Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 989

Nella Larsen aligns herself with one of the agendas of the Harlem Renaissance: to expose the divergences and varieties among black artists’ themes, styles, imaginative references, and politics. In her novels Quicksand and Passing (1929), the characters are distinctive. Instead of depicting the folksy, rural Southerners or the urban Northern wits who populate the works of African American writers Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay, Larsen represents the black bourgeoisie in general and the female among this class in particular. Modernism’s influence is apparent in her characters’ interior reflections and in her technique, which combines abrupt and jagged sentences, condensed visual images, a potpourri of cultural references, and sketches of decadent and anonymous city life.

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The title, Quicksand, alludes to the novel’s theme of the gender- and race-specific pitfalls that have historically affected all African American women, regardless of skin complexion, social class, marital status, sexual orientation, regional affiliation, or education. Helga’s quest for romantic love, her beauty, and her sexual freedom reject the extreme stereotyping of all black women as either hypersexed prostitutes or undesirable laboring machines. Yet, both whites and blacks pigeonhole her in one of these two categories. As she searches Chicago for employment, men of both races assume she is a prostitute and solicit her. Because shops and schools discriminate against her because of her skin color, she is hired instead as a domestic, reinforcing the stereotype of black women as mammies.

Helga is characterized from the novel’s beginning by detailed descriptions of her striking facial features, alluring skin, and impeccably tasteful attire, which includes shoes, blouses, dresses, scarves, hats, jewelry, handkerchiefs, purses, hair ornaments, and corsages. More than mirroring her moods, her attentive grooming and sophisticated, often inappropriate, fashions show Helga’s determination to resist uniform definitions of womanhood. In Chicago, New York, and Copenhagen, she resists social pressures to suppress her unconventionality, spontaneity, imagination, and passion.

After her retreat from life into numb piety, the descriptions change. Once, fashion dominated her thoughts. Now, Helga focuses constantly on the ills of her body as it rebels against domestic labor, pastoral service, and unmitigated childbearing. The only description of Helga’s garments refers to an old, unappealing nightgown, a remnant of her fashionable days. Larsen delineates Helga’s body by nothing but brief comments about her starving, endlessly aching limbs. Helga’s hair, always arranged in the past in glorious styles and decorated with flowers and combs, is now always in disarray, scattering on pillows or flying at angles. This artistic technique conveys the psychological death that ensues for women like Helga who are bound too tightly by domestic duties and social expectations.

Quicksand vocalizes the precautionary outcry among Harlem Renaissance artists and intellectuals, including Larsen, that the historical underpinnings of stereotypes come from deep within society and that black people’s attitudes toward themselves have been globally and adversely affected by racist perspectives. Wherever Helga goes, her ethnicity is scrutinized and distorted. Ironically, Danish society appreciates variety and difference—in food, art, conversation, and languages. Yet, even the Danes are oblivious to varieties and differences among African Americans, as Helga learns when one person contends that all “Negroes were black and had woolly hair.”

By the turn of the century, black churches and civic and benevolent organizations had launched an organized assault on “the race problem.” This movement of...

(The entire section contains 989 words.)

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Critical Context


Critical Overview