Chapters 4–7 Summary

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Chapter 4

Now on a train heading north, Helga sits in a coach “with others of her race” and broods over her meeting with Dr. Anderson. She does not understand why those “few chance words” of his sent her into such a rage, and she feels ashamed of her rudeness. She thinks, too, that she had “terribly wronged her mother.” Helga considers her mother’s life story: she was a young Scandinavian woman who fell blindly and passionately in love with a black man. Their union begot Helga, a biracial child. When Helga’s father left Helga’s mother, she “flung into poverty, sordidness, and dissipation,” and she married a man of her own race, an action necessary to provide for Helga, then aged six. Helga’s new stepsiblings were cruel and her stepfather malicious. When Helga was fifteen, her mother died, and Uncle Peter, her mother’s brother, sent her to a school for black children where Helga discovered that “because one was dark, one was not necessarily loathsome.” For the next six years, Helga was happy but lonely, perpetually aware that her lack of family always rendered her an outsider. 

Helga’s thoughts now turn to James Vayle, her ex-fiancé, and the explanation she gave him earlier that afternoon to end their engagement. She realizes that “even had she remained in Naxos, she would never have been married to him.” Moreover, she begins to feel repugnance for their relationship.

A white man walks through the train car, spitting on the door and then in the drinking-water pail. With ten more hours of the journey to endure before arriving in Chicago, Helga asks for a berth. The conductor finds a place for her, charging her ten dollars. As she undresses and lays down to get some rest, Helga ruminates again on her conversation with Dr. Anderson, asking herself why she hadn’t fully explained the story of her mother and instead lost her temper. 

Chapter 5

In Chicago, alone and friendless, Helga leaves her baggage at the Young Women’s Christian Association before walking to Uncle Peter’s house. Though she knows her errand is necessary, she still detests it. A maid Helga doesn’t recognize opens the door after Helga rings the bell and tells Helga that though Mr. Nilssen—Uncle Peter—is not home, Mrs. Nilssen is. Not knowing that Uncle Peter had married, Helga meets his wife, “tall, exquisitely gowned, with shining gray hair piled high.” After Helga explains that her mother, Karen Nilssen, was Uncle Peter’s sister, Mrs. Nilssen adopts an antagonistic manner. She tells Helga, “Mr. Nilssen has been very kind to you… But you mustn’t expect anything else.” Helga, turning to leave, hears Mrs. Nilssen say, “And please remember that my husband is not your uncle! No indeed! Why, that, that would make me your aunt!” 

On the train ride back to her room, Helga feels the sting of rejection. She sees herself as an “obscene sore... at all costs to be hidden,” and thus she understands why her family wishes to dissociate themselves from the “outrage of her very existence.” 

Back in her room, Helga decides that she will find work, perhaps in a library. As she watches the swarms of people moving on the streets outside, she begins to have a “queer feeling of enthusiasm.” The chapter closes with her thinking “that she had come home. She, Helga Crane, who had no home.” 

Chapter 6

Waking to a rainy morning, Helga visits the library in hopes of securing a job. However, she is quickly turned away as she lacks the necessary training and experience. She feels disappointed until she remembers there is an...

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employment agency at the Young Women’s Christian Association. 

Though Helga’s financial situation is precarious, she allows three more days to elapse before she finally goes to the employment office. There, she learns that her lack of references precludes her finding work. That afternoon she visits another employment agency, only to hear the same reply. Days and weeks pass of this fruitless search, yet Helga is still unemployed. In this period, “a few men, both white and black, offered her money, but the price of the money was too dear.” Helga’s desperation and loneliness intensify as her funds dwindles away. 

One afternoon, Helga finds a note at her door from the YWCA employment agency. When she visits the office, she learns that a lecturer is seeking a travel companion for a journey to New York. Mrs. Hayes-Rore, an educated and socially connected black woman, is an authority on “the race problem” and enlists Helga’s help for wordsmithing and editing the speeches she will deliver at a convention. Relieved to finally have work and excited by the possibility of staying in New York after leaving Mrs. Hayes-Rore, Helga feels “reborn. She began happily to paint the future in vivid colors.” When she asks the women in the employment office to tell her about Mrs. Hayes-Rore, they invite her to have supper with them. 

Chapter 7

Helga learns that Mrs. Hayes-Rore inherited “money and prestige” from her deceased husband and is a popular “authority on the problem [of race].” As Helga works on Mrs. Hayes-Rore’s speeches, she realizes that Mrs. Hayes-Rore merely repeats what other famous activists and orators have already written or spoken. 

When Mrs. Hayes-Rore asks to hear Helga’s family story, Helga seems to “slip on a mask,” for she feels that a story containing “race intermingling and possible adultery” is too taboo to be discussed. 

In New York, Helga immediately feels how much more “terrible and uncaring” the city is than Chicago. Mrs. Hayes-Rore takes Helga to stay with Anne Grey, a friend who “lives alone in a big house, which is something Negroes in New York don’t do.” Helga is instructed not to reveal that her “people are white,” and thus when Mrs. Hayes-Rore makes the introductions, Helga feels “like a criminal.”


Chapters 1–3 Summary


Chapters 8–11 Summary