Nella Larsen was not the most prolific African American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, but she was considered to be among its most promising. In fact, W. E. B. Du Bois characterized Quicksand as the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the heyday of [Charles Waddell] Chesnutt.” Early critics considered Larsen one of the “rear guard” of the Harlem Renaissance, those middle-class writers who were interested in placing the best foot of the race forward, but with the burgeoning interest in African American literature and the rise of African American feminist criticism since the 1970’s, Larsen’s work has undergone significant reexamination and reevaluation. Her novels are deemed as modernist, particularly in their orientation toward the psychological, their narrative complexity, and their use of symbolism. Characterizing Larsen’s fiction are issues of race, gender, and class expressed through themes of identity, marriage, and motherhood. Elements of Larsen’s life are also present in her novels.
Lines from Langston Hughes’s poem “Cross” serve as the opening epigraph to Quicksand; however, a number of critics, including Cheryl Wall, have argued that the plight of the mulatto is not the central theme of the novel. Quicksand does not meet the conventions of the tragic mulatto story as presented by black or white novelists, as Helga Crane is the product of a white mother and a black father, and her crisis of identity is not so much linked to race as it is to gender—her sexuality—or character. As Arthur P. Davis asserts, it is the cross that Helga carries that is problematic.
Having a spirit of restlessness, Helga is in constant flight. Deciding in Naxos not to marry James Vayle, Helga escapes to Chicago to visit her maternal uncle. Refused refuge by his new wife, she goes to New York, where she interacts with the middle-class society of Harlem. Becoming dissatisfied and feeling out of place, she travels to Denmark to visit her maternal aunt and husband. Viewed as an exotic there, she is first propositioned and then proposed to by a painter, Axel Olsen. Spurning him on the basis of race, she returns to New York, where she again meets Dr. Robert Anderson, the former principal of Naxos. Perhaps misinterpreting a kiss, Helga acknowledges and is prepared to pursue her interest in him although he is now is married. When he apologizes for his action, she becomes distraught and runs out into a drenching rain. She seeks shelter by entering a storefront church, is caught up in the religious fervor, and experiences a conversion. The next day, she marries the visiting minister, the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green, and the two of them move to rural Alabama. Helga appears satisfied for a while, but her restlessness eventually returns; at the time, she has barely recovered from the birth of her fourth child and is pregnant with the fifth.
Because of Helga’s travels, Quicksand is informed by the journey motif; the reason for Helga’s travels is open to interpretation. Some have suggested that Helga’s flight is from her sexual self. Although she was engaged to James Vayle, her flight from Naxos may have been sparked by Dr. Anderson’s comment about her being a lady; although other reasons are present, Olsen’s proposal triggers her fleeing from Denmark. Marriage is yet another factor. Having rejected promising...
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