Intersecting Points of Oppression

Nella Larsen’s depiction of Helga Crane in Quicksand (1928), highlights the complexities of racial indeterminacy and the quest for self-realization by persons of mixed ancestry—specifically people of both African and Caucasian descent—in America. The novel is not intended to be representative of every biracial person’s experience, but it is representative of  a racial identity that is often times over looked as a unique race category. Helga, the novel’s heroine, suffers from depression, isolation, and disillusionment throughout the course of her life. Much of Helga’s emotional distress is due to her feelings of racial ambiguity and familial abandonment. She was abandoned by her White mother at a very young age, yet never had the opportunity of meeting her Black father. Helga attributes many of her failures in life, including her failed love life and loneliness to not having a family or sense of belonging in the world (Larsen 7). Early in the novel, the audience discovers that Helga doesn’t feel that she neatly fits into Black nor White society. She often reveals the contempt she feels for Blacks and their obsession with the “race problem”, yet resents Whites for never fully recognizing her humanity in relation to her heritage. This contrast is seen throughout the novel. Her discontent is fueled by the angst she has for both racial groups, but for very different reasons.

The novel critiques the binarism of race in America, but more importantly explores the oppression experienced by Helga due to that fixed opposition. In this paper I will argue that Helga’s unfortunate faith was due to both individualistic and social systemic oppression. Because race is seen as binary in American racial ideology, Helga constantly wrestles with her racial identity—which subsequently causes her to live a life characterized by sacrifice, regret, and disillusion. Extensively touching bases on each of these points is rather ambitious and complex, but exploring each topic is necessary if we want to understand the root causes of Helga’s desolate faith. These intersecting themes of the novel together proved to be burdensome for Helga and ultimately placed her in a conflicting position with herself and her desires. First, I will explore the individualistic ways in which Helga encourages her own disillusion. Not only does she isolate herself from those around her (as we see in Naxos and in Harlem), but she also makes a habit of running away from her problems—both literally and figuratively.

 In chapter one, we are introduced to Helga’s life in Naxos. We then discover her discomfort with the school, Negro education, and southern culture as a whole. Naxos is described as “the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country, north or south…it was better even than a great many schools for white children” (Larsen 3). The school is even described as being able to fix the “race problem”, but Helga sees the school as a “machine”. One that was a show place in the black belt that sucked the life, innovation, and individualism out of its students and its teachers (Ibid). In addition to having a well-paying job, Helga was also engaged to James Vayle: a man that not only adored her, but was also a member of a very prominent family. Larsen reveals to the reader that this was the life Helga had always desired—to be a part of a community and to be a part of “one man’s genius and vision”, but Helga was still left dissatisfied. So she decides that it’s time to relocate, which would require leaving Naxos and leaving behind the life she has created there. Most of her discomfort there was due to her inability to conform. She desired “things”, which many people in Naxos would have described as having “pride” or “vanity” (Larsen 6). Larsen explain that “most of her earnings had gone into clothes, into books, into the furnishings of the room which held her. All her life Helga Crane had loved and longed for nice things. Indeed, it was this craving, this urge for beauty which had helped to bring her into disfavor in Naxos—“pride” and “vanity” her detractors called it” (Ibid).

Here is the first time we see Helga indulge in consumerism as a way to fulfill her beauty fantasies. Though Helga may not have been able to identify the psychological problems she suffered from, her obsession with the past and consumerism are two of her most self-destructive habits. She uses them as a way to escape physical and mental reality. When Naxos no longer fulfills her, she blames the people around her for her unhappiness and relocates to Harlem  in hopes of finding something better. For Helga, something better included being able to buy and enjoy nice things. Her pleasures in consumerism will later lead her to become an agent of her own repression and objectification.  In Harlem, we see how consumerism and materialism can result in self-suppression when they are being used to subdue emotional and psychological distress.  

After moving to Harlem,  Helga meets a friend—Anne, who she admires for her confidence and apparent sense of freedom. She describes Anne as being as close to perfect as a person could be. Helga’s admiration soon turns to envy. After witnessing how happy and content Anne was with her life, Helga starts fantasizing about having everything Anne has (Larsen 42). She starts fantasizing about marrying a Black man, having brown eyed babies, and buying luxury cars (Ibid). At that moment, Helga was content with her life and content with the visions of her fruitful future. She finally felt free; for Helga, freedom meant feeling significant. Larsen explains this experience by stating “it sprang from a sense of freedom, a release from the feeling of smallness which had hedged her in, first during her sorry, unchildlike childhood among hostile white folk in Chicago, and later during her uncomfortable sojourn among snobbish black folk in Naxos” (Larsen 43). For the first time in a long time, Helga’s happiness was tangible. It was not only her current reality, but also something she considered to be attainable in her near future.

