Nella Larsen’s Quicksand is the story of a mulatto woman who cannot find happiness and fulfillment in any of the worlds in which she lives. Her dual origins permit her to pass from one culture to another, but her outsider perspective gives her the ability to discern serious flaws in both societies, thus causing her to feel nowhere at home.
Although Nella Larsen employs a third-person omniscient point of view, Helga Crane’s character is the central consciousness within the story. Perceptions of various events and interpretations of experiences are those formulating within the mind of Helga. From the start of the novel, readers are drawn immediately into her thoughts and feelings.
Helga is a young schoolteacher in the black southern community of Naxos. At first, she is happy there; however, after two years of living in an oppressive atmosphere in which black students and teachers are molded into the forms of the white middle class, Helga decides to leave. She meets with the new principal, Dr. Robert Anderson, who seems cool and controlled to her. He pleads with Helga to stay and almost convinces her, until he calls her a fine lady. This remark angers Helga, because it indicates he is presumptuous about her and sees her as less than a full-bodied woman. Thus, she bids farewell to Naxos.
Helga travels to Chicago, where she was born. There, she looks up her Uncle Peter, whom she remembers fondly. She discovers that he is now married and that his wife wants nothing to do with a family member of mixed blood. Desperate, Helga seeks employment, and she finds a position with a wealthy widow, Mrs. Hayes-Rore, who needs someone to help her write and edit speeches on racial matters that she delivers at conferences. Mrs. Hayes-Rore takes Helga with her to New York City and convinces her to live in Harlem with her friend Anne Grey.
In Harlem, Helga is fascinated with the excitement of the crowds, the nightlife, parties, conversations—all the activities of the animated black men and women of the bustling city. She enjoys living in Anne’s luxurious home and accompanies her to gatherings at which guests seriously discuss issues of racial uplift. Helga, however, begins to notice Anne’s weakness for white society’s upper-class values and manners, despite the fact that Anne takes every opportunity to express distaste for all whites. She especially criticizes those white persons who come to Harlem to indulge themselves in “Negro life” and to seek out sexual liaisons.
At a social function in Harlem, Helga...
(The entire section is 1049 words.)