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.

Form and Content

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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.

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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. Anderson, whose illicit kiss upon her return from Denmark she mistakenly assumes reciprocates her own dawning awareness of desire. Seeking shelter from the tumultuous storm that both figuratively and literally engulfs her, she wanders, hysterical, into a fateful revival in which participants assume she is a repentant Jezebel. After convincing herself of God’s benevolence, she assents to the illusory stability that marriage to the Reverend Pleasant Green provides. Serial pregnancies bring her three babies in twenty months, a stillborn, exhaustion, and depression. Because her own grievous past will not allow her to desert her children, she continues to inhabit this downward spiral; she is pregnant with her fifth child as the novel closes.

Context

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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 reflect for fear that it will necessitate greater denial. Thus does she—in typical submissive-wife fashion—rationalize and deny her husband’s offensive hygiene and slovenly habits. She even numbs herself to these disgusting traits: “she was even able to be unaware” and to ignore his suffocating, asphyxiating self-satisfaction (which “pour from him like gas from a leaking pipe”) and his neglect. Only in illness is Helga able to secure any quiet or tender care and protection, which is, significantly, proffered by a woman nurse. Although her only road to recovery is to leave this exploitative institution, the burden of her abandonment and its grave consequences for her entire life do not permit her to desert the children, even to save herself. Yet her severe depression—more of a breakthrough than a breakdown—clarifies the travesty of religion’s oppressiveness to women, and this confrontation suggests that time will continue to reveal to her the truths that will genuinely retrieve her from the quagmires, just as her pivotal understanding and forgiveness of her father had earlier enabled her to extricate herself from the quicksand of appeasing relatives by marrying a conceited white bore.

Larsen’s novel also critiques the travesty of determining one’s worth in binarism, which unequally values different races, sexes, and classes. In Denmark, “she didn’t at all count,” because she was a black middle-class rather than upper-class woman who, because she was on display as a curio, peacock, decoration, or otherwise exoticized object, was not fully human.

For all these reasons, Quicksand was a critical success and won Larsen both the Harmon Foundation Bronze Medal and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Unfortunately, a false accusation of plagiarism and the breakdown of her own marriage after fourteen years prompted her own withdrawal from the literary scene and into nursing. Her retrieval from the quagmire of obscurity by Deborah McDowell and others involved in the American Women Writers Series assures her a rightful place as a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance, one who suffers a variation on the black female Bildungsroman and thereby influences many contemporary writers, such as Alice Walker, whose novel Meridian (1976) is clearly influenced by Quicksand.

Places Discussed

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Naxos

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

*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 “own kind.” Moreover, Helga has difficulty finding a job that suits her training and expectations and is rebuffed by her maternal uncle’s white wife, who wants nothing to do with his half-black niece. Fortunately for Helga, she soon lands a job as an assistant with Mrs. Jeanette Hayes-Rore, a well-to-do black matron with whom she travels to New York.

*Harlem

*Harlem. African American neighborhood of the northern portion of New York City’s Manhattan Island. There, Helga finds herself among African Americans of all walks of life, from prosperous socialites and those concerned with “Negro Uplift,” to the club and cabaret set, and to the poor and downtrodden masses. She is alternately pleased to be among such a vibrant group and repulsed by the vulgarity of some. Soon the old feelings of ambivalence and discontent engulf her, and she resolves to flee New York in favor of some other place. The arrival of a check for five thousand dollars from her Uncle Peter in Chicago, accompanied by the suggestion that she visit her mother’s sister in Denmark provides her with the wherewithal for another escape, which she undertakes at once.

After returning to New York later, Helga discovers that she is still not satisfied. After an encounter with Dr. Robert Anderson, her former boss and now her best friend’s husband, Helga has what amounts to an emotional crisis and finds herself in a storefront church where she is rescued, spiritually and sexually, by the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green.

*Copenhagen

*Copenhagen. Capital city of Denmark, where Helga arrives with great relief after escaping the tawdriness of Harlem and the insult of being considered a member of African American classes to which she feels she does not belong. Although her initial stay with her Aunt Katrina and Uncle Poul in Copenhagen is pleasant, she soon develops a distaste for being constantly on display as a dark object in the midst of a predominantly blonde-haired white society. She is particularly offended by the advances of the painter Axel Olsen, whom she dismisses angrily. Interestingly, Helga realizes that not only does she miss America, but she misses being among other African Americans—her people—and she resolves to flee Denmark for Harlem so that she can re-embrace her own.

