Author: Nella Larsen
Year of Publication: 1928
LC Call Number: PS 3523 .A7225 .A6
(Well, not all my posts are about Fullmetal Alchemist!)
This book includes both Quicksand and Passing, both by Nella Larsen, but they’re two separate books, so I’m going to post about each individually.
Quicksand is in some ways a character study of Helga Crane. Helga is the daughter of a Danish mother and an black American father; her father, however, is gone and her mother is dead. She has a tendency to be dissatisfied and spends the book wandering from one place to another, in search of a place she can really live. She lives in the South and works as a teacher at Naxos, a school dedicated to “racial uplift,” and then she lives in Harlem and participates in activism for racial justice, and then she lives in Denmark and is paraded around as an exotic oddity. Ultimately, she ends up in living in a shack in the South as a preacher’s wife and losing herself in the birth of many children. Although Helga is never satisfied with her life as it is, she is always optimistic about her life as it might be. Every time she moves to a new stage of her life, she feels that this time, this will experience the fulfillment that was lacking from her prior life. This time, she will be happy.
This becomes frustrating for the reader; after the first couple moves, it becomes clear that Helga’s problems will not be solved as she believes they will. This frustration stopped her from being an especially sympathetic character for me, even if I understand, to some extent, the need to believe that changing one’s life will bring happiness. At the end of the book, she seems to understand this:
She couldn’t endure it. Her suffocation and shrinking loathing were too great. Not to be borne. Again. For she had to admit that it wasn’t new, this feeling of dissatisfaction, of asphyxiation. Something like it she had experienced before. In Naxos. In New York. In Copenhagen. This differed only in degree. And it was of the present and therefore seemingly more reasonable. The other revulsions were of the past, and now less explainable.
Although Helga seems to end up in the place which is least suitable for her, it doesn’t ultimately seem to matter; her discontentment is not a result of whatever life she is living but a facet of her character. The feeling of suffocation is inevitable. And then again, she abandons whatever relationships she has acquired and whatever responsibilities she has taken on every time she leaves—students, roommates, fiances.
But this wandering shows us some of the possibilities for an educated, mixed-race black woman in the early twentieth century United States, and Larsen explodes each one. In each case, while the reader may not believe that any of this will help Helga, we can see that the problems she identifies are real.
There is the thing that I believe is analogous to what is today called respectability politics. Helga can teach at Naxos, but it is a petty and hierarchical world whose hypocrisy she cannot stand. Larsen takes aim here at the notion of “racial uplift.” The notes of the book suggest that the name “Naxos” is chosen partly because, reversed, it is “Saxon” because the school worships whiteness. I don’t have enough knowledge to comment competently on that, but there is certainly an emphasis on coming from the “best” families and adhering to certain ideas of high-class behavior and avoiding vulgarity. Helga is told that dark-skinned people should not wear bright colors, but she loves beauty and color and good taste and resists the drab and joyless life that she is encouraged to lead. This need for for dullness and respectable virtue is maintained at Naxos by a steady undercurrent of gossip and jealousy. There is a notion that it is the responsibility of the Naxos teachers to sacrifice to set an example for their students, or for “the race.” When Helga tells her principal she is leaving, he attempts to persuade her to stay by telling her that she is needed to provide a “a sense of values” to Naxos. Helga recognizes no such responsibility.
She attempts to seek help from her uncle, but he rejects her, hoping she will understand why he cannot offer her any aid. She seeks other work, but her education fits her only for teaching; she hopes to work in a library, but is not qualified, and when she seeks other work from an employment agency, she is told that no work suitable for her in available.
