Quicksand Summary

Quicksand, by Nella Larsen, is a 1928 coming-of-age novel about a young biracial woman navigating the inhospitable worlds of America and Denmark.

  • Helga Crane is a teacher at Naxos, a school whose strict atmosphere repels her.
  • Helga moves to Harlem, where she embraces a cosmopolitan community but grows disillusioned by their rigid ideas about race.
  • Helga travels to Denmark to live with relatives; she enjoys their lavish lifestyle but chafes at the Danes’ exoticizing view of her.
  • Back in New York, Helga marries a southern reverend and becomes a housewife, a fate she soon deplores.

Introduction

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779

“Helga Crane sat alone in her room, which at that hour, eight in the evening, was in soft gloom.” These opening lines anticipate both the plot and characterization of Nella Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand (1928). The protagonist, Helga Crane, is a lonely, isolated woman whose life does become one of gloom. Helga is of mixed race; her mother is white and her father is black. Helga’s father abandons his wife and infant daughter and Helga’s mother soon remarries a white man. Helga now has a white stepfamily. The dark-skinned Helga grows up ostracized by both whites and blacks, surviving a lonely childhood only to spend her adult life continuing to seek acceptance wherever she goes.

When the novel begins, Helga is a twenty-two-year-old school teacher at Naxos, a Negro boarding school. Finding herself both frustrated by the complacent attitudes of the blacks in Naxos towards racism and unfulfilled as a teacher, Helga decides to leave Naxos and her fiancé, fellow teacher James Vayle, who is black. James’ family does not approve of the match because of Helga’s mixed ancestry. “Negro society,” Helga decides, is “as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society.” This proves true in Helga’s life, for as she travels from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark, she does not fit in anywhere. When she lives among blacks, she longs to experience the white side of her soul; but when she lives among whites, she misses being around black people.

In Chicago, her white uncle rejects her. She moves to Harlem, but there she finds a well-established and cultured black middle class full of hypocrites and obsessed with racial issues. All Helga wants to do is transcend race, but she is unable to do so either in black or white society.

Helga inherits a good deal of money from her mother’s brother. This enables her to move to Denmark where she is welcomed by her white relatives. The Danes, however, go beyond mere acceptance of the beautiful young woman, treating Helga as an exquisite and exotic beauty. In Denmark, she is a supra-being, not a fellow being. “[I]t’s hard to explain,” she states when refusing the marriage proposal of a celebrated white Danish artist who is in love with her. “I simply can’t imagine living forever away from colored people.”

Helga returns to Harlem. Plunging into depression, she wanders the streets on a windy, rainy night and finds herself drawn into a charismatic church, where she finds God. She also finds her husband, the “fattish yellow man who had sat beside her” and converted her. Helga seduces and marries the Reverend Green and moves with him back to the South, completing the journey on which she embarked years before. Helga is ill-suited to the life of a rural black preacher’s wife. At first, however, she delves into her new role with enthusiasm, determined to be a good wife, determined to be happy. Eventually she awakens from the initial reverie of her conversion experience. She has three children very close together, who “use her up.” She seeks help from the black women of the church, asking them how they cope with being tired all the time. The black women are dumbfounded that the preacher’s wife would ask such a thing. Just make the best of it, they urge her. The novel ends with the once exotic, beautiful, intelligent Helga lapsing into depression, conquered by the “quicksand” of racial identity, social class and sexism that she has spent a lifetime trying to overcome.

Both this novel and Nella Larsen’s second novel, Passing, reflect the author’s own quest for acceptance. “You can probably get a pretty good idea of Nella Larsen’s personality from the depiction of her alter ego, Helga Crane, in Quicksand,” says T. N. R. Rogers in his introduction to the novel. Larsen was born in Chicago in 1891. Her mother was white and her father was black. Her mother remarried a white Danish man with whom she already had a white daughter who was one year old when they married. Larsen’s biographer, Thadious M. Davis, believes Larsen was sent to live in a shelter and eventually found her way to Denmark to live with relatives for a while before returning to New York where she became a prominent and respected voice in the Harlem Renaissance literary movement of the 1920s and 1930s.

