Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628

Quicksand is sometimes denounced for its defeatist themes and depressing ending. Accustomed to reading Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou, whose black heroines thrive despite incredible traumas, modern readers are dismayed when Helga Crane succumbs to the destructive forces of race, class, gender, and religion that become the ultimate quicksand of her life. All of these writers and more, however, owe a literary debt to Nella Larsen for being one of the first authors of any race or gender courageous enough to touch upon themes considered taboo at the time in African-American literature. Nella Larsen is a literary pioneer who inspired modern writers to boldly depict racism, eroticism, and sexuality, but one must read Quicksand in its historical context to fully appreciate the impact of this compact but potent novel.

Nella Larsen wrote Quicksand in 1928 at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Earlier African-American authors were popular and prolific, but their works often pandered to what the white reading public demanded—unrealistic stories about the sexual exploits of black men and women. Larsen was one of several emerging African-American writers (but the only woman) who sought to dispel the myths that had been perpetuated in literature about the sexual natures of black women.

Quicksand is highly autobiographical. Larsen herself was a biracial woman whose father was West Indian and whose mother was Danish. Larsen imparts her own identity into the protagonist, Helga Crane, and the result is a beautiful yet tragic work that exposes a world of racism and hypocrisy in which neither white nor black society is innocent. The conflicts Helga experiences are compelling and realistic. The novel’s narrative approach is unusual in that it is hard to separate the omniscient narrator from the main character. For this reason, scholars have labeled the novel “psychological realism” because the reader gains a unique insight into Helga’s inner thoughts, experiencing life along with her. The narrator’s ideas are not only Helga’s ideas but Larsen’s ideas.

Larsen’s secondary characters are also unique. She does not populate her works with Uncle Toms and Mammies as earlier African-American authors did. Nor are her characters the upper-class Northern blacks of some of the Harlem Renaissance writers. Larsen’s characters are black middle class. She has been labeled a “revisionist author” for turning literary traditions upside down in an effort to dispel stereotypes. For example, Helga has some characteristics of the “tragic mulatta” literary stereotype. She is biracial, and she does fail to fit into either the white or black world. Her life is tragic in the end. However, she cannot and does not ever attempt to pass for white and does not fall in love with a white man.

Quicksand was very well received when it was written. Other Harlem Renaissance authors and leaders in the African-American community praised it highly for its themes as well as its art. Larsen published her second novel, Passing, a few years later. She received a Harmon Foundation award and a Guggenheim fellowship for creative writing, but after she was accused of plagiarism, she removed herself from the literary scene, seemingly frustrated that the community mistook her attempt at adaptation for plagiarism. Although she was exonerated, her works fell out of favor until feminist writers rediscovered them in the 1970s and 1980s, admiring the fact that a woman had been able to achieve such literary recognition among the male authors of the Harlem Renaissance.

In recent years, her novels have been republished many times, and Larsen has been claimed as a muse by black authors (both male and female), lesbian authors, black lesbian authors, and many others. Most scholars agree that she has achieved greater recognition as an artist in modern times than she ever did during her all-too-short career.

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Critical Evaluation