Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Divided into twenty-five chapters, this autobiographical novel traces Helga’s—and, by extension, fictionalizes Larsen’s—futile and endless search for identity and happiness. Its relentless social realism recalls Larsen’s own delicate and unstable personality as the daughter of a Danish mother and black Indian father who died when Larsen was young. Like Helga, Larsen went from post to post and was involved in an unsatisfying marriage to a physicist. Larsen is thus able to voice the unique dilemmas of a mulatta woman writer of the male-dominated Harlem Renaissance.

Among the themes her plot progression raises is the tension between sexual repression and sexual expression for women who desire, simultaneously, sexual fulfillment and social respectability in a culture that has made these mutually exclusive options for black females. This psychic division compounds, for black women, the double consciousness that W. E. B. Du Bois described; it also serves as a structuring device, as the narrative vacillates between these extremes as well as between other dualities (urban/rural).

The beginning locus for this fluctuation is Naxos, which is most likely a composite of Tuskegee Institute and Fisk University. Although she enjoys teaching, Helga finds the blacks’ passive acceptance and efforts to appease whites increasingly intolerable. Because she can neither conform nor be content in her difference, she leaves her pretentious fiancé, James Vayle, and the loathsome and self-deluded Naxos...

(The entire section is 618 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Larsen’s work recasts the genre of racial uplift novels by focusing on the costs to women of this alleged, male-dominated uplift. One such cost is the dividing of women, which is evident in Anne’s assumption that Audrey is passing for white and is therefore a despicable traitor to her race and her sex. This drives a wedge between Anne and Helga at the same time that it inhibits Helga from approaching Audrey, whom she admires. Similarly, the novel subtly alludes to the divergent perceptions regarding the role of marriage and parenthood in racial uplift. After Helga returns from Denmark, she confesses to James Vayle her belief that it is sinful to bring more negro children into the world to endure pain and prejudice. He is “aghast” and declares his elitist stance that it is precisely the upper-class educated who are obligated to reproduce. This male prerogative reinforces a dualism surrounding women and their sexuality which Larsen also scrutinizes. When Helga is not contributing “to the cause” in this way, she, like Audrey, is deemed a prostitute or a Jezebel, which both Axel Olsen and the revival congregation call her.

The delusion that her only salvation is to submit to the opposite of this mistaken designation within the sanctioned reproductive sexuality of marriage exacts an extreme toll upon Helga’s psyche. She shuts down her reasoning skills and closes her inquisitive mind in order to maintain a blind faith in God’s marvel and in the marriage, upon which she refuses to...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Naxos. School for African Americans in rural Alabama patterned on Tuskegee Institute. Helga Crane, a native of Chicago and educated in Nashville, Tennessee, teaches literature at Naxos but feels completely out of place in its rural surroundings. She also feels out of sync with the Naxos mold: She despises the school’s regimentation, rigidity, and conformity. As she sits in her room in the teachers’ quarters, she surrounds herself with expressions of exquisite taste and style, bold colors, fashionable clothes and furnishings, and excellent choices in books. This display is in direct contrast to the starkness and stylelessness that characterize Naxos generally. As Helga contemplates her situation, she resolves to resign her position and leave Naxos at once. Where she will go and how she will live are of no consequence to her, and this impulsiveness is soon revealed as her most damning trait. In addition, her leaving also means the breaking of her marriage engagement to James Vayle, scion of an upper-class African American family from Georgia that has always looked down on her.

Naxos takes its name from the largest Greek island in the Cyclades, which was famed in ancient times as a center of the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine.


*Chicago. Great midwestern city in which Helga grew up and to which she flees after leaving Naxos. However, to her dismay, she finds no comfort there on her return. The grayness and coldness of the city only underscore her sad remembrances of the miserable childhood that she spent as a mixed-race child in a white family. This misery is compounded by the fact that her black father abandoned her and that she had been sent to school at Nashville so that she would learn how to live with her...

(The entire section is 733 words.)