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While this is a difficult and ultimately depressing novel, it is also a powerful portrayal of the suffocating disillusionment and entrapment experienced by racial minorities during the time in which it was written.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2970

Naxos
Quicksand is the story of Helga Crane, a beautiful, intelligent, and cultivated bi-racial woman. As the story begins, Helga is sitting in her room thinking. She is twenty-two and teaches at Naxos, “the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country, north or south.” Helga is planning her exodus from Naxos. She plans to move to Chicago, where she was born and where her Uncle Peter lives. She is frustrated by the complacency of the Naxos Negroes, who are too eager to embrace the words of a white preacher (“that holy white man of God”) who has told them what good examples they are because they know their place. Life in Naxos has become intolerable. Helga feels trapped. She is engaged to be married, but even that does not excite her. Her fiancé, fellow teacher James Vayle, fits in at Naxos, Helga admits, whereas she does not. Helga decides that after she resigns her teaching job she will break her engagement with James. His well-established Atlanta family does not approve of her mixed ancestry and most likely will be relieved. James’ social background had once attracted Helga, but now she cannot envision herself married to him. Negro society, she believes, is “as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society.”

Helga meets with the headmaster, Dr. Anderson, who pleads with her to stay. He points out what a good example she can be to the students. Helga assures him, however, that she is not, as he has supposed, “of good stock” but rather the product of a black gambler and white immigrant mother who most likely were never married. Helga was abandoned by her black father when she was very young and her white mother remarried a white Danish man with whom she had several other white children. The dark-skinned Helga grew up lonely and isolated, fitting in with neither whites nor blacks. “I don’t belong here,” she assures Dr. Anderson. Indeed, she does not belong there; but where does she belong?

On the train to Chicago, Helga reminisces about her childhood. She does not blame her passionate mother for remarrying someone of her own race after being abandoned by “that gay, suave scoundrel, Helga’s father.” She claims to understand that her mother needed to survive and provide for her as a child, even though she was an “unloved little negro girl.” She recalls how her mother died when she was 15 and how her mother’s brother, Helga’s Uncle Peter, had paid for her to go to school—a school for Negroes—where she was happy for a while. Among blacks, Helga felt that she finally could breathe freely. As she matured, however, she developed new feelings of isolation. She found she did not totally fit in at the Negro school either. She was happier, she recalls, but still lonely. She had hoped that by accepting a teaching position at Naxos she would finally find acceptance, but she sadly concludes that she is still suffering from a “discontent for which there was no remedy.” Maybe Chicago will be better.

Chicago
Helga arrives in “gray Chicago” hopeful that returning to the city of her birth will release her from the cage that Naxos had become. She is met at Uncle Peter’s door by his new wife, a hostile, bigoted woman who informs Helga that she is not technically Peter’s niece, since her parents obviously were not married. She coldly informs Helga that while Uncle Peter has been very kind to her in the past, supporting her and sending her to school, Helga should not expect anything more. Devastated, Helga hurries away as Uncle Peter’s wife reminds her, “Please remember that my husband is not your uncle. No indeed! Why, that, that would make me your aunt!”

Helga secures a room at the YWCA and decides to apply for a job in Chicago. Although well educated, she is willing to accept any type of work, but without references the employment agencies cannot help her. She begins to run out of money. Just as she is about to succumb to her panic, she receives a note from an employment agency indicating that they may have a position for her. A Mrs. Hayes-Rore is seeking an intelligent young woman as a traveling companion to help with a speech as she travels to New York City.

Helga learns that Mrs. Hayes-Rore is a wealthy black woman, a widow whose husband not only left her his money but also his prestige. Mrs. Hayes-Rore is prominent in the Negro Women’s League of Clubs and is often called upon to give speeches. Helga quickly and skillfully polishes the speech while toying with the idea of remaining in New York once they arrive. En route, Helga unfolds her life story to Mrs. Hayes-Rore. Helga confesses that she has been thinking about leaving Chicago. It is too lonely. She does not fit in. Maybe New York will be better.

New York—Harlem
Mrs. Hayes-Rore offers to help Helga find a position in New York. She is well-connected there, she tells Helga. She sends Helga to her friend, Anne Grey, warning Helga not to mention that her people are white. “Colored people won’t understand it,” she warns. Helga finds a good position with an insurance company and Anne takes Helga under her wing, introducing her to “people with tastes and ideas similar to her own.” Anne and Helga become good friends. Anne’s people share Helga’s contempt for Naxos and what it represents—subservient, complacent black people. Anne invites Helga to move in with her and share her financially independent, well-connected life. At first, Helga flourishes in New York. Her job keeps her busy during the day. Her nights are filled with parties, the theater, art museums, books, shops and restaurants. The Harlem lifestyle stimulates her and she believes she finally is free from the “hostile white folk in Chicago” and the “snobbish black folk in Naxos.”

