Quicksand Additional Summary

Nella Larsen


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Abandoned by her black father and held at bay by her white immigrant mother, Helga Crane is no stranger to the loneliness of an “unloved, unloving, and unhappy” childhood. Now her young adulthood has become just as troubled. Helga wants to flee the snobbery, drabness, and rigidity of Naxos, the school for black youth where she had taught for two listless years. She therefore breaks her engagement to the well-heeled black Atlantan James Vayle (much to the delight of his family, who considered her socially inferior) and gives notice of her resignation to her principal, Dr. Robert Anderson. This gentle young man was one of the few at that dour institution who could make Helga laugh and feel completely at ease. Yet when he...

(The entire section is 721 words.)

Extended Summary

Quicksand is the story of Helga Crane, a beautiful, intelligent, and cultivated bi-racial woman. As the story begins, Helga is sitting in her room thinking. She is twenty-two and teaches at Naxos, “the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country, north or south.” Helga is planning her exodus from Naxos. She plans to move to Chicago, where she was born and where her Uncle Peter lives. She is frustrated by the complacency of the Naxos Negroes, who are too eager to embrace the words of a white preacher (“that holy white man of God”) who has told them what good examples they are because they know their place. Life in Naxos has become intolerable. Helga feels trapped. She is engaged to be...

(The entire section is 2970 words.)