Unfortunately, her happiness didn’t last long. As spring approached she began to lose the fullness and contentment she once felt. As time continues to pass, Helga falls into a depression and isolates herself more and more from Harlem, Anne, and black people. She asserts that similar to Anne, black people are obsessed with “the race problem”, dwelling on their injustices, and prattling on the viciousness of white people (Larsen 44-45). In Helga’s case, speaking on these issues at length was triggering—it only “stirred memories, probed hidden wounds, whose poignant ache bred in her surprising oppression and corroded the fabric of her quietism” (Ibid). So, she convinces herself that the only way to escape the anxieties of Harlem and its subjects was to get away to Europe for a while. She explains that living in Europe would be an advantageous experience because it would allow her to escape the racism that plagued Americanism.

Again, we see Helga trying to escape her physical reality simply by relocating to another city. This move can arguably be interpreted as Helga also running away from her past. In the text, we discover that an old acquaintance from Naxos, Dr. Anderson reemerges in Helga’s life. Helga claims that she despises the man, yet feels an indescribable affinity towards him. At times she plays coy with Dr. Anderson, then other times she plays cold, uninterested, and annoyed by his presence. On page 47, Helga fakes attending a prior engagement because she doesn’t want to be bothered with Dr. Anderson. Instead of entertaining him, she forces him on Anne and spends the day contemplating what life would be like if she were to move to Europe. Here we see Helga again isolating herself from the people around her. She fantasizes about how glamourous life would be abroad—in a society without race problems. Though this example may not be consumerism in the traditional sense, it does follow the same indulgence pattern found within consumerism. Helga is unhappy, like the average consumer she looks for something tangible or something that can be bought to fill an internal void.

So, Helga decides to move to Copenhagen, Denmark to live with her maternal aunt, Katrina and her husband, Herr (Larsen 60). The Dahls are more than happy to have her; they wanted her to be “free” to express herself and become the star in the room. At first, Helga was a little apprehensive, but soon became delighted with the idea of being the center of attention and envy. They even began to host elaborate dinner parties and finance shopping sprees for Helga. Aunt Katrina encouraged Helga to wear things to show off her brown skin. When Helga asks why her aunt doesn’t wear the bright hues that she is encouraging Helga to wear, her aunt responds “Oh, I’m an old married lady, and a Dane. But you, you’re young. And you’re a foreigner, and different. You must have bright things to set off your lovely brown skin. Striking things, exotic things. You must make an impression” (Larsen 62).

It’s important to analyze Helga’s time in Copenhagen because her experience there also proved to be detrimental to her emotional and psychological health. Helga soon discovers that overt racism in America was replaced by covert fetishization and exoticism of Black bodies abroad. Here we are faced with the “primitive” vs “modern subject” juxtaposition; in Harlem, Helga was a modern subject, she was experiencing Harlem at the height of the Renaissance. In contrast, in Copenhagen she was seen as the exotic black figure. The figure that was expected to be sensual, sexy, vibrant, and “exotic”.  Initially, Helga interprets the attention as flattering; she even sees the unsolicited attention as a validation of her beauty, but after attending a vaudeville show she recognizes the exploitation and objectification that she has exposed herself to (Larsen 76). She claims that the white audience was mesmerized by the sensationalized depictions of people of African descent—the performers acted out traditional stereotypes that pigeonhole black people. They spoke in exaggerated southern dialect, sand old rag-time songs, and threw their bodies about with loose ease; together these actions create the sambo caricature imagery.  It was a mesmerization that could arguably be interpreted as fetishization.     

Up until this point, most of Helga’s repression has been individualistic. Though she couldn’t control her familial situation, much of her discontent with life was due to her own poor decisions and destructive coping mechanisms. Here I will change the course of my argument by asserting that systemic oppression also aided in Helga’s unfavorable life. I will explain the social systemic influences that facilitated Helga’s self-repression. It would be unfair and misinformed to imply that Helga was the only agent of her oppression. Racism, in addition to sexism and exoticism proved to be worrisome burdens for her. Her intersectional identity brought on a mountain of issues. Though Helga was technically biracial, in the novel she often identifies as Black, which is an identity that comes with centuries worth of psychological trauma and social marginalization. Within that identity, Helga is also a member of other equally marginalized subcultures: she’s a biracial Black woman.

