. As a biracial woman, she possesses insights into both societies. Seeking to establish her racial identity, Helga moves back and forth in both societies, discovering each's values and exposing each's prejudices. Helga’s internal struggle is as difficult as her external struggle to fit in because for most of the novel, she is confused by the racial hypocrisies she encounters and is incapable of fully committing to either culture.
The hypocrisy begins with Helga’s family. Helga’s black father deserts her white Danish mother, who is then forced to remarry someone of her own race in order to survive. Helga grows up the only black child in a white family. The memories of her stepfamily’s “malicious hate” still haunt her. Her white uncle sends her to a “Negro school,” but behind her back he expresses fears that she will not amount to anything because of her Negro blood. At the Negro school, Helga learns that while her darkness is not “loathsome,” it is not dark enough for the other students to embrace her. Neither blacks nor whites welcome the “unloved little Negro girl.”
Helga hopes to help her race while finding her black soul at Naxos school, but she finds Naxos to be nothing but “a showplace in the black belt, exemplification of the white man’s magnanimity, refutation of the black man’s inefficiency.” The “Naxos Negroes” complacently accept the white man’s estimation of them as Negroes who “know their place” while they are supposedly being educated so that they can transcend that place. Alone in her room, Helga decides she cannot tolerate such hypocrisy and resolves to seek refuge in Chicago where her white uncle still lives. Helga flees Naxos on a “Jim Crow” train, seated with “others of her race.” When a white man spits into the drinking fountain while walking through the “colored section,” Helga immediately notices a “stinging thirst” symbolic of her internal “thirst” to escape. She convinces a white conductor to sell her a berth apart from “the endless others” where she can rest in self-imposed exile on the way to Chicago.
In Chicago, Helga is again confronted by white and black racism. Her emotions are assaulted by endless racial slights. Uncle Peter’s new wife cannot imagine herself as the aunt of a Negro girl and sends Helga away. Wandering the streets confused, Helga is mistaken for a prostitute. The only positions available to people of color are as domestic servants, and Helga cannot sew or cook. She knows and loves books, but her race disqualifies her from working at the public library despite her education. Helga then meets a well-to-do black woman, Mrs. Hayes-Rore, who hires Helga to help with a speech on racial equality on the way to New York. Mrs. Hayes-Rore offers to introduce Helga to influential black people in Harlem but then warns her not to tell anyone that she is part white because “Colored people won’t understand it.”
In Harlem, Helga sets aside her whiteness, assuring herself that she has finally found her place among the bourgeois blacks who “have the same ideas as she does.” The racial hypocrisy she has been trying to escape soon surrounds her again in Harlem, however. Helga lives with the beautiful widow Anne Grey who is prominent in the “Negro Uplift Movement” but whose lifestyle imitates whites. Anne is an outspoken critic of white people, yet dislikes all things Negro, “...the songs, the dances, and the softly blurred speech of the race.” Anne preaches racial equality, yet she is appalled by the beautiful Audrey Denney who gives parties “for white and colored people together” where white men dance with colored women. Helga herself eschews the hypocrisy of these bourgeois blacks, yet out among the teeming masses of Harlem, she struggles internally, feeling “as if she were shut up, boxed up, with hundreds of her face, closed up with that something in the racial character which had always been, to her, inexplicable, alien. Why, she demanded in fierce rebellion, should she be yoked to these despised black folk?”
Helga flees to Denmark to escape racist America, but here she encounters racism of an unexpected type. The Danes are not prejudiced against Helga’s mixed race, yet they do not view her as one of them. Helga’s white aunt and uncle parade her around Copenhagen like a beautiful exotic black doll, unwittingly stereotyping her. When they urge her to marry a prominent Dane, Helga informs them she does not believe in mixed marriage. Her aunt and uncle are shocked, assuring her that race is not an issue for the enlightened Danes. When the famous artist Axel Olsen proposes to Helga, however, she realizes that he, too, is a hypocrite, wanting only to possess her because she is different. Helga refuses his proposal with the excuse that she could never marry a white man. In Denmark, Helga realizes finally that she is more black than white. Moreover, she finds she is homesick not for America but “for Negroes.”
Returning to America, Helga settles into being black. Concurrent conflicts over her social, sexual, and religious identities have not been resolved, however. Her breakdown over being rejected by former Naxos principal Dr. Anderson (and now Anne’s husband) propels her to impulsively marry an odious black preacher. This unfortunate marriage destroys all hope Helga has for finding happiness.
The tragedy of Quicksand is that Helga is trying to transcend race, to reconcile her black and white identities. Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream that one day people would “not be judged by the color of their skin." Such a world does not exist for Helga Crane.
Race is a major theme in Quicksand, but it is not Helga’s only conflict. Helga’s mulatto complexion allows her to move freely between black and...