Chapters 18–21 Summary

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Chapter 18

Dressing for a party at the Tavenors’, a couple in her social circle, Helga wonders if Anne will be there. Lately Anne has been projecting “a peculiar half-patronizing attitude, mixed faintly with distrust.” Helga knows that Anne no longer approves of her because Helga has “lived too long among the enemy, the detestable pale faces.” 

At the party, Helga is surprised to see James Vayle, her ex-fiancé. She makes a lighthearted comment to him to ease the tension between them, and they find a quiet corner in which to talk. As they discuss the differences between Europe and America, James insists that black people who go abroad almost invariably return to America to live because “we like to be together. I simply can’t imagine living forever away from colored people.” 

Helga learns that James is now the assistant principal at Naxos; he is currently in New York attending to some school-related business. James criticizes Harlem in comparison to the south, finding particular fault with the intermingling of white and black people. Changing topics, James asks Helga if she ever intends to marry. She replies that to her, marriage means children, and having black children means inflicting a life of suffering onto those children. James, horrified by Helga’s logic, argues back that the “Negroes of the better class” must have children in order to help the race progress. He then tells Helga that he intends to propose to her, and she laughingly dismisses him. 

Later that evening, Helga, having found a quiet place to repair a rip in her dress, bumps into Robert Anderson. He “stooped and kissed her, a long kiss, holding her close.” She initially resists, then concedes to the “long-hidden, half-understood desire” that arises in her. When they break apart, Helga feels that “everything seemed to have changed.” In anger, she pushes Dr. Anderson aside, making her way back to the party. 

Chapter 19

Helga awakens the next morning to think through the prior evening’s encounters. Her kiss with Dr. Anderson aroused in her an “ecstasy” she had never before experienced. 

As the weeks pass, and she continues to see Dr. Anderson at social events, a strange silence develops between them. Their kiss, which stirred in Helga an “irrepressible longing,” continues to haunt her. Though it is well past the time she thought she would return to Copenhagen, she feels she cannot leave Harlem until she has explored “to the end that unfamiliar path into which she had strayed.”

Thus, at a Sunday tea, Helga holds out her hand to him, and he takes it. Guiding her to a seat, he talks while she sits silently, hearing nothing until he expresses a desire to see her alone. They arrange to meet at eight o’clock the following evening. 

When they meet, Helga feels overwhelmed by “insistent desire” and is surprised when Dr. Anderson formally apologizes for kissing her at the Tavenors’ party. Her sense of elation fades. To maintain her own dignity, she pretends the kiss meant nothing to her. Relieved, Dr. Anderson rises to leave when suddenly Helga, overtaken by “a sort of madness” and feeling “belittled” and “ridiculed,” slaps him forcefully on the face. For a moment, they stare at one another, stunned; then, wordlessly, Helga turns and leaves.

That night, Helga tries to convince herself that Dr. Anderson deserved the slap, but she continues to feel as if “she had ruined everything. And now she had forfeited it forever.” As if she’s having an epiphany, Helga suddenly understands what “forever” means, and the word leaves “an endless stretch of dreary years before her appalled...

(This entire section contains 1065 words.)

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Chapter 20 

The “blow to her self-esteem” that Helga suffers from Dr. Anderson continues to fester. It is the evening of the next day when she finally leaves her room, walking the streets underdressed for the pouring rain and whipping wind. Sopping wet, she takes refuge in a store, and a moment passes before she realizes that the people have made the store a kind of makeshift chapel are singing about “showers of blessings.” The absurdity of the situation causes Helga to sit “down on the floor, a dripping heap, and [laugh].” The people stop singing and help Helga to a seat before resuming their music. As the voices sing, Helga begins to loudly weep, causing the crowd to clap, shout, and stomp with the song. Slowly, Helga understands that the people, observing her manner of dress and assuming she is a prostitute, are praying for her “lost soul.” 

Contemptuous of the people yet amused by the spectacle, Helga watches the congregation’s performance as if she is “observing rites of a remote obscure origin” while the crowd makes its “wild appeal for a single soul. Her soul.” Slowly, Helga begins to feel that same “madness” she is witnessing and, scared by its intensity, makes an effort to leave. Weakly, she stands, then falls forward against a railing, “and in that moment she was lost—or saved.” As the crowd surrounds her, she too begins “to yell like one insane… while torrents of tears streamed down her face,” and she repeatedly asks God to have mercy on her. The congregation’s frenzy reaches a peak as the people pull their hair, crawl on their knees, and stretch their arms towards Helga.

Then, the moment of Helga’s “saving” crystallizes: “A miraculous calm came upon her.” The crowd quiets, and Helga desires nothing but “simple happiness.” 

Chapter 21

A man from the congregation introduces himself as Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green and walks Helga home. Buoyed by the intense feelings that have swept her over the course of the evening, she feels a growing—albeit unexpected—attraction to Mr. Green, and they hold onto each other as they walk, each of them swaying and somewhat stumbling. Drawn to the evening’s intimations of religious rapture and disturbed by the fear that “she herself had perhaps missed the supreme secret of life,” Helga decides to sleep with Mr. Green. 

The next morning, she questions if religion is really the reason she feels “this rest from her long trouble of body and of spirit.” Clutching at the hope that “she had found some One, some Power, who was interested in her. Would help her,” Helga decides that she will make the practical decision to marry Mr. Green—today, if possible—for he represents “stability [and] permanent happiness.”


Chapters 15–17 Summary


Chapters 22–25 Summary