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.)