Quicksand Themes

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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

Quicksand is more than a novel about a person’s search for identity. It offers a critical commentary on diverse cultural and racial societies—their oppressive institutions, outmoded traditions, false values, and distorted ways of perceiving reality. Because the protagonist is a woman of mixed racial heritage, Nella Larsen can easily shift her character from one different community to the next. Furthermore, because Helga’s less-than-full commitment to either black or white society provides her with special insight, Larsen can illustrate and criticize the distinguishing elements that make up the different racial cultures.

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Larsen communicates many important ideas to readers through Helga’s central consciousness in the novel. The Naxos school is a black middle-class training ground where new ideas are not tolerated and individual freedom is discouraged. The name “Naxos” is probably used by Larsen as an anagram for “Saxon,” to denote the school’s obedience to the dominant Anglo-Saxon society. This kind of life is in contrast to the free and joyous existence of the black residents of Harlem, where Helga temporarily finds escape. In Harlem, however, she soon realizes that there, too, black men and women are imitating white patterns of life, even as they denounce the actions of white persons. Furthermore, she finds the sensual excesses practiced in Harlem to be repulsive to the values of her moral upbringing.

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Again seeking refuge, Helga lives in the white society of Denmark, but once more she encounters hypocrisy and false attitudes. The Danes pride themselves on their nonracist ideas, but they are oblivious to the fact that they see Helga as a stereotypical black woman rather than as an individual person. Finally, living in a rural community in Alabama, Helga thinks that she has at last found her identity and a sense of belonging with these simple black folk; soon, though, she finds herself constrained and trapped again. This time, the oppressive forces are the institutions of marriage, church, and family.

Helga is also tossed around in her emotional life. The men she knows are for the most part self-centered, shallow-thinking, and, in the case of Robert Anderson, too restrained to give fulfillment to Helga’s life. Some of the blame for their actions can be placed on the times in which they live. During the sexual revolution of the 1920’s, the demand for openness in sexual relationships caused much confusion and conflict between men and women. Helga herself has sexual feelings that confuse her and sometimes lead her astray, as in the incident with Anderson that sends her into the arms of the Reverend Green. She opts for marriage at the end because she gives in to her ingrained sense of propriety, which allows her to think that marriage might be the solution to her problems. Instead, Helga finds herself pushed deeper down into the quicksand that finally suffocates and destroys her. She has been unable to find fulfillment of her sexual nature, happiness in her role as a woman, or a satisfactory identification with any part of her racial heritage.

What Nella Larsen displays in her novel is a realistic and damning study of white and black societies. She focuses on their oppressive institutions and on all their negative practices in relation to race, class, and gender. In writing her story, Larsen reverses the pattern of the nineteenth century slave narratives that chronicle a captive’s journey to the North, where freedom and identity can be secured. Helga’s journey is to the North and back to the South, and in neither place is there any escape for her.


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2827

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, Helga is mistaken for a prostitute. The only positions available to people of color are as domestic servants, and Helga cannot sew or cook. She knows and loves books, but her race disqualifies her from working at the public library despite her education. Helga then meets a well-to-do black woman, Mrs. Hayes-Rore, who hires Helga to help with a speech on racial equality on the way to New York. Mrs. Hayes-Rore offers to introduce Helga to influential black people in Harlem but then warns her not to tell anyone that she is part white because “Colored people won’t understand it.”

In Harlem, Helga sets aside her whiteness, assuring herself that she has finally found her place among the bourgeois blacks who “have the same ideas as she does.” The racial hypocrisy she has been trying to escape soon surrounds her again in Harlem, however. Helga lives with the beautiful widow Anne Grey who is prominent in the “Negro Uplift Movement” but whose lifestyle imitates whites. Anne is an outspoken critic of white people, yet dislikes all things Negro, “...the songs, the dances, and the softly blurred speech of the race.” Anne preaches racial equality, yet she is appalled by the beautiful Audrey Denney who gives parties “for white and colored people together” where white men dance with colored women. Helga herself eschews the hypocrisy of these bourgeois blacks, yet out among the teeming masses of Harlem, she struggles internally, feeling “as if she were shut up, boxed up, with hundreds of her face, closed up with that something in the racial character which had always been, to her, inexplicable, alien. Why, she demanded in fierce rebellion, should she be yoked to these despised black folk?”

Helga flees to Denmark to escape racist America, but here she encounters racism of an unexpected type. The Danes are not prejudiced against Helga’s mixed race, yet they do not view her as one of them. Helga’s white aunt and uncle parade her around Copenhagen like a beautiful exotic black doll, unwittingly stereotyping her. When they urge her to marry a prominent Dane, Helga informs them she does not believe in mixed marriage. Her aunt and uncle are shocked, assuring her that race is not an issue for the enlightened Danes. When the famous artist Axel Olsen proposes to Helga, however, she realizes that he, too, is a hypocrite, wanting only to possess her because she is different. Helga refuses his proposal with the excuse that she could never marry a white man. In Denmark, Helga realizes finally that she is more black than white. Moreover, she finds she is homesick not for America but “for Negroes.”