Helga’s happiness does not last. She soon feels restless and trapped again. Her doctor suggests a brief change of scenery, but Helga has tried that to no avail. She begins to withdraw from her circle of friends. She finds herself increasingly annoyed with Anne, who seems to be obsessed with racial issues. She decides that Anne is a hypocrite who often voices her hatred for white people yet simultaneously mimics their “clothes, their manners and their gracious ways of living.” Anne’s inconsistencies regarding race at first irk Helga, but soon she finds she has developed a seething contempt for Anne.

At this point in the story, Dr. Anderson from Naxos reappears. Helga is attending a speech given by a noted Negro physician and notices with surprise that Dr. Anderson happens to be seated next to her. They visit with each other after the speech, promising to renew their acquaintance. The observant Dr. Anderson tells Helga, “You haven’t changed. You’re still seeking for something, I think.” Helga has conflicting feelings about Dr. Anderson. She cannot decide if she wants to be with him or not. Her physical attraction for him scares her, so she foists him off on Anne. From Anne, Helga learns that Dr. Anderson has been fired from Naxos for being too liberal and lenient. He now lives in New York and works for a large manufacturing company as a welfare worker.

Helga’s feelings of being smothered intensify. She soon finds Harlem unbearable. Where has this overwhelming rebellious spirit come from, she wonders? She conc ludes that it has come from being shut up in close proximity with black folks for too long. She must escape. Providentially, one day she receives a letter from Uncle Peter, apologizing for his wife’s treatment of her. The letter contains a check for $5,000, a sum which Uncle Peter says he planned to give her upon his death, but which is more convenient for him to give to her now. “Why,” she asks herself, “should she be yoked to these despised black folk?” She does not fit in. Perhaps if she uses Uncle Peter’s money and moves to Europe, she can escape the quicksand that Harlem has become. Maybe Denmark will be better.

Denmark
Helga attends a party and notices that Dr. Anderson seems captivated by a beautiful and rich black woman, Audrey Denney. Helga recalls that Anne does not approve of Audrey because she thinks she is better than the Negroes of Harlem. Realizing there is no future for her with Dr. Anderson, Helga confirms her decision to visit her aunt in Copenhagen. She recalls pleasant memories of visiting Denmark with her mother as an eight-year-old child. Aunt Katrina had asked Helga’s mother to leave the little girl there, but her mother had refused. Surely Aunt Katrina would now welcome Helga’s visit. Helga sails to Denmark with no regrets as she leaves Harlem behind. “No, she hadn’t belonged there,” she tells herself. The voyage is enjoyable and Helga relishes her role as the beautiful, liberated black girl on her way to Denmark for an adventure. Her aunt and uncle welcome her and Helga begins a new life once again.

Denmark is delightful. The Danes lavish attention on the beautiful, exotic black woman. Helga decides “This, then, was where she belonged.” Here, her wounds of the past would heal. Her aunt and uncle introduce her to their people. She attends the theater and endless parties, lavishly attired in the most beautiful gowns, paid for by Aunt Katrina (Fru Dahl). Her uncle, Herr Dahl, buys her expensive jewelry to compliment the gowns. Helga is the center of attention wherever she goes, and she goes everywhere. She is introduced to the fascinating Danish artist, Axel Olsen, who wants to paint her. Helga allows her aunt and uncle arrange her life, and they parade her around Copenhagen like an exquisite doll. Helga is determined to leave behind the “griefs, the humiliations, the frustrations” of America. She spends hours exploring Copenhagen. She absorbs the city’s excitement, relishes the tempting pastries and delicious sandwiches and experiences for the first time the exhilaration of ice skating. She becomes fascinated with Axel Olsen as well. He is unlike any man she has ever known—“brilliant, bored, elegant, urbane, cynical, worldly.” Olsen is interested in Helga as well.

Helga’s aunt and uncle begin to suggest she consider marriage. Captain Frederick Skaargaard is handsome and rich. Herr Karl Pedersen comes for a well-respected family. Then there is Christian Lende, who owns the theatre. Any one of these would be a good match. Helga protests that they are all white. Aunt Katrina assures her that this is no problem for the enlightened Danes. “We don’t think of those things here. Not in connection with individuals, at least,” she tells Helga.

Helga has been in Denmark for two years when the storm clouds begin to gather again. What is the matter with her, she wonders? The familiar restlessness reappears. Is she incapable of being happy? One day, Helga receives a letter from Anne in New York. Anne is to marry Dr. Anderson and wants Helga to return for the wedding. “Go back to America, where they hated Negroes!” Helga decides she will not go back for such an absurd thing as a wedding. She soon changes her mind. One night, she attends a circus with some friends. Her friends are bored until two black men appear on the stage. They dance and sing rag-time Negro songs that plunge Helga back to her childhood. The Danes find the black men fascinating, but Helga is horrified. Is this how they view her—as something exotic and entertaining? She realizes that she is not a fellow human being in Denmark either. She is a type of supra-human being, admired, pampered, but not one of them. The black dancers are strangely compelling. She returns to the circus over and over again. Her Negro soul is calling to her. When Axel Olson proposes marriage soon after, she refuses, assuring him that it is nothing personal. “It’s broader than that. It’s racial.” She explains, “You see, I couldn’t marry a white man. I simply couldn’t.

