How is sexuality represented in Nella Larsen's Quicksand?

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Helga falls in love with her doctor, who is black and from a higher social caste than her. She is afraid of being rejected by his family, so she chooses to marry a man from Denmark instead.

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Helga Crane is torn about her sexual feelings. She is a well-educated and skeptical young woman, but society makes her feel some shame about her erotic desires. She tends to repress them so as to seem more in control and more respectable.

Helga almost marries two men, James Vayle and...

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Axel Olsen. Both are good matches in a social sense: both men have steady incomes, good looks, and respectable families. James is black but of a higher social caste within the black community than Helga. Helga is afraid his family will reject her. Olsen is white and from the more tolerant Denmark, but he sees her more as an exotic object than as a person.

Dr. Anderson is the man she wants most. He is intelligent and handsome, but she finds herself unable to be with him due to her own reluctance and fear of being labeled a loose woman.

The one element in common with Helga's three failed romances is that she does not want to be vulnerable. She is terrified of rejection since, as a mixed-race woman, she is rejected all the time by both blacks and whites. There is also, of course, the fact that women during the early twentieth century were considered immoral if they acted upon their sensual impulses. Helga has internalized this shame-based attitude towards sexuality to such a degree that even the faintest hint of eroticism in dancing repulses her, for example.

In the end, she marries the Reverend Green, a southern black minister who would appear to be the last man someone like Helga would want to marry, let alone have children with. He lacks the good looks and education of her former three suitors, but Helga feels the religious, stable world he represents will save her from being lonely. Her sexual life becomes less linked to enjoyment and love and more to her social duty as a mother. Ironically, the religious Green views Helga as much as a sexual object as Axel Olsen did.

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Helga Crane, the protagonist of Quicksand, finds that she can fit into neither the white nor black world, and her sense of sexual dissatisfaction mirrors her sense of racial isolation. She calls off her engagement to James Vayle, a black man whom she meets at Naxos, with a sense of relief because she finds that his elite black world in Atlanta does not accept her. Later, she finds that while she is at first attracted to Axel Olsen, a Danish painter, he comes to seem repugnant to her. And, in the end, she marries a black preacher and feels discontent with her life of constant pregnancy and household tasks. She treats the only man she cares about, Dr. Anderson, with a sense of disdain and cannot allow herself to pursue a relationship with him. 

She is constantly thwarted in her quest for happiness. She thinks to herself, "What, exactly, she wondered, was happiness? Very positively she wanted it. Yet her conception of it had no tangibility" (24). She can't define what would make her happy, and she can't therefore achieve happiness.

The way in which she is treated as a biracial woman also complicates her ability to achieve happiness in her romantic relationships. Her elite African American boyfriend, James Vayle, disdains her because she has no family, and Axel Olsen, the Danish painter, treats her as an exotic creature who he is drawn to in spite of himself. In the end, she finds herself relegated to a life of domestic drudgery and childbearing as the wife of an African American preacher. She never finds a partner who she feels is an equal and who she truly desires. 

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Sexuality as a theme is primarily represented through the character of Helga Crane and her struggles to come to terms with and legitimise her own sexual needs against the backdrop of two very different cultures that insist on objectifying women sexually. Through this massive conflict, the author demonstrates how both black and white cultures are responsible for creating sexual inhibitions for black women.

If we consider Helga Crane's development through the novel, we can see that she is rather ambivalent concerning her sexuality and one of her conflicts is the way in which she tries to make her sexuality "fit in" with notions of social respectability. Although she attempts to reject the objectification of what it means to be a woman, at the same time, she seems to spend a lot of hours engaged in activities that implicitly support such objectification, such as the use of make up and jewelry.

This sense of ambivalence is supported by the way that the society of which she is a part only allows women to express themselves sexually in marriage, and yet she refuses various chances to marry. At various stages in the novel, she is shown both to yearn sex but to be repelled by the idea, for example, whilst she is in Harlem, she spends lots of time dreaming about marrying "one of those alluring brown or yellow men [so that they can give her] the things which she had now come to desire," but the next moment, when she sees these same "alluring" men gyrating at a dance club, she is repelled by the sight.

When she does marry, it is a disaster, and she is forced into marriage with a man who insists on her strict adherence to traditional notions of womanhood. Her identity and character becomes tied down to the roles of being a sexual object and a cook and a made as she tries to cater to the needs of her husband, who, in turn, spends his time flirting outrageously with the various female parishioners he has. The trap that marriage is in this novel is most explicitly shown when Helga is trying to recover from childbirth and her husband unsympathetically wants her to get better so that he can continue receiving sexual fulfilment and she can look after the garden, or the "scorched melon-patch" that is her lot.

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