Returning to America, Helga settles into being black. Concurrent conflicts over her social, sexual, and religious identities have not been resolved, however. Her breakdown over being rejected by former Naxos principal Dr. Anderson (and now Anne’s husband) propels her to impulsively marry an odious black preacher. This unfortunate marriage destroys all hope Helga has for finding happiness.

The tragedy of Quicksand is that Helga is trying to transcend race, to reconcile her black and white identities. Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream that one day people would “not be judged by the color of their skin." Such a world does not exist for Helga Crane.


Race is a major theme in Quicksand, but it is not Helga’s only conflict. Helga’s mulatto complexion allows her to move freely between black and white cultures, but it is her education and refinement that allow her access to the black middle-class environments of Naxos and Harlem and the white upper-class society of Denmark. Helga fails to establish a social identity in any of these environments, however, and ultimately descends into a social wasteland in rural Alabama.

Helga’s insecurities about her family background cripple her socially and lead to repeated self-imposed isolation. She feels lonely at the “Negro school” where other students have families to return to on holidays and she chooses to spend hers alone in the city. At Naxos she discovers that "if you couldn't prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn't belong.” She admits that she is committing “social suicide” by not marrying James Vayle whose family are “people of consequence.” When Dr. Anderson pleads with Helga to remain at Naxos, he tells her that she is a good example to the students because she is “a lady” and “has dignity and breeding.” Helga angrily informs him that she is neither; she was born in a Chicago slum. She is no more capable of reconciling her social identity than her racial identity.

Chicago proves to be a social no-man’s-land for Helga. Without work references, she cannot even qualify for a domestic position. In Harlem, there are different social conflicts. Helga lives with the wealthy Anne Grey and enjoys a privileged, cultured lifestyle yet she is surrounded by the teeming masses of Harlem whose sensual extremes are abhorrent to her morals. She cannot identify completely with either class. When Helga feels the teeming masses closing in on her, she again feels trapped. Thanks to money from her white uncle, Helga is able to escape to Denmark, but in Denmark Helga is a foreigner. At first she enjoys the “peacock” upper-class life imposed upon her by her rich aunt and uncle, but she soon realizes they are using her to advance their own social position. They suggest several suitable marriage partners for Helga, all well-connected socially but all white. Race and culture converge and confuse her. Helga has another chance to establish a social identity by marrying a Danish artist, Axel Olsen, but when she realizes he views her as an exotic commodity, she rejects his proposal and returns to America.

Dr. Anderson’s rejection of Helga prompts her to marry the Reverend Pleasant Green. Helga’s marriage does not make her feel inferior in terms of race or class. She attempts to embrace her poor black life in Alabama, but before long, she is trying to impose her middle-class values on the members of Reverend Pleasant Green’s flock, telling the women how to dress and how to decorate their homes. Once again, her internal conflicts have not been resolved. Helga gives in to the social institution of marriage, hoping to resolve and legitimize her sexual conflicts, but her marriage to the repulsive Reverend Green is social suicide from which there is no escape. Helga becomes trapped in a final quagmire as the ever-pregnant wife of a poor black Southern preacher, the worst possible place for an educated Northern black woman.


Dr. Hazel V. Carby, a pioneering critic in the field of black feminist literature, has called Helga Crane “the first truly sexual black female protagonist in Afro-American fiction." Prior to the publication of Quicksand, most black authors avoided representing black female sexuality rather than risk portraying it in its familiar and insulting stereotypical fashion. Critic Kimberly Monda says that Quicksand is a criticism of “the ways in which white racist constructions of black women’s allegedly inherent lasciviousness have cut black women off from experiencing their legitimate sexual desires.” Helga Crane struggles to legitimize her sexual desires amidst two cultures that often view women as sex objects, not human beings. Through this struggle, Nella Larsen illustrates how both black and white cultures have turned sexual expression into sexual repression for black women.

A moral and proper woman, Helga Crane is ambivalent regarding her sexual desires. She struggles to reconcile them with social respectability. Throughout the novel, Helga rebels against the attempts of others to objectify her gender, yet she devotes a great deal of effort toward perpetuating those things that make her a sexual object—clothes, makeup, grooming, and jewelry. In Naxos, she wears beautiful, colorful clothing that shocks her colleagues yet fulfills her “racial need for gorgeousness.” Unemployed and practically destitute in Chicago, Helga still dresses impeccably in a “suit of fine blue twill faultlessly tailored.” In Harlem, Helga continues to spend a great deal of money on outfitting herself, and in Denmark she allows herself to be dressed up, bejeweled, and paraded around in a manner that invites sexual attention. She is horrified, however, when the artist Axel Olsen responds to her sexual invitation and tells her she has “the warm impulsive nature of the women of Africa” but the “soul of a prostitute.” In Helga’s mind, this white man has insulted her as a black woman with his warped view of her sensuality. She soundly rejects his marriage proposal by telling him she is “not for sale.”