Helga’s “nagging aching for America” increases. One night, while listening to Dvorak’s New World Symphony, in which she hears the strains of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, Helga realizes that she is homesick, not for America “...but for Negroes. That’s the trouble,” she concludes. She must leave Denmark. She does not fit in. Maybe Harlem will be better.

New York—Harlem
Helga returns to Harlem. She tells her aunt and uncle that she will return to Denmark after Anne’s wedding. Anne marries Dr. Anderson and Helga moves out of Anne’s house and into a hotel to allow the married couple some privacy. Although she soon grows a little bored and becomes a little restless, she stays in New York. Harlem’s “comic tragedy” has a hold on her. These are her people, she tells herself, thankful that she might not have realized this if she had not gone to Denmark. Helga is still conflicted, however. A divided life is her reality. She is physically free in Europe, but spiritually free in America.

Helga soon senses that Anne has come to resent her. Anne believes that Helga has lived too long among whites and has become the enemy. At a party one night, Helga finally asks to be introduced to the beautiful Audrey Denney, almost to spite Anne, who believes Audrey and Helga are birds of a feather. At this same party, Helga is surprised to see her former fiancé, James Vayle. James, now an assistant principal at Naxos, is in New York for school business. James tells Helga that he, too, has been in Europe, in the war. He has experienced the different treatment of blacks in Europe, yet he was compelled to return to America, in spite of its prejudices. Helga asks him why. He replies in much the same way as she did when she refused Axel Olsen’s proposal: “I’m afraid it’s hard to explain,” James tells her, “but I suppose it’s just that we like to be together. I simply can’t imagine living forever away from colored people.” Helga protests, “I’m a Negro too, you know,” but James is not so sure. “You were always a little different, a little dissatisfied....”

Helga retires to an upstairs room at the party to repair her hem. When she emerges, she encounters Dr. Anderson, who grabs her and kisses her. She resists at first, but eventually succumbs. They embrace passionately, but Helga recovers herself and flees downstairs. In the days and weeks that follow, Helga again is overcome by emotions that she does not understand. She encounters Dr. Anderson at various social events, even dances with him. She forces herself not to speak to him, but he finally insists on seeing her alone. Still attracted to Dr. Anderson, Helga anticipates that he may want to encourage a relationship with her. When they meet, however, he apologizes to her for the kiss. Confused and not knowing how to react, Helga slaps him. She realizes that with this slap, she has cut off all possibilities of a future relationship with Dr. Anderson. This realization plunges her into a deep depression.

While wandering distraught one windy and rainy night, Helga stumbles into a charismatic church, drawn by the music. She is caught up in the spirit of the worship and “gets saved.” A preacher who has been sitting next to her, the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green, walks her home and they sleep together. She then marries the Reverend and follows him to rural Alabama to “labor in the vineyard of the Lord.” She no longer belongs in New York, she decides. Maybe in Alabama things will be better.

Alabama
Helga embraces yet another new life with relish. As the preacher’s wife, she is respected. At last, she reasons, she has found a place for herself. She has truly changed. She has found God. Life is difficult, but Helga is determined to work hard, to remain humble. She keeps busy. She has a home to keep now, a garden, chickens, pigs and a husband. She tries to convince herself that it does not matter that her husband does not bathe often, does not change his clothing, makes strange sounds while chewing his food, and is fat. His good qualities outweigh the bad, she reasons. She soon has three children—twin boys and a little girl, all less than twenty months old. She grows weary and fatigued. She seeks counsel from the other church women. They assure her that this is just the way it is, that they are all tired, and that she will get used to it. “We must accept what God sends,” they encourage her. Helga gives birth a third time, but the child is sickly and dies a week later. Helga becomes gravely ill and, once again, depressed. The church folk rally around her and nurse her back to health. When she finally regains her health, she realizes that life “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.” She cannot even blame God, she decides, because she knows now that he does not exist.

Helga grows to detest her husband. She contemplates leaving him, but she does not want to desert her children. She does not want them to have a childhood worse than her own. She decides to wait a little longer. Perhaps she will be able to leave Alabama when she feels stronger. But Helga is once again pregnant.

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