As I read Nella Larsen’s book the Quicksand, I was intrigued by her character of Helga Crane and everything she experienced in the book. There are several references back to what was going on for a young woman who was a bi-racial child, not just black or white. Also as I read the book, I was struck by the psychological undertone of this book. Helga Crane, not only had to deal with trying to figure out where she fits in society, but also seemed to be slightly unstable and that affected how she looked at the world around her.
The book starts off showing Helga Crane as a teacher at Naxos school in the South. She started out talking about how she enjoyed reading at night to forget about her day at the school and the students. She recalls how a “holy white man of god came to talk to the black folks sitting so respectfully before him.” This man claimed that Naxos was the best school for blacks anywhere in the United States and that a Northern who may come to see the school, can’t find fault in how the South mistreated the Black. Also the way that the Blacks in Naxos acted, should be the standard for all blacks to act, and “that there would be no race problems because, Naxos Negros knew what was expected of them. They had good sense and that they had good taste. They knew enough to stay in their places.” This means is a commentary to how the blacks wanted to better themselves, and their position, and didn’t want to be in the background anymore. This was a commentary against the emergence of the “New Negro” that was starting to happen in the North in places in like Harlem. She didn’t agree with the ideal that black women shouldn’t wear vibrant colors like red, yellow, and orange that high society with in the black race had. They believed that the women should wear black, brown, navy blue, because those where considered to be among the most becoming colors for black women at the time. She saw that these dull colors actually made the women of color to look more washed out instead of the vibrant ladies. I think this was a way to keep the black woman from standing out amongst the white women of the time.
As Helga recalled this event, she was getting mad and started to show signs of disillusionment and dissatisfaction. This leads to her being up most of the night and deciding the next day to leave the school. Also she ends up breaking her engagement to James Vayle, who she claims his family didn’t like her, because she “lacked a family.” She wanted to belong and since James family was considered to be a “first family” in Nashville. This would give Helga a connection to the social circle, and a feeling of belonging. Her need for belonging is what drives her to make some of the hasty decisions she makes throughout the book. She has been rejected by her mother as a young child, because her mother married someone who was white. Her mother being white was looked down upon by many in the black community which caused Helga to feel the need to hide the fact. When her mother married her step-father and had a white child, had caused Helga to be ostracized by her step-father and step-siblings due to Helga being part black. It was when Helga was 15 and her mother passed away, that her uncle sent for her and sent her to a black school, in which Helga finally felt at peace for a while. Helga still felt that she was an outcast even then, because she didn’t have a family like the rest of the students. She felt isolation and discontent even as a teenager, which cause her to start to show signs of depression even as a teenager. She still encountered this rejection when she went to Chicago to see the uncle who had helper her out when her mother passed away. When she arrived at his house, she was met by his wife, whom she didn’t know her uncle had. Her aunt seemed to be vehement about having Helga as a niece, and that it wouldn’t do for her. She claimed that since Helga’s mother never married Helga’s father, then Mr. Nielsen wasn’t...
Cited: Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928.
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