In Search of Nella Larsen

by George Hutchinson

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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.  This is a follow up question. Please read the next excerpt from the source above and  answer the question below it: Is it possible that Helga's entire narrative is an explication of such a feeling/fear? Helga Crane, like Larsen herself, does have distinct advantages over her real-world peers: she achieves an outstanding education, she lives (for the majority of the narrative) in financial comfort, and she has the agency to claim opportunities as they arise. But, in the end, these advantages entail "an even steeper price" than she ever imagined paying. Douglass argues that, at the close of the roaring twenties, "White artists were destroyed from within; black artists, if they were destroyed, from without" (Douglass 1995, 473). Helga—liminal to the end—hovers be- tween these two alternatives at the close of the novel. However, Larsen makes it very clear that Helga wants to escape the oppressive nature of this last episode; moreover, she wants her children to escape the fate that she has created for them. Unlike the other times that Helga seeks such an escape, Larsen does not provide a quick resolution/escape route for her protagonist. If Douglass's assertion that "silence and withdrawal were the fate of some of the greatest black artists of the 1920s in the Depression and after" (474), then Helga could represent the historical reality of the black artistic experience. Therefore, it appears that Helga truly was operating on "borrowed time," and that at the end of the story her "luck" has run dry. There may be, however, another, more complicated interpretation of the novel's end, one that directly links Larsen to the white modernists. Douglass notes that "in the later lives of the white American artists of the 1920s" there can be found "a moment when hope seems briefly to flare from the depths of ruin, a hope that lives only amid ruin" (476). Although there is no implicit or overt message of hope at the end of Quicksand, it is significant that Larsen does not deliver Helga's tableau mort such as Edith Wharton paints for Lily Bart at the close of The House of Mirth. Instead, Helga's end more closely resembles Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier—whom we leave amid what we only assume will be her final swim; Zora Neale Hurston's Janie—who is alive but alone at the end ofher tale; or even T. S. Eliot's narrator who is able, against all odds, to "shore" some fragments against his "ruin." True, these ends are not unremittingly hopeful, but they do leave room—however little—for the possibility of redemption. If some new plot element were suddenly to arrive deus ex machina, Helga could escape her chosen hell. And were Helga to be given another chance, she might finally have the knowledge necessary to fulfill some meaningful destiny. As Douglass asserts, "Perhaps self-destruction could precipitate its own transformation as grace" (476). Nonetheless, there is no room for such daydreaming within the "punitive ethos" (474) of terrible honesty. If, as Elinor Wylie writes in her poem "One Person," "the ashes of this error shall exhale/ Essential verity" (Wylie 1928/2005), then Helga's story must reveal the necessary truth of the black woman's, the woman's, and the human experience. Question: Do you believe the article author's suggestion that Larsen leaves a potential sliver of hope for the possibility that Helga finds (or may find) some sense of escape from her circumstances? Connect your explanation with a discussion of whether the article author's connection between white modernism and the Harlem Renaissance is valid as applied to Larsen.

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Given how complex Helga is throughout Quicksand, it is completely realistic to see some level of hope in her predicament at the end.  Admittedly, a positive end to Helga's narrative would embrace much in way of a deux et machina.  One would have to assume that Helga has encountered a threshold of revelation, of sorts.  This realization has enabled her to find something substantive to which she can hold in trying to find something better for herself and her children. This ending would repudiate what is the standard read in how Helga sinks further into a deep depression with each one of her children, as she recognizes that age has indeed withered her.  Father Time remains undefeated as the options for escape that presented themselves to Helga earlier in the narrative are now absent. The "sliver of hope" resides in Helga understanding that motherhood forces her to commit to something more substantive and real than anything in the past because she is now living for someone or something else than merely herself.  There can be a hopeful ending if one accepts that "self- destruction could precipitate its own transformation as grace."  In order for this to be accepted, Helga has to "bottom out" so to speak so that her transformation becomes the result of the self- destructive behavior she previously exhibited.  It can only work if Helga recognizes that this is the moment for her life to change.  Certainly, the ending does not close off the notion of a "sliver of hope" and for it to happen, one has to see Helga as doing something she had never done before.

It is not an easy approach, but nothing that Larsen gives in Quicksandis direct and reductive.  Complexity and intricacy are everywhere.  I do think that Larsen develops a characterization in which Helga's condition of color does play a role in her predicament.  In order for Helga's redemption to be realized, Larsen would be advocating the "White American artistic" condition.  Yet, I think that Larsen is painfully aware of the social and psychological destruction that people of color endured in the time period.  Certainly, it existed for her.  In her own life, Larsen does not experience "self- destruction as grace."  Larsen turns her back on the literary community as she gets older, "suffering a period of instability marked by depression and probable alcohol and drug abuse."  While she died listed as a nurse, it was evident that "she had not worked for several months." Larsen's own life mirrors Douglass' own assertion that "silence and withdrawal were the fate of some of the greatest black artists of the 1920s in the Depression and after."  It is in here where the pain of the Harlem Renaissance is evident in Larsen's own being and possibly mirrored in Helga.  She and Helga are the products of both worlds, and thus straddle both realities.  How one sees it is more of a reflection of their own social and political views.  Perhaps it is Larsen's genius to flip the characterization and socio- psychological realities that Helga faces on us, the reader, than anything else. 

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