Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

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.

Again seeking...

(The entire section is 593 words.)