Why is the novel called Quicksand?

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Quicksand is loose sand in which water cannot escape. When this occurs, the sand is no longer able to support any weight. Any object which ends up on this surface is then drawn into the sand and stuck. In a worst-case scenario, in which the trapped person moves too violently...

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Quicksand is loose sand in which water cannot escape. When this occurs, the sand is no longer able to support any weight. Any object which ends up on this surface is then drawn into the sand and stuck. In a worst-case scenario, in which the trapped person moves too violently or struggles too much, they will be trapped further and possibly die.

This is an ideal title for Nella Larsen's novel because the protagonist Helga Crane is metaphorically trapped by her identity, which does not fit neatly into any one box. She is biracial, half-black and half-white, and therefore viewed with distrust by both groups. She is an American who travels to Denmark, the ancestral land of her mother, only to be viewed as an exotic object rather than a person both due to her race and her nationality. She is an educated woman in a society that views educated women with mistrust at best. No matter how hard Helga tries to find a place to belong, she never can.

Like a person caught in quicksand, Helga is drawn deeper into her own feelings of alienation and despondency. In the end, she seeks security as the wife of a southern preacher. She is an atheist, and she wants more than to be a homemaker and mother, yet she ends up becoming entrapped in a lifestyle she views with contempt, if only because it gives her a place to belong, even though she is living a lie. When she realizes how much she detests this life, it is too late: she is already the mother of three children and cannot bear to be haunted with the guilt of abandoning them. The metaphorical quicksand in which she found herself has truly claimed Helga by the novel's conclusion.

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Quicksand is defined as wet and loose sand that easily yields to pressure. It has a tendency of sucking in any substance that rests on its surface. Quicksand may also be used to refer to a dangerous situation from which no one can easily escape.

The novel is called quicksand because Helga is in a situation from which she cannot easily emancipate herself. Helga, the main character in the novel, is born of a white mother and a black father. This makes her life quite hard as she does not fully fit into either the black or the white community. Helga spends most of her life seeking acceptance in the society where she lives.

Due to her mixed race background, her engagement to James Vayle is rejected by his family. She however refuses to conform to the racist ideologies of the society where she lives, making her life even harder. It is because of her decision not to conform to such ideologies that she decides to move away from Naxos.

Helga moves to Chicago where she is rejected by her white uncle before moving to Harlem. In Harlem, she encounters black people that are overly obsessed with racial prejudice. When she inherits money from her uncle, she decides to move to Denmark with the intention of transcending stipulated racial conventions. She is however not able to fully achieve her objective, as she refuses to marry a white Danish artist because she did not want to stay away from the "colored people" forever.

Eventually, she goes back to Harlem where she marries Reverend Green and they are blessed with three children. As a result, she realizes that it was no longer possible to move away from the conventions of racial identity and social class. Helga sinks into depression upon realizing that the same problems that she had tried to run away from throughout her life had finally devoured her. Therefore, the title Quicksand is befitting for the novel.

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It's notoriously difficult to escape from quicksand. Once you've been sucked into its deadly grasp, there's a real danger that you'll be pulled beneath the surface, never to see the light of day again. This is a highly appropriate metaphor for how Helga feels. She's trapped in a miserable life, feeling her life-force gradually drain away as she's dragged deeper and deeper into the mire of despondency.

Quicksand is a mixture of sand and water; it's neither one thing nor the other. Again, this is an appropriate metaphor to illustrate Helga's condition as a mixed-race woman in such a deeply prejudiced society. She lacks a stable ethnic identity; she feels neither black nor white. What's more, she is rejected by both whites and blacks alike, making it nigh impossible for her to find acceptance. Developing the metaphor further we can see that society is like quicksand in that Helga constantly has to struggle to free herself from its prejudices and assumptions, to transcend race, to be accepted by society as a human being.

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One reason for the novel's title might be in Helga's condition in the world.  The idea of quicksand is a state of being where one is sinking, being permanently drawn into an unknown point and extraction seems to only worsen the condition.  On the surface, quicksand appears to be intact. Yet, with only a small amount of pressure, it gives way.  

Both articulations of the quicksand concept can apply to Helga.  On one hand, Helga appears very composed.  She is intelligent, by all accounts, beautiful, and insightful about the world.  She holds a global and local perspective about being in the world. In a superficial view, Helga seems to "have it together."  However, in each of the conditions in her narrative, the slightest condition of pressure causes her to capitulate into a being of perpetual dissatisfaction.  As soon as "the storm clouds begin together," Helga is immersed in a condition of self- doubt, unhappiness, and eventual escape.  This consciousness is one in which psychological "quicksand" results, causing her to  never find the happiness for which she yearns.

In another light, Helga's unhappiness has a quicksand quality to it. There is really no end point to it, as it keeps progressing downward as it drags her along with it.  The ending to the narrative in which Helga is pregnant with another child and recognizes that escape from Alabama, unilke Naxos, Chicago, Harlem and Denmark, is not going to happen.  She is dragged into an unknown condition.  Any extraction is futile, only increasing depression as it is a reflection of failure. Like quicksand, the only known is that where she is going is not good.  Helga's characterization is where much of the quicksand concept is evident, making the title quite fitting.

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