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