*Alabama

*Alabama. With her minister husband, Helga moves to a tiny town in rural Alabama to do the Lord’s work, but ultimately finds it as unfulfilling as everything else she has attempted. Unfortunately, Helga finds herself trapped by the marriage, by motherhood, and by the finality of the realization that there is nowhere else for her to go.

Setting

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Naxos
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.

Chicago
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 married. His new wife is a bigoted woman who coldly sends Helga away, telling her that Peter is not really her uncle since her parents were never married. She does not want to be the aunt of a bi-racial woman. Helga has trouble finding a job in Chicago because she has no references. She cannot even find work as a domestic. Fortunately, she is hired by a Mrs. Jeanette Hayes-Rore, a wealthy black woman who is an important part of Chicago’s black community. Helga travels to New York with Mrs. Hayes-Rore and decides to stay there.

Harlem
Harlem is an African-American neighborhood in the northern section of Manhattan in New York City. In the early 1900s, it became the center of a growing African-American middle class community. Quicksand was published in 1928, right at the beginning of what is known as the Harlem Renaissance. During the 1920s and 1930s, there was an explosion of art and intellectual life in Harlem. Great jazz music, poetry, plays and literature were born during this period. This is the Harlem of Helga Crane.

Helga moves to Harlem after a short sojourn in Chicago. Mrs. Hayes-Rore promises to introduce Helga to people “with tastes and ideas similar to [her] own,” one of whom is Anne Grey, her wealthy, young and widowed niece-in-law. Anne takes Helga under her wing and introduces her to people from all walks of life in Harlem. She meets wealthy socialites among the African-American community who are active in the “Negro Uplift” movement. Helga’s new Harlem friends share her contempt for Naxos and its accomplishments. In Harlem, Helga rubs elbows with the teeming masses and attends clubs, restaurants and museums. Her world was “bounded by Central Park, Fifth Avenue, St. Nicholas Park, and 145th Street.” She is both excited and repulsed by the varying elements of society to which she is exposed in Harlem. Everything was there for her—“vice and goodness, sadness and gayety, ignorance and wisdom, ugliness and beauty, poverty and richness.”

Soon, however, Helga again becomes overwhelmed by feelings of confusion and restlessness. Her friends in Harlem are inconsistent, she discovers. They angrily condemn white people yet imitate their white lifestyles. Helga decides to leave New York. While she is trying to decide where to go next, she receives a check for $5,000 from her Uncle Peter, who suggests she go to Denmark to visit his sister, Katrina. “She always wanted you,” he tells Helga. One day Helga runs into Dr. Robert Anderson, the principal from Naxos, at a conference. He now lives and works in New York. She finds that she is attracted to him, but after seeing him dancing with the beautiful Audrey Denney at a party, she impulsively decides that he must not be interested in her and decides to move to Denmark with her aunt and uncle, as Uncle Peter has suggested.

Denmark
Helga arrives in Denmark to the enthusiastic reception of her Aunt Katrina and Uncle Poul. They live in Copenhagen, the capital and largest city in Denmark. They are well-off financially and well-connected socially. Helga’s aunt and uncle enjoy dressing her in stylish gowns and jewelry and showing her off to all of Copenhagen society. Helga soon becomes frustrated by “her peacock life”—being constantly on display among the blond, blue-eyed Danes. She realizes that they view her as an exotic rarity and not as one of them. She is surprised and insulted when a noted artist, Axel Olsen, proposes to her. After Helga refuses to marry Axel Olsen, she realizes she is homesick, “...not for America, but for Negroes,” and returns to Harlem for Anne’s wedding to Dr. Anderson. Helga becomes distraught when she realizes she still loves Dr. Anderson in spite of the fact that he is now married to Anne, so one night she stumbles into a charismatic church service, finds religion, and marries a backwoods pastor from Alabama.

Alabama
Helga impulsively marries the Reverend Pleasant Green to spite Anne and Dr. Anderson and moves with him to a small town in rural Alabama to “labor in the vineyard of the Lord.” Helga at first enjoys the “novelty of the thing, the change,” but as usual, she ultimately finds herself not only unfulfilled but woefully out of place among the reverend’s flock. As the preacher’s wife, Helga is respected, so when she suggests to the rural black women that perhaps they could dress more appropriately or perhaps they could make some modest improvements to their homes, the brethren politely reply, “Yuh all is right, Mis’Green,” and “Ah sutinly will, Mis’ Green” but go about their usual ways. Helga soon finds herself trapped by her marriage and by her children and Alabama becomes the final quicksand of her life.

Bibliography

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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.

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