She is happiest in Harlem, but she finds herself guilty of a different kind of hypocrisy. Harlem is in some ways the opposite of Naxos; the social scene in Harlem is about protest and what Larsen at one point terms “racial ardor.” Helga’s roommate Anne, along with others in her social circle, are much concerned with issues of racism and the promotion of black culture. Helga doesn’t believe that racism has much affect on Anne’s life, because she lives in Harlem and avoids all contact with white people, and she also considers Anne a hypocrite because she doesn’t, in fact, have a strong investment in black culture; her preferences are more canonically valued by the wider world. As Helga observes, Anne, “like the despised people of the white race…preferred Pavlova to Florence Mills, John McCormack to Taylor Gordon, Walter Hampden to Paul Robeson.” From my perspective, Helga is a little unfair to Anne; one could argue that these preferences themselves are not wholly independent of exposure to racial prejudice (after all, how is the canon formed, and how is culture proliferated?), and in any case she does not know Anne well enough to make this evaluation. There is, however, more to Helga’s discomfort than this; she finds herself a hypocrite as well because she is engaged with activism in which she does not truly believe. It’s hard not to imagine that part of this has to do with her own mixed heritage, since she is advised to avoid telling anyone that some of her family is white. In any case, this relationship to “the race question” (as it’s occasionally called in the text) doesn’t work for her.
So, she tries living in Copenhagen, where she has some relatives. If, as I wrote above, she is testing every possible option for a woman in her position, Denmark doesn’t quite fit it because it is only due to her own family circumstances that she is able to move there—but we can make sense of it as a journey into an exclusively white space where she already has an in. She wants to be among “approving and admiring people, where she would be appreciated, and understood.” And, in Denmark, she does get attention. However, the attention she receives is really objectifying. Her aunt dresses her up like a doll and shows her off to all her friends. She “felt like nothing so much as some new and strange species of pet dog being proudly exhibited.” A painter wants to paint her portrait. People stop her in the street and question her about her race. This is a way for her aunt and uncle to gain social status. Helga doesn’t belong here either; what she really wants is agency. So she leaves Denmark.
Back in Harlem, she wanders into a church as she is having a breakdown, and it hits her at exactly her most vulnerable moment. She has a strange experience and is drawn into what appears to be some sort of religious fugue state; after this she forms a relationship with the reverend, marries him, and moves back to the South to play the role of his wife an a small, poor, black community. This is striking because it is so obviously the opposite of everything that Helga has ever wanted, with her education and her love of beauty and ease and her quick wit and her impatience for everyone who does not appreciate her perspective. Here she suffers poverty, as well as pain and illness that are a result of her quick succession of pregnancies. How does she end up in a place like this, the worst of all the options she has been shown? It almost feels as if, unsatisfied with each of them, she kept trying until she completely ran out of options. In any case, it’s discouraging.
So Helga drifts from one of the limited possibilities available to her to another. One interesting facet of this drifting is that she always seems to be running away from a man. The introduction to the book insists that both this book and Passing are not about race but rather about the protagonists’ unacceptable desires. I think race plays an important role in the book, as I’ve shown above, but it is true that Helga has a very difficult time managing her relationships with men. James Vayle, to whom she is engaged in Naxos, and Axel Olsen, who attempts to marry her in Copenhagen, are really mere features of their localities, and not at all attractive to Helga (she notes that she does not love James Vayle but had expected to love him after they were married). She wishes to escape from relationships with them; Olsen in particular seems too eager to own her. She is attracted to the principal of Naxos, but she also wishes to escape her attraction to him. His appearance in Harlem is one of the things that drives her to leave, and fuels her resentment of Anne. After he marries Anne, he kisses Helga; she is actually excited about this, but it is his subsequent apology for having behaved inappropriately that drives her to the church, where she apparently loses her power to make these decisions on her own.
And in fact, maybe we can combine these two factors; the problem all along is that Helga feels constrained, because specific standards of appropriate behavior are placed upon her without her consent. She resists, but the more she resists, the more she is drawn in, until eventually she is left in a situation with stricter standards than any of the others. This is, I am sure, the meaning of the title, Quicksand. The more you struggle, the more quickly you sink.