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.
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 self-help predicated that black people’s advancement and full citizenship in American society depended upon education, labor, morality, discipline, thrift, respectability, and entrepreneurship. Quicksand thematically accuses this movement of having traded its visionary and innovative origins for elitism, self-hate, and orthodoxy. For instance, Naxos, where Helga is first employed, is but an anagram of “Saxon.” It owes its existence, ironically, not to black entrepreneurs but to white philanthropists. It exemplifies, ironically, not the individualism and enterprise of Horatio Alger and Poor Richard but only frigid sameness and knee-jerk obedience.
Naxos’s black students conform to the “formal calm” of European models of gender and behavior. The women wear muted pastels instead of bolder colors and prints. Both men and women attend sermons by paternalistic whites who exhort them to remain in a subordinate social position. Even among the faculty, the highest aspirations are to marry into the race’s “good stock” and “first families,” which also happen to constitute the race’s fairest-skinned people.
Larsen’s characterization of progressive blacks or race representatives extends this critique of the self-help movement. Unoriginal leaders such as Hayes-Rore rehash clichéd solutions. She virtually plagiarizes her speeches from the published works of foregone black leaders. Also, she, a “lemon-colored woman,” fails to publicly address the taboos of adultery and rape that undergird national anxieties about race-mixing. Love itself is deadened by self-help when Vayle argues for marriage to Helga on the theory that the “better class” must bear children to advance the race.
Since enslavement, black politics and black religion have been intertwined. Such nineteenth century orators as David Walker, Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth have argued for emancipation and enfranchisement by employing scriptural rationales. Evoking literal quicksand, Larsen relegates this combination of political and religious activism to bygone days. She uses images of unconsciousness, drowning, choking, and burial to present the sterility and passivity of black Christianity.
Christians are like zombies, drugged by impassioned worship and zealous calls to duty into abandoning individual will and personal responsibility. Their pastors’ ulterior motives are ease and authority, and black women enable the bulk of this by abusing their bodies, limiting their social contacts, and neglecting their dreams. The Reverend Green resembles Hayes-Rore. With her, he shares hypocrisy and opportunism, especially as he flirts with the female membership right under the nose of his new wife, Helga.
In Quicksand, religion is thus a sibling to self-help and its perils. Both reflect what Larsen sees as a self-enslavement of African Americans. Both retard the very progress that the artists of the Harlem Renaissance espoused.