Need help with a thesis for the book Quicksand by Nella Larsen.

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One of the most compelling themes in Quicksand is the way in which gender (coupled with race) limits Helga's freedom. The men with which Helga becomes involved--James Vayle, Axel Olsen, and the Reverend Green--exploit Helga's gender, each to his own advantage.

James Vayle, the man to whom Helga is engaged...

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One of the most compelling themes in Quicksand is the way in which gender (coupled with race) limits Helga's freedom. The men with which Helga becomes involved--James Vayle, Axel Olsen, and the Reverend Green--exploit Helga's gender, each to his own advantage.

James Vayle, the man to whom Helga is engaged at the start of the novel, tells Helga that

if people like us don't have children, the others will still have. That's one of the things that's the matter with us. The race is sterile at the top. Few, very few Negroes of the better class have children . . . We're the ones who must have the children if the race is to get anywhere (chapter 18).

Here, he plainly views Helga in purely gendered terms: she is a black woman "of the better class" who can produce black children; children who can then help the race "get anywhere." His attraction to her is not a romantic or emotional one: rather, it stems from his purely intellectual and analytic beliefs about ways to "better" the black race. That she is a woman means she has the "machinery" to produce the children he sees as the future. To James, Helga is useful as a biological female being.

After Helga refuses Olsen's marriage offer, Olsen tells her,

You have the warm impulsive nature of the women of Africa, but, my lovely, you have, I fear, the soul of a prostitute. You sell yourself to the highest bidder. I should of course be happy that it is I (chapter 15).

His deliberate use of the word "prostitute" is particularly degrading, for it suggests that Helga "sells" her body to men. Here, Olsen transforms Helga into an economic object, an object that has value because of its femininity and beauty. As an artist, Olsen appreciates beauty and makes money from his portrayals of beauty. Thus, Olsen can exploit Helga's gender for his own economic gain. He does not love her; he wants to "buy" her, as if she is an investment.

Finally, the Reverend Green exploits the stereotypes attached to the female gender to impose expectations on the way Helga will conduct herself. He assumes that she will take joy in cleaning their home, preparing their meals, tending to their garden, and raising their children. He offers Helga no chance to stimulate her intellectual curiosity or to be an independent, self-sufficient woman. When Helga awakens from her illness after giving birth, the Reverend is

standing at the window looking mournfully out at the scorched melon-patch, ruined because Helga had been ill so long and unable to tend it.

That she can't fulfill her duties as a wife and mother render Helga useless to him; he pays no heed to her feelings of entrapment and discontent.

That Helga's gender is used against her, first to reduce her to a "baby making machine," next to consider her an economic object, and lastly to exploit the conventional domestic roles a woman plays, is one of the "quicksands" of the novel. The more Helga tries to claim her identity as a woman, the more that identity slips away from her and comes instead to be defined by men in their relation to her. While Helga seeks freedom in all of these relationships, she ultimately finds herself bound by gendered handcuffs.

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Quicksand tells the story of Helga Crane, a mixed-race woman of both Danish and African American descent who moves to a number of different places throughout the United States and Europe trying to find her place, both physically and emotionally.

A great thesis would be to examine the way in which humans derive their identity through race. Ironically, this hypersensitivity to racial identity actually perpetuates racial disparities like segregation instead of working to fix them.

One of her first stops is at the black boarding school in the South, Naxos. At Naxos, the teachings center on the way African Americans can lift themselves up in order to become assimilated in the supposed desirable white culture. Here, she learns black identity is considered uncultured compared to white identity.

Later, in Copenhagen, Crane becomes supremely desirable due to her exotic race. In the heavily homogenous Copenhagen, it’s interesting for these people to see someone with mixed-race. Previously, she had felt that her half-white side defined her and kept her from completely relating to her black friends. Now, her half-black side is all that defines her. She feels like she is constantly on the outside, trying to force her way in.

This identity crisis continues throughout the novel and ultimately ends poorly as she finds herself in a marriage she cannot stand.

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Absolutely!  I would suggest talking about motherhood in regards to this Modernist work.  How about this:

Pregnancy and motherhood become symbolic of tradition and normalcy in Quicksand.

Of course, you would begin with an introduction about modernism and the changing of women's role in the 20s, but whittle it down to that thesis.  In regards to the body paragraphs, it would be so easy to use Helga's experience in the book to prove your point.

Perhaps the first body paragraph could be about Helga's mother choosing traditional marriage (yes, to a white man) so that Helga could grow up seeing domesticity as the mother's role.  Helga, of course, reacts against this always being "in search for something."  I would say in search of something ELSE.  She begins her escape as an escape from that tradition.  (However, it ends up tethering her just the same.)

Another body paragraph could be Helga's reaction when she finally is a mother.  Her sense of longing for that "something" becomes real.  Instead of something positive, motherhood becomes something negative.  Helga, then, is reacting AGAINST the traditional norms.  You can hear it here, where Helga speaks about birth.

It wasn’t a miracle, a wonder. It was, for Negroes, at least, only a great disappointment. Something to be got through with as best one could.

Finally, another body paragraph could be the tradition feeling like Helga's "trap."  This trap becomes real for Helga. She couldn't escape the traditional female role.  Now she is trapped, tethered, and confined.  Helga cannot escape.  Motherhood is forever.  So is tradition.

In conclusion, you could restate your thesis, and then talk about how interesting it is that tradition is held in a negative light for someone like Helga.  It is the opposite from the usual positive connotation of tradition.

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