The main characters of Quicksand are Helga Crane, Dr. Robert Anderson, Anne Grey, and the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green.
- Helga Crane is a woman in her early twenties. Her father is of West Indian descent, her mother Danish. She wanders between Harlem, Denmark, and the South in search of belonging.
- Dr. Robert Anderson is, at first, the principal of Naxos. He and Helga share a mutual attraction that goes awry.
- Anne Grey is Helga’s friend who introduces her to the bourgeois Harlem culture that she embodies.
- Mr. Green is a pastor whom Helga unthinkingly marries; he is religious but hypocritical.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1129
Helga Crane, a twenty-three-year-old teacher of mixed heritage. Born of a Danish mother and a West Indian father, she is educated by her mother’s brother after the death of her mother. She is an exotically beautiful, sensuously contradictory, intelligent, sensitive lover of exquisitely beautiful clothes and things. She also is a lost, lonely, dissatisfied, alienated, dichotomous, indecisive, and spiritually and psychologically ambivalent young woman who is never at home in the world, neither in Naxos, where she teaches in an elite black school and falls in love unwittingly with the very proper and reticent Dr. Robert Anderson, nor in Harlem, where she mingles with the black bourgeoisie, attends the correct social functions and meets the correct people, and is proposed to by eligible bachelors. She does not fit into Copenhagen society, where she lives with her very proper European aunt and uncle, mingles with the artistic set, and is proposed to by a very eligible Danish artist, Axel Olsen. Ultimately, she lives in Alabama, where she is married to a most unsuitable, unlettered black minister. She sinks deeper into depression and exhaustion with the birth of each of her children.
Dr. Robert Anderson
Dr. Robert Anderson, the principal of the elite black school in Naxos where Helga first teaches. He is a tall, handsome thirty-five-year-old with gray eyes. He is a cool, reticent, controlled, and detached man, and Helga falls very passionately, though unadmittedly, in love with him. Although he is in love with Helga, he refuses to define and to act on his emotions, either in Naxos or later in New York, where he also goes to escape the provincial Naxos. It is clearly his engagement to Helga’s friend, Anne, that terminates Helga’s extended stay in Denmark, and it undoubtedly is his later marriage to Anne that propels Helga into the unsuitable marriage with the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green.
Anne Grey, a socialite Harlem widow. She is an extremely beautiful, black-haired, black-eyed, madonna-like thirty-year-old. Fastidiously dressed, self-assured, selfish but gentle, and well bred, she is a hypocritically liberal, independently wealthy, well-connected, bourgeois Harlemite who has an exquisitely beautiful home filled with antiques and books that are an index to her personality. Obsessed with the race problem, she says the right thing, attends the proper social functions, and does the proper charity work for black people. Full of ambivalence and inconsistencies, she advocates social equality while living a life of social inequality. Introduced to Helga by Mrs. Hayes-Rore, her aunt-in-law, she becomes Helga’s nemesis and friend; she later marries Helga’s one love, Dr. Robert Anderson.
The Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green
The Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green, a minister of a small black church in Alabama. He is a rather heavyset, unattractive, yellow, fattish, dirty-nailed, unlettered, uncouth, self-satisfied, dull, mild-mannered man. Helga marries him in a misguided daze to seek revenge on Dr. Anderson for marrying Anne, and with him she produces four children in rapid succession (three in twenty months) and lives in a quagmire of lost hope and disillusionment. He is an amorous man who ignites Helga’s buried sexual desires. He puts his sexual desires and pleasures over his wife’s needs and her health. Helga recognizes too late his character traits of selfishness, hypocrisy, and sexual self-gratification.
Mrs. Hayes-Rore, an independently wealthy, intellectually deficient, socially conscious and influential, plump, middle-aged, “lemon-colored,” matronly, Chicago widow with “badly straightened hair.” Although she has a false sense of her importance and gives pretentious speeches on race relations at conventions and other functions, she is a kind woman. She rescues a destitute Helga in Chicago after Uncle Peter’s wife refuses her admittance, takes her to New York, and finds her both a place to stay (with Anne Grey) and a job with an insurance company. She advises Helga to conceal her white background.
Margaret Creighton, a teacher, Helga’s young, attractive, unimaginative friend and colleague at the black school in Naxos. She knows how to abide by the rules and is quite at home in Naxos.
