Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991
After marrying Mr. Green, she moves with him to the “tiny Alabama town” where he works as a pastor. As has become Helga’s habit, she finds the novelty of a new place fascinating at first. She also becomes a devout Christian. Her new hometown is poor, and Helga feels “anxious to be a true helpmate, for in her heart was a feeling of obligation, of humble gratitude.” She feels truly changed.
Helga becomes easily swept up in the details of her new life: maintaining her house and garden, caring for her chickens and pig, being a wife to her husband, and serving God. For a time, “she loved everything and everyone.”
Inevitably, dissatisfaction creeps in: Mr. Green chews loudly, and his fingernails are always dirty, and he rarely bathes or changes his clothes. However, Helga convinces herself that the things she likes about her husband outweigh the annoyances. Importantly, he satisfies Helga’s physical needs in love; each night “a vitality so strong” rises within her, “[devouring] all shoots of reason.”
Helga’s great plans to improve the quality of life in the town have stalled because she always feels ill. Having given birth to three children in twenty months—twin boys and a girl—Helga constantly feels weak and ill.
Mr. Green has lost interest in their physical relationship and is dismissive of Helga’s complaints. Seeing Helga’s apparent descent into slovenliness, the other townswomen begin inviting the reverend to dine with them so that he doesn’t have to live in a dirty house with unbathed children and an unkempt wife.
Finding motherhood to be “almost unendurable,” Helga asks women in the town how they manage to fulfill their duties. The women tell Helga that motherhood is a natural thing for women to do and that she should make the best of it in order to be rewarded in the next world. Helga feels ashamed that motherhood overwhelms her so, and she vows to be more patient.
Helga becomes increasingly reliant on God. The townspeople see Helga’s strengthening faith, warm to her, and praise her stoical nature. Helga is pregnant again, and she believes that God will protect her.
Helga’s labor lasts two days, and when the child is finally delivered, Helga shows “no manifestation of interest” in the baby. She rests in bed for a week, not eating and ignoring all visitors. Mr. Green holds a prayer session for her, yet despite the parishioners’ beseeching, moaning, and crying, Helga is “undisturbed… Nothing penetrated the kind darkness into which her bruised spirit had retreated.”
A white doctor attends to her, a nurse arrives to care for her, and the children go to stay with the neighbors. It is several weeks before Helga stirs in bed. In the tranquility of her extended rest, she sees visions of the major figures of her life move by: her mother, Robert Anderson, Anne Grey, Axel Olsen, Audrey Denney, James Vayle, Mrs. Hayes-Rore, and the Dahls. It was “refreshingly delicious” for Helga to revisit the past, for she finds the present “disagreeable.” In the time she lay silent, “the luster of religion had vanished; revulsion had come upon her; she hated [her husband].” She has lost her faith in God because when she called on him during the suffering of her labor, “He had not heard” because “He wasn’t there. Didn’t exist.” She has also realized that life, “for Negroes at least, [was] only a great disappointment. Something to be got through with as best one could.”
In her disillusioned state, Helga realizes that she herself is to blame for the situation in...
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which she now finds herself, and she mourns that she’s brought children into “this vicious, this hypocritical land.”
A few days later, Helga learns that the baby “had died after a short week of slight living.” In response, she feels a “gleam of relief,” reasoning that there is one fewer black person in America who will live a life of suffering.
On Sunday, her husband tells her that he is holding a special thanksgiving service to celebrate her recovery, and Helga merely smiles in response, knowing the prayers will not be heard. When Helga hears the voices from the service floating through the window, she asks the nurse to read. As the nurse reads her a story, Helga drifts off to sleep.
Helga’s long period of bedrest has provided ample time for her to think, and that thinking resulted in her realization that “she had ruined her life.” She wishes she could still take shelter in religion, for “it blunted the perceptions” of the cold, cruel truths of reality. Indeed, she determines that “this fatuous belief in the white man’s God” is what ails “the whole Negro race in America.”
Helga decides that she has to “get herself out of this bog into which she had strayed. Or—she would have to die.” To encourage herself, she reminds herself that she is no stranger to these feelings of “dissatisfaction and asphyxiation,” for she has felt them before in Naxos, Harlem, and Copenhagen; the only difference now is the intensity of the feelings.
When Helga thinks about her husband, she feels hatred for him and shame for her own willingness to marry him. She wants to leave him. In regards to her children, Helga feels hopeless: she knows she cannot leave them and condemn them to a childhood as miserable as her own, and thus escape from her current life is impossible.
It is easier for Helga to think about “freedom” and the pleasures of life than it is for her to determine how she can actually reclaim those pleasures, so she allows herself to sleep to escape her dilemma.
In the final paragraph of the novel, Helga’s strength returns and she finally gets out of bed, but suddenly finds that she is pregnant with her fifth child.