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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958

Sterling Brown, a cultural critic and one of the last living poets of the Harlem Renaissance, delineated the negative and positive qualities of the mulatta, which it is Larsen’s goal to expose. Among these are a sense of alienation and isolation, the futility of searching for a concrete and stable identity, internalized ambivalence and hatred, and the constant pursuit of a continuously elusive and deceptive happiness. To the tragic mulatta’s credit, however, is the keen ability to see the world from dual perspectives—one, for example, that witnesses the racism of both whites and blacks. This dual vision is precisely what enables Helga to see through superficial interaction—be it at Naxos among snobbish blacks or in Denmark among self-important whites. Larsen also deploys this point of view to illustrate the paradox of Du Bois’ double consciousness when it simultaneously breeds self-contempt and disdain for the outside world of exploitative forces.

Larsen also suggests that miscegenation is a powerful and apt metaphor for confusion. Helga’s “two-ness” is compounded because she is the offspring of Danish and black parents, rejected by both communities into which she desperately tries to fit, to her own eventual detriment. Larsen adds another dimension in making the protagonist a woman: Patriarchy exacts its own brand of double consciousness, which more richly complicates Helga’s dilemma, for she is not accepted by women or men. Each wants her to repress or alter some integral aspect of her identity: Mrs. Hayes-Rore, her partially white background; Anne Grey, her nonjudgmental stance; James Vayle and Axel Olsen, her critical mind and astute scrutiny; her Aunt Katrina, her principles and autonomy; the Reverend Green, her self, her own desires and needs; Uncle Peter, her relation to and memory of him. Each wishes to construct a useful Helga, one who will solidify his or her own perception of the world and his or her inflated place in it. Thus it is that not only in Denmark—where she is exoticized in order to detonate her potency—but also in Naxos, Chicago, Harlem, and the South she is objectified and, thereby, disempowered.

Helga was fifteen when her mother died and her uncle placed her in a “school for Negroes,” where Helga discovered that she “was not necessarily loathsome” and that in fact she could consider herself “without repulsion”; her internalized racism, thus, is deep-rooted and habitual. The reader wonders, along with the narrator, whether this capacity for self-contempt precludes her happiness, which, on some fundamental or unconscious level, she does not believe she merits or deserves. The fact that she understands and sympathizes with the racist viewpoint of her stepfather, his children, Mrs. Nilssen, and, to a degree, her mother demonstrates the breadth and depth of the disdain she absorbs. Similarly, she duplicates the white and black cultures’ massive denial mechanisms regarding miscegenation by denying various parts of herself, depending on where and with whom she is. On this insidiously self-flagellating course, she incriminates herself on the basis of this fraudulence. Furthermore, she perceives Anne’s ambivalence as hypocritical: Anne despises whites and their materialism and deems blacks superior, even while she dismisses the songs, dances, dialect, and attire of her own people. Thus does Helga’s tragic mulatta status reap benefits as well; namely, the capacity to see clearly others’ inconsistencies.

Indeed, one could argue that it is not so much her mulatta status that makes Helga tragic as it is her internalized disgust, which sets her to looking relentlessly outside herself for approval and validation. This constant seeking for others’ valuation, in fact, moves the plot and action forward. Not until she travels inward during her stupor of exhausted withdrawal and rebellious isolation does she realize that she has run into a dead end. She has resigned herself to her suspicion that in America, “Negroes were allowed to be beggars only, of life, of happiness”; unlike whites, by and for whom the Constitution was written, they were not entitled to these pursuits.

Ironically, Helga is abroad when she realizes this during a disquieting ragtime performance by black dancers, whose cavorting shames and betrays her in its perpetuation of the spectacle and stereotype that Axel and his cohorts are all too eager to view. This epiphany solidifies her resolve not to bring more negro or mulatto children into the world to endure what she has suffered. She cannot replicate the pattern that makes death seem a viable alternative. Significantly, it is when she can no longer entertain death as a possibility because it would reduce her to nothingness that she enters her self-imposed death sentence. Larsen clearly equates marriage and motherhood with the deaths of women’s spirits, the degeneration of their health, and the depletion of their bodies and emotional and mental resources.

Heterosexual marriage may constitute the quagmire to which these institutions and the societal and religious sanction of them relegates her. Helga laughs at the latter when Miss Hartley reads Anatole France’s “The Procurator of Judea,” anti-Christian and blasphemous sentiments now paralleling her own because of the recognition of institutionalized religion’s role in her oppression. The more she struggles to extricate herself, the deeper she sinks into the notches that sociocultural expectations carve for those who are at once suppressed, oppressed, repressed, and depressed by the consuming quagmire of race, class, gender, and religion. Larsen allows the reader this comprehensive view through the omniscient character of Miss Hartley, introduced at the novel’s end, the only “all-seeing” or caretaking person who, even though—and perhaps because—she is aware, tends to and prioritizes Helga’s needs. Like the title, the closing pages of the novel, through Larsen’s poignant diction, reiterate the “asphyxiation” and “suffocation” that inform this mulatta woman’s tragedy.

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Critical Context