Helga finds her sexuality both compelling and repelling. The world in which she lives sanctions female sexuality only within marriage, yet Helga rejects several chances to thus fulfill and legitimize her sexuality. While still in Naxos, Helga reminisces about the sexual power she has over her fiancé James Vayle. Although she has “allowed him frequent kisses,” she freely admits that while she likes James, she does not love him like her mother must have loved her father. She finds fellow teacher Miss MacGooden’s plan never to marry because there are things “entirely too repulsive for a lady of delicate and sensitive nature to submit to” silly, yet she becomes bewildered when her various encounters with Dr. Robert Anderson arouse her sexually. In Harlem, she dreams about one day marrying “one of those alluring brown or yellow men” so that they may give her “the things which she had now come to desire,” but she recoils in aversion when she watches them dance at a club, “twisting their bodies” and “shaking themselves ecstatically.” Helga rejects Dr. Anderson for being “too controlled” and unable to act upon his feelings for her, yet it is his illicit and passionate kiss while he is married to her friend Anne that drives her into the sexual encounter with Reverend Green that ultimately leads to her disastrous marriage.

Helga rejects marriage to James Vayle and Axel Olsen because they both stereotype her in various ways, yet by marring Reverend Green Helga becomes both the “prostitute” that Olsen accuses her of being and the baby maker that James insists is her duty to become in order to “advance the race.” Helga achieves sexual fulfillment in her marriage to Reverend Green, but the cost is too high. Even though she describes their nights as being “emotional, palpitating, amorous,” as a woman she must daily transform herself into a cook and maid in exchange for her sexual gratification while her working-class husband is free to flirt unabashedly with his female parishioners.

The women in Reverend Green’s church cannot understand why Helga complains about being “used up.” “Laws, child, we’s all ti’ed,” they tell her. They intimate that it is her womanly duty to abandon her body and neglect her dreams. Ironically, it is a woman nurse, Miss Hartley, who cares for Helga as she recovers from childbirth. It is Miss Hartley who carefully urges Helga to rest and eat properly while Helga’s lecherous and self-serving husband is more concerned with how soon Helga will be able to tend to that “scorched melon-patch” and join him in bed. Helga’s marriage is represented as the ultimate trap for black women of the time.


Nella Larsen presents religion as another force that oppresses black women. Helga experiences a seething anger toward a visiting white preacher who compliments the “Naxos Negroes” for knowing their place and then asking “his God’s blessing upon them”—the white God. In Chicago, Helga admits that she is not religious, “taking nothing on trust,” yet she attends the “very fashionable” Negro Episcopal Church hoping that someone will reach out to her. She notices that everyone is admiring her clothes “but that was all.” Vowing to distrust religion even more, she leaves. Instead of offering Helga love and refuge, religion becomes merely a cold institution, another force that fails her.

By contrast, back in Harlem, it is a vibrant, unrestrained charismatic black church into which Helga stumbles the night she is trying to escape her rejection by Dr. Anderson. Mistaking Helga for a “por los’ Jezebel” in need of Jesus, the congregants engage in a frenzy of religious zeal praying for Helga’s redemption. Overcome by lack of food and too much alcohol the night before, Helga collapses begging God to have mercy on her. She meets Reverend Green, he walks her home, she seduces him, and she tells herself that God will make it “come out all right.” She resolves to marry him that very day “in the confusion of seductive repentance,” but laboring with her ill-suited husband “in the vineyard of the Lord” becomes an oppressive force that Helga cannot escape. Helga is expected to forsake her former cultured life and embrace the domestic duties of womanhood and childbearing. Larsen presents black Christianity as a religion that requires black women to leave their freedom at the church door.

By the end of the novel, Helga entirely dismisses religion as a positive force in her life. Her suffering has “beaten down her protective wall of artificial faith.” Life is not a miracle, she concludes, “for Negroes, at least.” Life is merely “a great disappointment, something to be got through.” Helga decides that the “white man’s God” does not love all people regardless of race, and “ten million black folk” were fools for believing this lie “when daily before their eyes was enacted its contradiction.” Helga is left grieving for her children who will grow up in the same “vicious, hypocritical land” in which she has failed to find her soul. She cannot even blame God, because she now knows “He does not exist.”

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