Table of Contents
2. Helga’s Journey: The Search for her Black Female Self
2.5 From Harlem to Rural Alabama
4. Works Cited
Nella Larsen’s Quicksand was published to critical acclaim in 1928 and is said to be one of the key texts of the Harlem Renaissance era. Larsen herself was of Danish-Carribean ancestry and was highly interested in issues of racial identity, especially as they relate to being female. For that reason one should not be surprised that Quicksand focuses on the protagonist’s struggles toward selfhood, her attempts to find her place in the world as a woman who is considered neither white nor black.
The child of a Danish mother and a black West Indian father, a so- called “mulatto”, Helga Crane finds herself outside of the black as well as the white world, fully comfortable in neither one nor the other. During her unhappy childhood she learns to regard her skin color with hatred and self- loathing, resulting in a deeply rooted sense of insecurity about her blackness and mixed heritage, which continues to be felt all her life. Internalized (white) stereotypes about black womens´ promiscuous, “primitive” and immoral sexuality lead Helga to fear and repress her sensuality and female desires. As she detests and completely denies these emotions she is incapable of developing an identity as a woman either.
In this seminar paper I will argue that Nella Larsen’s Quicksand is about Helga Crane’s search for a black female identity which she will fail to find. Further, my aim is to demonstrate how intimately connected race and gender oppressions are, since imposed definitions of blackness and womanhood complicate Helgas search for her personal identity as a black woman.
As Quicksand has a geographical symmetry to it, I will follow this pattern in my analysis. It starts out in the South in Naxos where Helga works as a teacher, then moves on to Chicago and Harlem, from there it shifts to Copenhagen, returns back to Harlem and finally ends in the deep South, in a tiny Alabama town, where Helga’s search ends in tragedy.
2. Helga’s Journey: The Search for her Black Female Self
At the beginning of the novel, Helga Crane, who works as a teacher at a Southern black college named Naxos, is presented as an isolated figure, foreshadowing her situation in the world. Sitting alone in her dark room which is much too big for her, the spot where she sits gives the impression of “a small oasis in a desert of darkness” (1). But Helga at this point enjoys her “intentional isolation” (2). After strenuous and unsatisfactory hours of work, the moments of rest in her room seem to be the best part of her day.
For Helga it is important to have a beautiful room since she defines herself through the objects that surround her. Her “attractive room” (2), furnished with “a single reading lamp, dimmed by a great red and black shade… [a] blue chinese carpet” numerous books, a “shining brass bowl crowded with many-colored nasturiums” and an “oriental silk” reflects Helga’s “rare and intensely personal taste” (1). Her taste not only seems to be expensive but highly individual, and thus might be interpreted as an effort to dissociate herself from the others at Naxos and to establish a sophisticated personal identity.
Helga is described as if she were one of the objects exhibited in her room, as if she were part of a painting. “Well fitted to that framing of light and shade” (2), with “well-turned” arms and legs, a “good” nose and “delicately chiseled” ears, she is sitting in a big chair “against whose dark tapestry her sharply cut face, with skin like yellow satin, was distinctly outlined”(3). She is presented as a motionless physical object and seems to fit perfectly into her environment.
As Ann E. Hostetler argues, Helga’s illusion in the beginning is “that she can create herself through a careful arrangement and selection of artifacts…with which she surrounds herself” (Hostetler 36).
The illusion of harmony and stillness is disrupted, as Helga, reflecting on the address of a white preacher visiting Naxos, is suddenly convulsed with rage:
He spoke of his great admiration for the Negro race…but he had urgently besought them to know when and where to stop. He hoped, he sincerely hoped that they wouldn’t become avaricious and grasping,
thinking only of adding to their earthly goods…pointing out to them that it was their duty to be satisfied in the estate to which they had been called, hewers of wood and drawers of water. (6)
Annoyed at these statements, functioning to oppress the black people, to remind them of what is expected from them and to make them “stay in their places” (5), Helga abruptly rises from her chair and turns on the electric light in her room.
The moment the shadowy darkness vanishes and is replaced by glaring light, Helga sees her way clearly and notices that the vision of the Naxos community does not at all correspond with her own. She believes that Naxos has become a kind of equalizing machine:
This great community, she thought, was no longer a school. It had grown into a machine. It was now a show place in the black belt, exemplication of the white man’s magnanimity, refutation of the black man’s inefficiency. Life had died out of it. It was, Helga decided, now only a big knife with cruelly sharp edges ruthlessly cutting all to a pattern, the white man’s pattern. (9)
Individualism and nonconformity are not tolerated at Naxos, nobody is supposed to stand out and new ideas and suggestions are not welcome at all. The multiplicity of black people is completely denied in favor of the production of uniformity (Carby 170), as can be seen in the description of students as automatons, “marching in military order” (27) in goose-step. That these restrictions are opposed to Helga is already clear with regard to her highly individual combination of different pieces of furniture in her room.
Helga is an outsider at Naxos, as she is not willing to adjust to the strict rules of the community but at the same time she cannot be happy in her nonconformity (16). Dressed in a “vivid green and gold negligee and glistening brocaded mules” (3) at the beginning of Quicksand, Helga’s preference for bright colors and her sophisticated taste in clothings is indicated. Her look clearly sets her apart at Naxos, as it does not live up to the community’s expectations. “Drab colors, mostly navy blue, black [and] brown” (38) is the restricted palette of the school. The dean of woman says in a speech that “bright colors are vulgar” and orders that “dark-complected people shouldn’t wear yellow, or green or red” (38). But Helga feels that in reality the complete opposite is the case and that “[b]lack, brown, and gray were ruinous to them,
actually destroyed the luminous tones lurking in their dusky skins” (38). She loves “dark purples, royal blues, rich greens [and] deep reds” (39) and prefers woolens and silk materials. I argue with Kimberly Monda that the prohibitive rules about women’s clothing at Naxos might stem from the “fear of racist constructions of black women’s over-sexed natures” (26). That the women accept the dress-code symbolizes their fear of confirming white stereotypes, as bright colors might have been interpreted as self-display and thus somehow as proof of black women’s sexual availability (26).
Even though Helga does not adhere to the clothing regulations which might indicate an attempt to construct a female identity, she cannot fully express herself as a woman. During her relationship with James Vayle, who is like herself a teacher at Naxos but a member of the black bourgeoisie, she realizes that female sexuality somehow means “power”:
She knew…that something held him, something against which he was powerless. This idea that she was in but one nameless way necessary to him filled her with a sensation amounting almost to shame (18)
The minute Helga notices her “power” she is ashamed of it as she has been conditioned to assume the role of a “lady” for which any feelings of passion need to be repressed. Not only does James Vayle expect Helga to be a lady, even one of her colleagues at Naxos states that Helga should assume an ornamental role because “[w]e need a few decorations to brighten our sad lives” (33).