Quicksand (1928)

Dana Monreal on “Nella Larsen’s Continuous Battle with Race”

Nella Larsen’s issues with being biracial reflected clearly throughout her novel Quicksand. Quicksand is about a young lady Helga who is lonely and isolated, continuously dealing with issues being biracial. Helga’s mother was white and her father was black. Her mother remarried a white man, leaving Helga to be brought up in a white family she never felt comfortable around. Helga continues to seek acceptance throughout the novel but never comes to find it. She finds herself frustrated and unhappy at the school she teaches at which is surrounded by black people. Helga decides to leave the south behind to head up north to find contact with her uncle, who she finds out wants nothing to do with her since she is half black. Helga finds herself having to leave once again and heads towards Harlem, where she is surrounded by black people who she thinks are hypocrites. She again moves away to Denmark this time with her white family. She is accepted and praised there as she is thought of to be exotic to them, but soon leaves because she “can’t imagine living forever away from colored people” (94). Helga soon returns back to Harlem and finds herself falling into a depression as she finds god, and thinks God sent her there to marry reverend Green. She falls into depression at the end, settling into marriage with kids and wonders what has happened to herself. Disillusioned with her husband and life, Helga gets into a depression as she realizes she is not happy in life.

This book gives us clear insight to not only Larsen’s life through her character Helga, but also about racial issues at the time. Quicksand was written in 1928, during the Harlem Renaissance time where African Americans could express their racial issues with writing. Larsen was one of the most influential writers of that time as she writes about not only race, but sex and class. Larsen’s Quicksand introduces the protagonist struggling with her mixed race and trying to find identity in various places, which is clearly Larsen herself.  Throughout the entire novel, Helga is constantly fighting battles with her mixed race; when she’s surrounded by white people, she misses being around the black people. Helga makes frequent moves, but never feels content wherever she ends up. Like Helga, Larsen did try to go abroad, wanting to escape the feeling of alienation in America and wanting to continue her writing, but it did not last due to issues back at home that wouldn’t leave her alone. When Helga goes abroad and stays with her white family, she feels the need to leave once again, as she knows being surrounded by black people is where she belongs the most. Larsen also tried heading to Denmark, the same place her character Helga did, but struggled with trying to find her identity, so she ended up in Harlem like Helga, being unhappy. Towards the end of the book, Helga contemplates leaving behind her kids and husband, depressed where she’s at in life, and Larsen enters depression, distances herself away from everyone she knew and later is found dead in her apartment in 1964.

Larsen struggled with being biracial since she was born and tried to escape it her whole life, as expressed in this novel Quicksand by correlating her lead character Helga Crane to almost exactly what she went through, too. Reviewers say, “the real charm of this book lies in Miss Larsen’s delicate achievement in maintaining for a long time an indefinable, wistful feeling, the feeling of longing and at the same time a conscious realization of the impossibility of obtaining-that is contained in the idea of Helga Crane.”(22)

Works Cited

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. New York & London: Alfred A Knopf, 1928. Print.

Tate, Claudia. “Death and Desire in Quicksand.” 7 (1995): 234-60. Oxford University Press. Web.


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