Quicksand Analysis

  • Quicksand can be read as a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, in that Helga seeks a stable personal identity as well as a place she can consider home. Although she undergoes a series of defining experiences, she has not fulfilled her restless longing by novel’s end.
  • Quicksand is considered a cornerstone work of the Harlem Renaissance, and its publication made Larsen a fixture in that artistic circle.
  • Quicksand is often read as a semi-autobiographical novel. Larsen and Helga share many traits and circumstances, though the novel diverges from the facts of Larsen’s life in the later chapters.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618

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.

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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 community in search of a less hypocritical path in Chicago, where she pursues her Uncle Peter only to be brutally rejected and disowned by his racist new wife.

Helga’s homeless and rootless migrancy, established early in the novel, accompany her sense of dual alienation to frame the “tragic mulatta” narrative. Her first employer, Mrs. Hayes-Rore, at once assuages and compounds Helga’s struggle, for while she offers Helga a way out of gray Chicago and a job and home in New York, she also advises her to keep her dismal history to herself. This repression makes her defensive during encounters with people from her past, as is shown in her ambivalence and anger after meeting with Dr. Anderson in New York. Her uncle’s subsequent termination of ties with her and the internalized racism that rejection evokes make life seem “an excruciating agony.” Her related conflict with Anne over Audrey Denney, whom Helga admires and Anne despises, solidifies her resolve to travel to Denmark.

Unfortunately, here, too, Helga “didn’t at all count,” except insofar as the Dahls were able to use her exotic “other” status for their own social-climbing ends. She refuses, to their chagrin, to marry the egotistic artist Axel Olsen, realizing that his unflattering portrait of her bespeaks his distorted regard for her sensuality. In her consequent desire to return to her black heritage, in part as an escape from her too-prolonged dissatisfaction among European whites, Helga is finally able to empathize with and forgive her father’s abandonment.

After rejecting yet another proposal—the second from James Vayle, now assistant principal at Naxos—Helga suffers rejection, this time by Dr....

(The entire section contains 3651 words.)

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Critical Essays