From Jessica Labbé’s “‘Too high a price’: The ‘Terrible Honesty’ of Black Women’s Work in Quicksand.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism. 10.1. 2010. 81-110. Print.
In her landmark work Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, Ann Douglass weaves a complex tapestry of black and white modernist creative expression and ideology (Douglass 1995). As described by Douglass, the modernist moment in 1920s Manhattan was "one of complex and double empowerment" because at the same moment that "America-at-large was separating from England and Europe, black America... was recovering its own heritage from the dominant white culture" (5). Douglass asserts that Manhattan itself was a "mongrel" in its "racially and ethnically mixed" population (5), and this "new racially mixed social scene" (6) inevitably set the stage for black and white creative interaction. Nella Larsen—born ofa white Danish mother and a black father, golden child ofthe Harlem Renaissance later accused of plagiarism, skilled laborer turned novelist, emissary between black and white communities—was one ofthe many culturally and racially diverse beneficiaries of this vivid historical moment. She indeed embodies Douglass's vision of the American modernist artist; Larsen cloaks herself in the mysterious mongrel's skin with gusto, while her texts sound searing renditions ofthe "terrible honesty" of women's lives in 1920s America. Larsen as a writer and Quicksand as a text are both "alert to questions of honesty but hostile to all moralizing" (Douglass 1995, 8), an approach Douglass classifies as the central view of this creative group. Drawing from Raymond Chandler—"all writers are a little crazy but if they are any good they have a kind of terrible honesty" (quoted in Douglass 1995, 33)—Douglass labels the white modern ideology of "terrible honesty" as the "primary ethos of all urban moderns" (8). She argues that, in their lives and work, the moderns "sought out" the "agony and horror of modern life" (31), to quote T. S. Eliot, as well as "the compromises that purport to mask them" (33). Such a description mirrors the content of Quicksand itself; every work role that Helga takes up—teacher, speechwriter, secretary, exotic entertainer, wife, and mother—reveals the compromises that women of color must make within their limited field of options. Then, at every one of Helga's "failures," the reader watches as another social mask is torn away to reveal the agony of existence within such a precarious position. These comparisons help to collapse the traditional idea of high white modernism and the Harlem Renaissance as mutually exclusive; clearly, Larsen's work fuses the manifold influences of the period. In essence, Larsen provides us with a concrete example of how the black and white modernist literary project was a complex and cooperative creative affair.
To further unpack the complexity of Larsen's project, it is useful to note how she exposes the matrix of domination through Helga's work within both white and black communities. Patricia Hill Collins describes the matrix of domination as "contain[ing] few pure victims or oppressors. Each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression whicb frame everyone's lives" (Collins 1991, 229). Collins's insight, like Larsen's project, reveals the intricacies of oppression; all attempts to function within society are bound by this matrix that forces participants to be, at times, victims of others' domination and, at other times, oppressors of other beings. As Collins explains, allowing for such complexities to take shape "expands the focus of analysis from merely describing tbe similarities and differences distinguishing these systems of oppression and focuses greater attention on how they interconnect" (222). Collins notes that this new frame reveals "that each system needs the others to function," which "creates a distinct theoretical stance that stimulates the rethinking of basic social science concepts" (222). It is just this sense of the inescapable interconnectedness of oppression that drives Larsen's bleak narrative. In addition to formally paralleling these ideas, what Larsen contributes to Collins's theory is the recognition that the woman herself- perhaps because she is divided from her self-can act as her own oppressor, even while she attempts to perform the very roles she hopes will liberate ber. These roles, which manifest as various forms of labor, force Helga to separate herself into parts in order to achieve what she so desires: money, connection, or even a sense of purpose. Her commodified self that has a particular "value" dependent upon what piece of her identity is "for sale" clashes with the intricate, entwined threads that characterize Helga's holistic self. Larsen's innovation shows why, where Collins sees opportunities for investigation and possibility at these sites, Larsen can envision only entrapment and unhappiness. At the intersection of race, gender, and class within the context of modernism, Larsen cannot imagine a unified self; without a unified self, Larsen's characters are doomed to inhabit the margins—ghostlike—constantly betwixt and between worlds.
It is not Helga's appearance and opinions alone that ostracize her from the Naxos community; Larsen suggests that Helga's very being—her physical, emotional, and psychological totality—resists such structure, since she "had never quite achieved the unmistakable Naxos mold, would never achieve it, in spite of much trying" (Larsen 1928/2000, 7). Unlike most post-Freudian feminist notions, Helga's realization of a "lack" within herself ultimately liberates her because it means that she has achieved some amount of self-realization, which revives her sense of power. Larsen writes that Helga knew there was a "lack somewhere" but that she had always "considered it a lack of understanding on the part of the community, but in her present new revolt she realized that the fault had been partly hers. A lack of acquiescence. She hadn't really wanted to be made over" (7). Helga's "lack of acquiescence" is an open refusal to submit and consent to the dominant ideology of Naxos; in essence, Helga repudiates her socially prescribed role in the matrix of domination. Moreover, that Helga "hadn't really wanted to be made over" suggests that she has a defined sense of the self with which she is, in fact, satisfied. Even the language of "making over" suggests that any changes Naxos might make to her would be superficial as they would not alter Helga's core beliefs. Therefore, what Helga refers to as a "fault" within her actually is central to her newly recognized ability to define who she is and what she believes. Refusing to submit to those in power—refusing to allow them to write one's script—is a declaration of authority. Therefore, this comment makes clear her burgeoning pride and certainty in her own identity, though Larsen problematizes this status throughout the novel.
This is an execpt from Jessica Labbe concerning Quicksand, please read and answer question below.
Do you believe Helga shows "certainty in her own identity"?
This is a very important question to consider in relation to this text. It is clear, initially at least, that Helga does have some kind of intrinsic "certainty in her own identity" that makes her very sure about what she wants and what she is looking for. Note, for example, the way in which the text makes clear that she is not satisfied with what others might be satisfied with:
Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent. She began to lose confidence in the fullness of her life, the glow began to fade from her conception of it. As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable. She went through moments of overwhelming anguish. She felt shut in, trapped.
As Labbe seems to suggest in her criticism above, the positive side of this terrible feeling of entrapment is that clearly Helga has a very developed sense of identity in order to feel that she is "shut in" and "trapped." Her refusal to conform and the way that she describes her inability to fit in completely to Naxos does seem to suggest a heightened sense of identity and a very clear understanding of what she is and what she isn't as an individual, and this could lead critics to believe that she is a character who resolutely refuses to be conformed by those around her. This could be supported by the way that she rejects being made into an object of exotic desire in Denmark, and refuses to accept the life she could have lead there because she would have been made into something she was not.
However, at the same time, it is also important to view this book as an impossible struggle waged by one woman against cultural and social powers that are much more entrenched and established than Helga's own fighting spirit. This is shown most clearly in the way she marries the Reverend Green and is forced to live a life in a small Alabama town with her spirit being slowly and unavoidably crushed. Although it is possible to argue Helga is a character who did have a very clearly defined and strong identity, this is something that is destroyed by the end of the novel, when the reader is clearly left with the impression that Helga, now pregnant again, will spend the rest of her life working to raise her children and living in a nondescript town in Alabama, fading away. Eventually, the kind of matrix of domination that Labbe cites above in her article, is shown to be more than a match for even such a free spirited individual as Helga, and this novel ends with Helga being cast into the quicksands of cultural, racial and social wastelands where, as a mixed race woman, she is unable to define herself as she would like. This novel therefore starts off as lauding the power of identity, before ending with the suggestion that the forces that shape us are more powerful than our own will as humans to shape the world around us.