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Modernism was a significant time period in America’s literature world during the 19th and 20th century. It is the rejection of traditional values and the rise of a new way of thinking and writing. Another important movement that also came about at around the same time was the Harlem Renaissance, which was a period of time in America from the 1920s and 1930s. It was a movement that celebrated African American culture through the creativity of novels, poetry and various forms of art.
Many famous authors and poets arose from this time period, one of them being Nella Larsen. Larsen published her widely recognized book, Quicksand, in 1928, during the highlight of the renaissance. Quicksand gives an insight into the life of a biracial woman named Helga Crane. This book follows her throughout the many endeavors she embarks on as well as the setbacks she has, mostly surrounding the topic of race. Being a biracial woman in the height of racial tensions in America makes her feel as though she doesn’t fit in anywhere.
Whether she was in Harlem, Copenhagen, or Alabama, Crane never seemed to escape the constant feelings of unhappiness that she feels. From being in America to her long stay in Europe, Helga found imperfections wherever she was. She just couldn’t seem to find the ideal life she has always pictured for herself.
Quicksand touches a lot on the culture of places she visits and how it impacts Helga Crane’s life. In Naxos, she was unhappy because she would not succumb to the Naxos culture.
She was never really apart of the community, saying that she would not achieve into the Naxos mold (Larsen 11). There seems to be no personality of the students as well as the staff she works with. There was no individuality and people didn’t have their own voice because their freedom of self expression was constantly being suppressed. The school was really a set up for “the white man’s magnanimity” (8). And because Helga is not acting like what is expected from her, she is an outsider at a school that she has been teaching for two years. She was also considered an outsider because she had no family. Her ex-fiance’s family was not very fond of Helga to begin with because she did not fit into the mold like others around her have. But was really unsettling to them was the fact that she had nobody. That’s when Helga realized that family dynamic is important, but she had none to show for it. ““If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connection, you were tolerated, but you didn’t “belong”” (12). The toxic culture was something she could no longer stand and decided to leave to find a place where she was accepted fully and easily fit into.
After leaving Naxos, Helga ends up in New York by working as an assistant for a lady named Mrs. Hayes-Rore, who is a public speaker that gives talks about race across the country. Mrs. Hayes-Rore sets Helga up to stay in the city long term by putting her up with a family member of hers, Anne Grey. Helga soon finds herself enjoying the niceties of Harlem, having a stable job and making many acquaintances along the way. But she quickly realizes that she isn’t truly happy because of Harlem’s attitude towards white people. She realized that people only accepted her because they are under the impression that she is completely of black origin. When Hayes-Rore first brought her to Anne, she specifically told Helga not to mention that she is mixed, because it was not a concept that was understood among the black people in Harlem (44). Being a biracial woman was hard for her because she didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. She felt as if she was living a lie by suppressing the white part of herself. Her racial background plays a big role in her quest to find happiness. She knew that no one in Harlem would’ve accepted her had they’d known that she was also white. She finds herself struggling to stay happy in Harlem and decided to embark on another journey to achieve her goal of happiness.
Using the money her Uncle Peter sent her, she decides to start fresh and spend time with her Aunt Katrina in Denmark. Here, she is immediately overtaken by the luxurious life that her aunt lives. ”Always she had wanted, not money, but the things which money could give, leisure, attention, beautiful surroundings. Things. Things. Things” (69). Helga has always been a girl of high taste, so living with her aunt was aesthetically pleasing to her. She grows to like living in Copenhagen because she was not expected to live up to certain standards, like how it was in Naxos and Harlem. For a while, she is grateful and content with how life is going for her, but it doesn’t last long. She quickly realized that she was really there to uplift the social status of her Aunt Katrina’s family. The Dahls would dress her up in beautiful pieces and show her off around town. Everywhere she went, people would stop and stare at her, almost as if she were a creature of some sort. She was fetishized by people a lot of the times and her family put her on display constantly because of her exotic features and dark skin. She soon began to miss seeing her black friends back in Harlem, stating that she’s homesick not for America, but for the Negroes there (94). Before leaving Copenhagen, Helga rejected a proposal from a talented white artist, Axel Olson. The main reason for why she turned him down for marriage was because he is white, and she did not want to face the resentment that her mother had previously felt. Once again, race ultimately became the factor that responsible for her discontentment.
The story ends by Helga finally settling down in a small town in Alabama. She gets saved by the word of God and marries a reverend. Again, she believes that she has finally found true happiness. She did not mind that she was living a more than modest lifestyle, with her days always filled with busywork that she enjoyed for some time. She even gave birth to three children, going against her previous beliefs of thinking that giving birth to Negro children would just add more suffering to the world (104). But she realizes that religion kind of masked and blocked her true feelings of the discontent of her reality. She gets really sick towards the end, making her bedridden for a while. During this time, she comes to the conclusion that she really doesn’t like her husband and grew to hate religion too. She also struggles with raising her children, feeling as though there is really no escape now that she has a family of her own. Helga wanted to leave them altogether, but couldn’t bring herself to, saying that “through all the rest of her lifetime she would be hearing their cry” (136). She can no longer get up and go like she used to when she got sick of a place. Eventually, Helga accepted the state that her life was in and came to the conclusion that she would never find the happiness she has been yearning for.
Throughout the novel, we followed Helga Crane as she moves from place to place for her pursuit of happiness. Everywhere she settled seemed to have a flaw that she couldn’t ignore, so she would keep moving on to the next place. Naxos wasn’t a good fit for her because she didn’t conform to their toxic culture of no individuality and being a certain way to please the white man. She felt like she couldn’t be her authentic self in Harlem because they only accepted half of her. She could no longer live under the impression of only accepting half of her identity, while also putting up with the ongoing slander of white people from the people of Harlem. Denmark was a great time for a while but she was tired of constantly being paraded around for her exotic looks that were desired by the white people of the town. Eventually, she settled in a remote Alabama town, married a reverend, and had several kids. She thought that this was the ultimate happiness she longed for, but was proven wrong yet again. Finally, Helga accepted the fact that she will never find herself completely content and at peace with her life. Never accomplishing her goal of ultimate happiness, she realized that it was a hard thing to do, being that she is an intellectual and educated biracial woman that lived during a conflicting time period for African Americans. The title of this novel, Quicksand, refers to how Helga can’t seem to outrun her feelings of dissatisfaction, always ending up suffocating in her own quicksand.
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