Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1001
On the boat to Denmark, Helga happily leaves behind her life in New York, firm in her conviction that she didn’t belong there. When the bell rings for dinner, she is for a moment nervous to enter the dining room, until the purser—or steward—remembers her as “the little...
(The entire section contains 1001 words.)
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On the boat to Denmark, Helga happily leaves behind her life in New York, firm in her conviction that she didn’t belong there. When the bell rings for dinner, she is for a moment nervous to enter the dining room, until the purser—or steward—remembers her as “the little dark girl who had crossed with her mother years ago” and puts her at ease.
The ship’s crossing is smooth and the people are kind. Helga finds herself remembering the Danish she spoke so easily as a child, and she spends much of her time on deck, “reveling like a released bird in her returned feeling of happiness and freedom, that blessed sense of belonging to herself alone and not to a race.” She feels that she has left behind her time in New York, with the exception of her encounters with Dr. Anderson, who continues to figure in her thoughts. She briefly considers that she might be in love with him, but she quickly dismisses the idea as humiliating and impossible.
As the ship docks in Copenhagen, Helga wonders if her escape to Europe was perhaps a poor idea. The memory of Uncle Peter’s wife’s rejection of her, and concerns about how her aunt’s husband might respond to her, cause her to doubt herself. Overwhelmed by the crowd that has gathered to welcome the passengers to land, Helga worries how she will even find her aunt in the throng. Fortunately, her eyes alight on a woman whose “resemblance to [Helga’s] own mother was unmistakable.” The woman is accompanied by her husband, Fru Dahl, and the couple welcomes Helga warmly. There is much laughter and chatter, and thus Helga begins her new life in Copenhagen.
Aunt Katrina and Fru Dahl are wealthy, and Helga easily adapts to their life of luxury. She feels at home surrounded by beautiful things, knowing that “this was her proper setting.”
After a post-arrival nap, Helga awakens to find her aunt is arranging for them to go out to tea. Going through Helga’s clothing, Katrina tells Helga that she must wear bright and exotic colors in order to “make an impression.” Katrina is determined to use her niece to advance “the social fortunes of the Dahls of Copenhagen,” and she promises Helga that they’ll go shopping to acquire a more colorful wardrobe. Helga has a few moments of doubt. Her own aesthetic tastes are subtle and refined, and so she worries that her aunt might bedeck her in “flaunting flashy things.” As Helga walks on the street, earning stares from passersby, she feels “like a veritable savage,” though Fru and Herr Dahl ignore the pedestrians’ reactions.
The tea goes well, as does dinner later, but Helga feels like “some new strange species of pet dog being proudly exhibited.” The dress she wears exposes much more skin than any other woman in the room, though Helga enjoys the male attention that falls on her. The women are unthreatened, for Helga “was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them. She didn’t count at all.”
Towards the evening’s end, a new guest, Axel Olsen, an artist, arrives. After he is introduced to Helga, he stares at her for an extended period of time, making Helga uncomfortable under his gaze. He addresses no words to her directly, but murmurs adjectives describing her appearance. Eventually, she learns that Olsen paints portraits, and Fru Dahl has commissioned the artist to paint her. Helga finds it funny that “here she was, a curiosity, a stunt, at which people came and gazed.” It’s startling to her that, after an entire life looking after herself, she is suddenly completely under the care of Aunt Katrina and Herr Dahl. Unsure of how she feels about this shift in her independence, she goes to bed thinking how very different Denmark is from America.
Olsen accompanies Helga and Katrina on their shopping excursion the next day, and Helga is awed by his “stupendous arrogance.” Seeing her status as “a decoration. A curio. A peacock” firmly established, Helga allows Olsen to select her new clothes and Katrina to pay for them. Excited by the strikingly colorful wardrobe she now owns, Helga is “incited to make an impression” and gives herself up “wholly to the fascinating business of being seen, gaped at, desired.” Her ego relishes this newfound self-importance. Ensconced in her European life, she resolves “never to return to the existence of ignominy which the New World of opportunity and promise forced upon Negroes.” In fact, rarely do her thoughts turn to America.
The charm of Copenhagen wins Helga over, and she spends many hours walking and exploring her new home and marveling at the “general air of well-being which pervaded it.” Her long walks are balanced by lively dinner parties or afternoon coffees in which the conversation is bright and she basks in the admiration of others. Though she misses dancing, she finds enjoyment in ice skating.
Axel Olsen has now become a fixture in Helga’s life. They see each other regularly, for Olsen is painting Helga’s portrait, and he seems to take “delight in her exotic appearance.” He makes no insinuations of love or intentions of marriage, but Helga wonders if it is “race that kept him silent, held him back.”
When Aunt Katrina brings up the subject of marriage when they are at coffee at one afternoon, Helga tells Katrina that she doesn’t “believe in mixed marriages… They brought only trouble—to the children—as she herself knew but too well from bitter experience.” She asks her aunt if she agrees that “miscegenation [is] wrong, in fact as well as principle,” a question Katrina brushes away by redirecting the topic of conversation to Axel Olsen and insinuating that Helga should consider marrying Herr Olsen. Fru Fischer arrives and interrupts the conversation between aunt and niece, leaving Helga feeling cold and disturbed.