The main themes in Quicksand are the relationship between race and one’s sense of belonging, the tensions imposed by class, the repression of women, and the oppressive role of religion.
- Race: Because of her biracial background, Helga feels that she belongs in neither black nor white communities.
- Class: Helga, well-educated, moves among wealthy communities but always feels like a fraud or a curiosity.
- Gender: Helga is objectified by the men she encounters, and her desires are repressed by the culture she inhabits.
- Religion: Religion, at first promising to Helga, proves a tool of manipulation.
Last Updated on January 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2823
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
Nella Larsen opens Quicksand with these lines from the poem “Cross” by Langston Hughes. It is a fitting introduction to a novel that portrays the challenges encountered by a biracial woman struggling to escape the oppressive forces of race, class, gender, and religion in early twentieth-century America. Quicksand is a bildungsroman that explores the psychological, moral, and social shaping of a sensitive young woman searching for answers and experiences. Larsen harshly criticizes the forces that have shaped the cultures of both black and white society while narrating the story of a woman who, much like herself, sought but never found happiness.
Helga Crane is well suited to evaluate the elements of both black and white cultures. As a biracial woman, she possesses insights into both societies. Seeking to establish her racial identity, Helga moves back and forth in both societies, discovering each's values and exposing each's prejudices. Helga’s internal struggle is as difficult as her external struggle to fit in because for most of the novel, she is confused by the racial hypocrisies she encounters and is incapable of fully committing to either culture.
The hypocrisy begins with Helga’s family. Helga’s black father deserts her white Danish mother, who is then forced to remarry someone of her own race in order to survive. Helga grows up the only black child in a white family. The memories of her stepfamily’s “malicious hate” still haunt her. Her white uncle sends her to a “Negro school,” but behind her back he expresses fears that she will not amount to anything because of her Negro blood. At the Negro school, Helga learns that while her darkness is not “loathsome,” it is not dark enough for the other students to embrace her. Neither blacks nor whites welcome the “unloved little Negro girl.”
Helga hopes to help her race while finding her black soul at Naxos school, but she finds Naxos to be nothing but “a showplace in the black belt, exemplification of the white man’s magnanimity, refutation of the black man’s inefficiency.” The “Naxos Negroes” complacently accept the white man’s estimation of them as Negroes who “know their place” while they are supposedly being educated so that they can transcend that place. Alone in her room, Helga decides she cannot tolerate such hypocrisy and resolves to seek refuge in Chicago where her white uncle still lives. Helga flees Naxos on a “Jim Crow” train, seated with “others of her race.” When a white man spits into the drinking fountain while walking through the “colored section,” Helga immediately notices a “stinging thirst” symbolic of her internal “thirst” to escape. She convinces a white conductor to sell her a berth apart from “the endless others” where she can rest in self-imposed exile on the way to Chicago.
In Chicago, Helga is again confronted by white and black racism. Her emotions are assaulted by endless racial slights. Uncle Peter’s new wife cannot imagine herself as the aunt of a Negro girl and sends Helga away. Wandering the streets confused,...
(The entire section contains 3416 words.)
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