 According to American race ideology, a drop of African blood classifies one as Black, but within the Black community mixed blood is seen as just that—being “mixed”, which is an entirely different racial identity and experience. Helga is aware of this, which is why she often feels compelled to pass as Black during her time in Harlem and in other predominantly Black settings. She becomes agitated by the discriminatory things she hears. In Harlem for example, Anne would always go on spills about how much she hated white people and their sense of entitlement (Larsen 45). Helga explains that this annoyed her, not only because she was of white ancestry, but mainly because Anne was inconsistent with her convictions. She claimed she despised white people, yet mimicked their lifestyle. Helga states

She hated white people with a deep and burning hatred, with the kind of hatred which, finding itself held in sufficiently numerous groups, was capable some day, on some great provocation, of bursting into dangerously malignant flames. But she aped their clothes, their manners, and their gracious ways of living. While proclaiming loudly the undiluted good of all things Negro, she yet disliked the songs, the dances, and the softly blurred speech of the race. (Larsen 45)

This is a great quote. It  highlights the tense race relations in America society. Helga often times have to choose which race she wants to identify with. With that decision she is simultaneously “betraying” her other race or identity. If Anne would have been aware of Helga’s mixed ancestry, I don’t think she would have been as comfortable expelling her hatred for white people. She feels safe doing so because she sees Helga as one of her own—a feeling that can be described as comradeship. Unfortunately, for Helga it creates a lot of anxiety and psychological trauma.

In Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in Quicksand and Passing, author Rafael Walker, asserts that “Larsen suggests that the nation’s insistence on a racial binary and the silences and arbitrary negations it entails erases the existence of racially liminal figures, rendering them socially invisible” (Walker 170). In short, Walker is explaining that because race intermingling is seen as a taboo, those whom fall on both sides of the spectrum are virtually non-existent because society only sees race as binary. Biracial people’s identity is only visible when they explicitly pick a side—if they don’t pick they fall into the cracks of race limbo. This same idea can be found in Quicksand’s epigraph by Langston Hughes. It reads:

My old man died in a fine big house.

My ma died in a shack.

I wonder where I’m gonna die,

Being neither white nor black?

Walker argues that the excerpt highlights the inflexible racial binarism in the United States. Again, mixed raced people are left to feel deep rooted anxiety and fear because they are deprived of a social identity.

Helga’s issues were only heightened by other social constructions and binaries. She often times struggled with self and sexual expressivity. When she was in Naxos, she longed for attention and self-display, but was repressed by the conservative women in Naxos. The “Jezebel” vs. “Mammy” stereotype was reinforced by the dean of the school, Miss MacGooden. Miss MacGooden explains to Helga that “dark-complected people shouldn’t wear yellow, green, or red” because it implied lasciviousness. In Self-Delusion and Self-Sacrifice in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, author Kimberly Monda argues that “a racist society deprives Helga of access to herself as a desiring subject” (Monda 26). The dualism of “lady” and “sex hungry savage” leaves little room for black women to express their sexuality without fears of being typecast. She continues her argument by explaining that Helga repressed her sexuality out of fear of white society’s obsession with black peoples alleged primitiveness (Monda 27). We see this happen throughout the novel, in the United States Helga refuses to wear bright colors because she doesn’t want to be seen as a sex savage, yet when she wears elaborate garments in Copenhagen she is instantly seen through an exotic, “primitive” lens.   

By the end of the novel, Helga realizes her deep felt regret; throughout her life she subconsciously denied herself of love because of the resentment she felt towards her mother. She was convinced that if her mother could abandon her because of her biracialism no other person—especially a white person—would be able to fully accept, love, or understand her. After analyzing her life and decisions she feels even more hopeless. Again, Helga obsession with the past prevents her from focusing on her current reality. Instead, she falls in depressions and has pity for herself.


Work cited

Larsen, Nella, and DoVeanna S. Fulton. Quicksand. Boston, Ma: Bedford/St Martin's, 2017. Print.

Monda, Kimberly. “Self-Delusion and Self-Sacrifice in Nella Larsen's Quicksand.” African American Review, vol. 31, no. 1, 1997, pp. 23–39.

Walker, Rafael. "Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble With Desire In Quicksand And Passing." MELUS: The Journal Of The Society For The Study Of The Multi-Ethnic Literature Of The United States 41.1 (2016): 165-192. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.