Axel Olsen, a painter. Slightly older than Helga, he has a “leonine head, broad nose, [and] bushy eyebrows.” He is brilliant, elegant, and arrogant; somewhat cynical and selfish; and rather pompous. A socially prominent Danish artist, he paints Helga’s portrait and proposes marriage after failing to initiate a more informal relationship with her. He is enamored not so much with Helga as with his own portrait of her and with his conception of her exotic looks. He leaves town after Helga’s refusal of his marriage offer. He provides entrée into the artistic world of Denmark for Helga’s Aunt Katrina.
Peter Nilssen, Helga’s kindhearted and gentle uncle, brother of her mother. He is Helga’s benefactor after her mother’s death. He finances her education and befriends her until he marries a woman who hates black people and refuses Helga access to him. Forced to relinquish his ties to Helga, he gives her five thousand dollars and suggests that she visit her Aunt Katrina in Denmark.
Clementine Richards, a parishioner of the Reverend Mr. Green’s church in Alabama and in love with him. She is a tall black beauty of great proportions. She has an obvious and open dislike for the gentle Helga.
Miss Hartley, a kindly, understanding midwife and nurse who cares for Helga during her mental and physical collapse after the birth and death of her fourth child in Alabama.
Helga’s mother, a fair Scandinavian woman who is in love with life. She risks everything by marrying a black West Indian man who leaves her before Helga is born. Estranged from her family, except for her brother Pete, she remarries to a white man, who dislikes Helga but dies when Helga is very young.
James Vayle, a weak, dull, snobbish young man from the proper social stratum in Atlanta. He acquiesces to his parents’ and others’ ideas of what is proper. He is Helga’s fiancé and fellow teacher in Naxos. He dislikes Helga for not being able to fit into the dull, smug Naxos society and dislikes himself for finding Helga attractive and desirable enough to become engaged.
Katrina Dahl, Helga’s scrupulously proper and correct, rather wealthy, and pretentious aunt and uncle in Copenhagen. In their own limited manner, they love and admire Helga because she is different and exotic and can bring them the kind of attention and acceptance they desire in the artistic world. They buy Helga beautiful and exotic clothes and set her up as an objet d’art to be admired and to be bought by the highest bidder.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563
Helga Crane is beset by many demons throughout her life. Her mixed racial heritage makes her especially sensitive to the agonizing experience of living in a racist society and interferes with her quest for identity and self-fulfillment. The rejections that she suffers in childhood set her on a search for love, understanding, and emotional security; these are difficult goals for her to achieve in the American society of the 1920’s, a time of rapidly changing, and thus conflicting, sexual mores and racial attitudes. Helga seeks to enjoy a healthy sexual life as a woman, but she is blocked from doing so by the narrow and unenlightened attitudes of the men that she encounters. Moreover, she is plagued by her own confusion about which roles are proper to choose. Several times, Helga goes from supporting the traditional norms of society to flinging herself into the freedom and excitement of a nonconformist life.
In choosing a mulatta as her protagonist, Nella Larsen allows readers to observe the experiences of both the white and black worlds. Helga is able to move from one society to another, even though she cannot feel at home in either one. Her position as an outsider causes her much difficulty, but it also endows her with a more insightful perspective than she would have if she belonged only to one culture. Her insight is her undoing, however, because the truth she discovers about each culture is the cause of her unsatisfied life and discontented spirit. She understands this perfectly well at the end of the novel, when she looks back on her experiences and realizes that “happiness and serenity always faded just as they had shaped themselves.”
The other women characters in Quicksand do not play very significant roles. They are one-dimensional representations of attitudes on race; Anne Grey is the only one who is presented with some degree of development. She is a proponent of racial uplift for African Americans, and Helga admires her before coming to understand Anne’s contradictory and negative behavior: “She hated white people with a deep and burning hatred. . . . But she aped their clothes, their manners, and their gracious ways of living.” Anne’s hypocritical actions symbolize for Helga the general practices of the black dwellers of Harlem, and this realization helps to drive her to the white society of Denmark.
The men in Helga’s life are more fully drawn. Robert Anderson is presented as a detached and pretentious man whose middle-class inhibitions ruin any possibility of a deep relationship with Helga at a time when she is willing to respond with her honest feelings for him. The Danish artist, Axel Olsen, is a pompous egoist. His extreme self-love prevents his becoming aware of the true nature of any person. He sees Helga as a stereotypical African endowed with sensuous beauty and exotic charm. His only interest in her is that she become an adornment for his public enhancement.
The Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green is probably the most unfavorably depicted character in the novel. His corpulent, stale-smelling body, his dirty fingernails, and his extreme sexual appetite are excused by Helga until she realizes that he has trapped her in a grim domestic prison of backbreaking work, daily boredom, constant fatigue, and ill health. Through all this, he spouts religious platitudes, and his only interest in her is for the gratification of his sexual desires.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2523
Helga Crane is a complex, fascinating, and contradictory character, and at the end of the novel readers are left wondering what motivates her. The circumstances of Helga’s life offer only partial insight into why she makes the choices she does. Helga is an intelligent, well-educated, and beautiful biracial woman. Her black father deserts his white wife and biracial daughter when Helga is young and her mother remarries “someone of her own race.” They have other white children and Helga grows up, in her words, “an unloved little Negro girl” who does not fit in with her white family. Helga is sent away to a “Negro school” and grows up apart from her family. She soon realizes she does not fit in at the “Negro school” either. Helga’s soul is at times white, and at times black. Throughout her life, she struggles to establish harmony between these two identities and the novel is a chronicle of this psychological struggle.
Helga is introspective and brooding. While her mood and thoughts vacillate between anger, arrogance, despair, contempt, ecstasy, and dozens of other emotions, she is unable to sustain contentment no matter where her life takes her. She resists the rigid social order of “Negro society” at Naxos, the southern school “for Negroes” where she teaches. She flees the “hostile white folks in Chicago” and the inconsistent black folks in Harlem who condemn white people on one hand while imitating their lives on the other. She feels physically free in Denmark among the enlightened Danes, who view her as an exotic beauty, but spiritually free “among Negroes” in prejudiced America.
Helga attempts to fit into the various environments in which she finds herself—from Naxos, to Chicago, to Harlem, to Denmark, to Alabama—yet her coping skills are unreliable. She can emerge with her dignity intact after sharing a passionate kiss with her friend’s husband one moment and stumble stupefied into a charismatic church service in the next. She is an assertive woman confidently preparing for her departure from one city but an impulsive adolescent with no plan of action for surviving in the next. Helga desires sexual fulfillment yet she is conflicted by an equal desire for social respectability. She has two chances to achieve that social respectability, with James Vayle and Herr Axel Olsen, yet she rejects them both. The possibility of sexual fulfillment with Dr. Anderson scares her, yet when she finally achieves sexual fulfillment with her ill-suited husband, it becomes her ultimate quicksand.
Helga’s behavior is consistent with borderline personality disorder. She continues to follow a repetitive pattern of disorganization and instability in her self-image, mood and behavior. These destructive patterns cause problems for her in her relationships. In fact, Helga really does not have any close friends. People who try to befriend her wind up scared of her, for which she despises them. Consistent with this disorder, Helga is intelligent and appears friendly and competent, but she can only sustain this appearance for awhile. Soon her defenses crumble and she feels restless and trapped once again. Helga shifts frequently from an empty, lonely depression to irritability and anxiety. This is then followed by her unpredictable and impulsive behavior, such as marrying a backwoods preacher who just so happens to be sitting next to her in church when she is “saved.”
Should Helga be pitied or admired? It is a conundrum, just like the character herself. On the one hand, Helga can be viewed as a victim of racism, sexism and class—forces which in the end succeed in crushing a once vibrant young woman full of potential. Yet Helga is also her own worst enemy. She is so focused on how others can make her happy, how things can make her happy, that she loses herself in the process of trying to discover herself. She never gives herself a chance to make herself happy, depending always on others and always being disappointed. Should this be blamed on her dysfunctional upbringing? Perhaps. Helga does not grow up with a support system. There is no strong parental figure telling her, “You can be anything you want to be, honey.” She does have opportunities to connect with people throughout her life, though—her fiancé James Vayle, her friend Anne Grey in New York, Herr Axel Olsen, who proposes to her in Denmark, or even Robert Anderson. Yet when Helga does marry, she picks a totally ill-suited man, and what admiration the reader may have had for Helga Crane disintegrates into overwhelming pity.