Quicksand begins in Naxos, “the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country, north or south.” In fact, Naxos is much better than most schools for whites, according to Helga Crane, the main character. Naxos is based on the famous Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, founded by educator Booker T. Washington in 1881. Helga states that she wanted to teach at Naxos “to be part of this monument to one man’s genius and vision.” Although no dates are given in the novel, it can be assumed that the time frame is early 1900s, based the references to the Harlem Renaissance movement later in the novel.

Helga is a native of Chicago but has been educated at the fictional Devon School in Nashville, Tennessee. She accepts a position as a literature teacher at Naxos, hoping to find her place in life, but she feels out of place in the rural setting. Helga endures two years at Naxos, but the conformity and regimentation of life there stifles her. As she sits in her room contemplating her exodus from Naxos, she is surrounded by the elegant decor that she has chosen to decorate her room in the teachers’ quarters. Brilliant colors, stylish clothes, classic literature—these surroundings contrast greatly with the plainness of Naxos. Naxos has ceased to be a school for Helga. Rather, she sees it as a machine, a “show place in the black belt, exemplification of the white man’s magnanimity.” When a white preacher tells the “Naxos Negroes” that they are a fine example to the rest of the country because they “know their place” and “know where to stop” Helga decides she can no longer be a part of the hypocrisy and pettiness. At Naxos, Helga has discovered that Negro society is “as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society.” Helga leaves Naxos and for the rest of her life she refers to its people as “the snobbish black folk in Naxos.”

The name “Naxos” may have been based upon a large island in Greece. According to Greek mythology, Theseus abandoned Ariadne on Naxos after she helped him kill the Minotaur. Dionysus, god of wine, fell in love with Ariadne, but Ariadne still loved Theseus and either killed herself or ascended to heaven. This myth is depicted by Richard Strauss in his opera Ariadne auf Naxos, and could have had something to do with Larsen’s naming the school Naxos. The island had become a prison to Ariadne, and perhaps to Helga Crane as well.

Helga was born and grew up in Chicago, and it is to here that she returns after fleeing Naxos. Her benefactor, Uncle Peter, lives there and Helga is hopeful that she can rely on him to help her out. She recalls that Uncle Peter is the only one who “thought kindly, or even calmly, of her.” Uncle Peter had paid for Helga’s education and she hopes to borrow money from him if she cannot find a job. Helga arrives in cold, “gray Chicago,” which “seethed, surged and scurried about her.” The atmosphere reminds Helga of her sad and lonely childhood, growing up as an “unloved little Negro girl” in a white family. Helga recalls how her black father abandoned his family and her mother was forced to remarry someone “of her own race” to survive. Unfortunately, Uncle Peter has failed to tell Helga that he has...

(The entire section is 1364 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ahlin, Lena. The “New Negro” in the Old World: Culture and Performance in James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larsen. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2006. Compares Quicksand to Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and Fauset’s There Is Confusion (1924).

Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Claims the ideas in Quicksand “declare their author’s rebellion as an artist.” Notes that, in Helga, Larsen creates a character who refuses to act out the white fantasies she would be expected to perform. Also compares Larsen with her contemporary Zora Neale Hurston.

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Treats Larsen’s use of the mulatto figure as a “narrative device of mediation.” Explores the interconnections of sexual, racial, and class identity and makes the claim that Larsen offers no resolutions to the contradictions she raises in the novel.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Presents an analysis of Helga as a mulatto and discusses Larsen’s attempted innovations in the depictions of women characters.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Sees Helga as struggling against her sensuality, but surrendering to it in the frustrating experiences she undergoes. Her final surrender to sensuality, in the marriage to Reverend Green, results in her death.

Lackey, Michael. African American Atheists and Political Liberation: A Study of the Sociocultural Dynamics of Faith. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. Includes a chapter reading the conversion narrative in Quicksand as a scene of rape.

McDowell, Deborah E. Introduction to “Quicksand” and “Passing,” by Nella Larsen. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986. Extensive analysis of Quicksand. Deals with Larsen’s exploration of female sexual fulfillment and studies the novel’s narrative strategy, which reflects the tension between sexual expression and repression.