Chapters 15–17 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1011

Chapter 15

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During her second year in Denmark, the restlessness that drove Helga first from Naxos and then from New York descends on her yet again, and she begins to wonder if she’s incapable of the contentment that other people seem to find. When Helga receives a letter from Anne announcing her upcoming nuptials to Anderson and inviting Helga to attend, Helga’s dissatisfaction amplifies. To “go back to America, where they hated Negroes” strikes Helga as absurd. 

Soon after receiving Anne’s letter, Helga attends the circus with Axel Olsen. They are bored with the show and ready to leave when suddenly “out upon the stage pranced two black men” who “danced and cavorted [and] sang in the English of America an old rag-time song that Helga remembered hearing as a child.” As the men’s act goes on, “the enchanted spectators clapped and howled and shouted for more,” but Helga feels a “fierce hatred” for the performers. The vulnerability she feels, as though the crowd has been “invited to look upon something in her which she had hidden away and wanted to forget,” shames her. 

Later that evening, with time alone to think and reflect, Helga determines that the Danes have always seen in her that characteristic that is “different from any that they themselves possessed,” but rather than despise it, they “rated it as a precious thing, a thing to be enhanced, preserved,” though Helga—and black people in general, she thinks—try to hide this otherness. Repeatedly drawn back to the circus, Helga watches the vaudeville act as an “ironical and silently speculative spectator.” 

Axel Olsen asks Helga to marry him. Though she has long desired for him to propose, she now feels repugnance and is astonished that her earlier self had desired this match, for she “intensely [dislikes] him.” Olsen tells Helga that, “poor artist that [he is],” he is “lured” by her: “You disturb me. The longing for you does harm to my work.” Believing that he is complimenting her, Olsen continues to offend her: “I didn’t want to love you, but I had to… You have the warm impulsive nature of the women of Africa, but the soul of a prostitute. You sell yourself to the highest bidder. I should of course be happy that it is I.” 

Past caring for the consequences, Helga refuses Olsen’s proposal: “I’m not for sale. Not to you. Not to any white man. I don’t at all care to be owned.” Continuing in her frankness, and wanting to make sure Olsen fully understands her, Helga adds, “I couldn’t marry a white man… It’s racial.” Referring to his painting of Helga, Olsen responds, “I think that my picture of you is, after all, the true Helga Crane. Therefore, a tragedy.” Olsen takes his leave, and when the portrait does arrive, Helga decides the piece is not representative of her, but rather “some disgusting sensual creature with her features.”


Chapter 16

The Dahls are disappointed in Helga for refusing Axel Olsen’s proposal, and Olsen himself disappears from Copenhagen society, taking refuge in the Balkans. The Dahls had hoped that Helga’s engagement to Olsen would “secure the link between the merely fashionable set to which they belonged and the artistic one after which they hankered,” and thus they are let down by their neice who, “for some idiotic reason connected with race,” denied the offer.

As life settles back into its routine of “dinners, coffees, theaters, pictures, music, and clothes,” Helga finds that her “nagging aching for America” increases. Perpetually aware of her aunt and uncle’s disappointment in her, and thinking increasingly of Anne’s letter, Helga begins to entertain thoughts of returning to America—though “only [for] a visit, of course.” After attending a concert at which “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was played, Helga realizes that what she’s homesick for is not America itself, “but for Negroes.” This nostalgia helps her better understand her father’s abandonment of her mother, for it speaks to the “need for those things, not material, indigenous to all Negro environments.” Feeling alienated and alone among all the “pale serious faces,” Helga forgives her father, and “it was as if in this understanding and forgiving she had come upon knowledge of almost sacred importance.”

The Dahls readily accept Helga’s announcement that she will go back to America for a brief visit and return to Copenhagen in the fall. On her departure day, Helga wonders why a person can’t live two lives. She further wonders why she can’t ever seem to be satisfied living in one place. Standing on the ship deck, Helga waves goodbye to her European life. 


Chapter 17

Summer has passed and fall has begun, and Helga is still in New York, though no longer living with Anne. Anne is now a married woman, and she has recognized the attraction Dr. Anderson feels towards Helga. Though Helga had intended only to briefly visit New York before returning to Copenhagen, she finds herself happier now that she is “surrounded by hundreds, thousands, of dark-eyed brown folk,” and thus she decides to remain in Harlem. Helga is aware, however, that Harlem is not perfect, either. There is something in the place that is “too uncertain, too cruel; something not to be endured for a lifetime if one could escape.” Considering the differences between her life in Copenhagen and her life in Harlem, Helga conceptually divides her life into “two parts in two lands, into physical freedom in Europe and spiritual freedom in America.” The division strikes her as ridiculous, for it necessitates a lifetime of transience and impermanence.

Helga’s attitude of superiority continues to distance her from the black people who seem content to pledge patriotism to America, yet when she considers returning to Copenhagen, she rejects this idea, blaming Axel Olsen for the unhappiness she felt in Denmark. She begins to question why she rejected his proposal, even though she knows “in her soul” that she could never marry a white man.

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