Anne Grey Anderson
Anne Grey is a beautiful, wealthy widow who befriends Helga in Harlem. Helga is introduced to Anne by Mrs. Hayes-Rore, who is Anne’s deceased husband’s aunt. Anne is a prominent Harlem socialite, well-dressed and well-bred. She is also assertive, but kind. Helga describes Anne as “almost too good to be true—almost perfect.” Anne is a native New Yorker and a person of distinction, “financially independent, well connected and much sought after.” Anne is an outspoken activist who is “obsessed with the race problem.” Helga soon develops a love/hate relationship with Anne over what Helga describes as Anne’s inconsistencies. Anne preaches against social inequality, yet her own life is a prime example of social inequality. Anne condemns whites on the one hand, yet “apes their clothes, their manners and their gracious ways of living” on the other. Anne becomes engaged to Dr. Robert Anderson while Helga is in Denmark and Helga returns for the wedding.
Dr. Robert Anderson
Robert Anderson is the young headmaster at the Naxos School at the beginning of the novel. He has recently been appointed to this post but spends a lot of time away from the school on fund-raising tours. He tries to persuade Helga not to resign from Naxos, telling her that she is a good example to the students. He almost convinces Helga to stay because of his commitment to the students and hope for the future. He tells Helga that “lies, injustice and hypocrisy are a part of every ordinary community,” but that there are fewer evils at Naxos than anywhere else. Helga encounters Dr. Anderson again in New York, later in the novel. He has been “let go” from Naxos for being too liberal and is living and working in New York City. Helga is in love with Robert, but her love frightens her. Robert is also in love with Helga but seems incapable of admitting it or acting upon it. Confused by her feelings for Robert, Helga foists him off on her friend Anne Grey. Helga’s confusion over her attraction to Dr. Anderson solidifies her decision to move to Denmark. While she is in Denmark, Dr. Anderson becomes engaged to Anne, prompting Helga to return to Harlem for their wedding. One night at a party, Dr. Anderson kisses Helga passionately and she does not resist. He later seeks a meeting with Helga, which she anticipates, but when he apologizes for the kiss instead of seeking a relationship with her, she slaps him.
Margaret Creighton is a teacher in the English department at Naxos who befriends Helga. Margaret tries unsuccessfully to convince Helga not to leave Naxos, especially in the middle of the term. Margaret is a little afraid of Helga.
Fru Dahl is Helga’s Aunt Katrina. She is a jovial, well-to-do Danish woman who welcomes Helga into her home and her life. Aunt Katrina is the sister of Helga’s deceased mother, and Helga has only vague memories of her from when she visited her as a child. Helga notices that Aunt Katrina looks just like her mother. Aunt Katrina is excited to have Helga stay with her, buys her all sorts of beautiful gowns and jewelry, and tries to convince Helga to marry a nice Danish man.
Herr Dahl is Helga’s Uncle Poul, Aunt Katrina’s husband. He is a tall man with a “fierce mustache” who also graciously and enthusiastically welcomes Helga into his home. He enjoys having Helga in his life and, along with his wife, believes that Helga should marry a respectable Danish man. He and Fru Dahl enjoy parading Helga around Copenhagen, showing her off to their friends. He is protective of Helga, though, and will not allow her to wander the streets of Copenhagen alone.
Audrey Denney is a flat character, representative of the type of high-society Harlem black woman who tries to cross racial lines. She exists in the novel only through the comments of the other characters, mainly Anne and Helga. Audrey is beautiful, refined and rich, and “lives downtown” according to Anne, who despises Audrey for pandering to whites. She says that Audrey has “no use for Harlem” anymore and “should be ostracized” for “going around with white people.”
The Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green
Pleasant Green is Helga’s husband. They meet at a charismatic church service one night. Upset over slapping Dr. Anderson and depressed that she has ruined any possible future with him, Helga escapes into the cold, rainy night and is drawn to the church by the music. She gets caught up by the religious fervor and “gets saved.” Pleasant Green walks Helga home and she seduces him, seemingly in retaliation against Dr. Anderson for marrying Anne. Although unattractive and ill-suited to Helga, he is a passionate man who releases Helga’s suppressed sexual desires
They marry and move to rural Alabama to “labor in the service of the Lord.” Pleasant Green is a stereotype backwoods preacher. He is admired by his congregation but the parishioners do not quite understand why he married Helga. He seems oblivious to the fact that Helga is becoming increasingly depressed after having four children, back to back, with one set of twins and one baby that dies. He is outwardly solicitous of Helga, however, and hires a nurse to tend to her. Yet Helga comes to despise her husband’s hypocrisy. Too late she realizes that he is selfish and cares more about his own sexual needs than the health of his wife. He is fat, sloppy, does not bathe, and makes noise when he eats. Helga is planning to leave him at the end of the novel when she finds she is pregnant with her fifth child.
