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....
(The entire section is 1129 words.)
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....
(The entire section is 563 words.)