Miss Hartley is a nurse from Mobile, Alabama, who is hired to take care of Helga during her recovery from childbirth after Helga’s fourth child dies. She carefully watches Helga and organizes her life for her while she recovers from her postpartum depression. She makes sure Helga does not over-exert herself.
Mrs. Hayes-Rore is a wealthy, prestigious black woman whom Helga meets in Chicago after having been sent away by Uncle Peter’s bigoted wife. She is a plump, middle-aged matron with limited intelligence but a kind heart. She is active in the “Negro community” and is often called upon to give speeches on race relations. Mrs. Hayes-Rore hires Helga to accompany her on the train to New York City and help her polish her speech. Helga experiences catharsis on the train as she spills her life story to Mrs. Hayes-Rore. She promises to introduce Helga to some well-connected people in New York City when Helga tells her she wishes to remain in New York. Mrs. Hayes-Rore is the one who introduces Helga to Anne Grey. She warns Helga not to tell the Harlem people that she is half white because they might not understand.
Herr Axel Olsen
Axel Olsen is a well-known Danish portrait painter. Helga describes him as “brilliant, bored, elegant, urbane, cynical, worldly.” She finds him conceited, but at the same time amusing. He is unlike any man she has ever known. Helga is interested in Herr Olsen, but she is not in love with him. She finds him “amusing, desirable, and convenient to have about—if one was careful.” Herr Olsen is more in love with his conception of Helga than with Helga herself. He views her as an exotic beauty, something to be possessed. When he proposes marriage to Helga she is surprised, but ultimately tells him she cannot marry a white man. He has not expected Helga to refuse his proposal and is shocked when she tells him she does not want him. Olsen admits he does not understand Helga, but in spite of the “tragedy” of her refusing his proposal he leaves town saying that at least he captured the “true Helga Crane” in his portrait of her. Helga does not agree, however. She dislikes the portrait, claiming that it is not anything like her.
Peter Nilssen is Helga’s benevolent Uncle Peter. He lives in Chicago with his new wife, who is bigoted and refuses to have anything to do with Helga. Peter is the brother of Helga’s deceased mother. When Helga was a child, Uncle Peter paid for her to go to the “Negro School” and he feels somewhat responsible for Helga still. After Peter’s wife is rude to Helga upon her arrival in Chicago, Peter feels guilty and a year later sends her $5,000 and suggests she go to Denmark to visit his sister Katrina. He tells Helga he had planned to give her the money upon his death, but to appease his wife feels it is better to give it to her now.
Mrs. Peter Nilssen
She is Uncle Peter’s wife. She greets Helga when she arrives in Chicago and coldly tells her not to expect anything more from her husband. Her husband is not really Helga’s uncle, she insists, because Helga’s mother and father were never really married. She does not want to be considered the aunt of a “Negro girl.”
Clementine Richards is one of the parishioners in the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green’s church in rural Alabama. She is in love with him and cannot understand how he could marry Helga, who she feels is not his type. Clementine is tall and big, but beautiful. She also knows how to cook, whereas Helga does not.
James is Helga’s fiancé. Helga meets him at Naxos, when they are both first-year teachers. James comes from a well-positioned Atlanta family, but Helga ultimately finds him weak and snobbish. His family does not approve of Helga because of her mixed ancestry. Helga breaks her engagement to James before she leaves Naxos, believing him to be too “entrenched” in what Naxos stands for. Later in the novel, Helga encounters James again at a party. Unlike Helga, James feels a commitment to improving the lives of black people. He is now a vice principal at Naxos. He tells Helga that he, too, has experienced the absence of prejudice towards blacks in Europe but could never live there. He could never live away from “Negroes” he tells her. “We just like to be together,” he insists. James is surprised to find that he still has feelings for Helga. He tells her that he is going to keep in touch with her and ask her to marry him again, but before that can happen, Helga marries the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green.