The novella discusses the social and mental effects of racism and oppression through the eyes of a female African-American during the Harlem Renaissance in America and Europe. The protagonist’s struggle to find her ‘self’ and ‘place’ in society is extended across the four cities we see her travel between. The journey Helga Crane undertakes mirrors that of Larsen’s own. The author’s first-hand experience allows Helga to act as the fictional vehicle for the emotional reality of Larsen. Many critics “… read Helga’s tragic end as a powerful criticism of the social forces that conspire against her achieving a fulfilling life…”[i] The alternative ending to Larsen’s continued life, acts as a microcosm to accentuate the oppression of women both globally and intra-racially. We see Helga internally and externally battle stereotypes of primitivism and exoticism projected by white America and Europe upon those of African descent. In addition to social problems, Helga also struggles with her personal absence of cultural and historical definition. The character’s foundations are built upon her mother rejecting her and the isolation she experienced within her step-father’s white family as a child.The issues surrounding ‘mulatto’ individuals of the Harlem Renaissance allowed no solace in one particular race. Such resistance to integration within races caused them to be faced with hostility and oppression on a daily basis, and this is structured as one of Larsen’s main themes in the text. This theme, twinned with identity and abandon, regularly appears throughout Larsen’s work, and Helga’s transatlantic journey.
Not only do we witness rejection and social status as inter-racial features, but also as intra-racial one. Larsen’s focus on isolation and transnationalism automatically alludes to the political activists of the time. When we are first introduced to Helga in the predominantly black society of Naxos, she is being taught to avoid alluding to primitivism in her behaviour. She is simultaneously expected to adopt a culture alien to her, and conform to the bourgeoisie white-American behaviour W.E.B. DuBois[ii] was accused by some African-Americans of striving to emulate. The suffocating atmosphere Helga tries to escape from is illustrated through a merger of white bourgeoisie behaviour, and black culture and history. DuBois’ ‘talented tenth’[iii] is hinted at through Anne’s luxurious lifestyle and conceited attitude towards her peers. The population of DuBois’ tenth envisioned as ‘superior’ were of the bourgeoisie class. Larsen alludes to Helga’s trajectory into this class through the brief perspective of Anne, who “… knew… that though she herself was lovely – more beautiful than Helga – and interesting, with her, [Dr. Anderson] had not to struggle against that nameless and to him shameful impulse, that sheer delight, which ran through his nerves at mere proximity to Helga.”[iv] The “impulse” is not applicable to DuBois’ tenth, therefore highlighting it as an anomaly and a preventative trait in this text. His belief was to uplift the population through academic experience and shun the natural, or indeed primitive. However, the connotation of self-presentation not only connects an aesthetic superiority, but also the shallow and consumerist traits that the 1920’s instilled in the American population[v]. Materialism and vanity that erupted during this decade. Larsen reflects this through the text in the relentless use of imagery, idealising Helga’s ‘mulatto’ identity just as native[vi] European’s of the time would have. This line also points to the stereotypes placed on African-American males in Harlem at the time. The “… struggle against the nameless and to him shameful impulse…” connotes a primeval behavioural trait so often associated with primitive urges, and one that would not uplift African-Americans in society unless their ancient heritage was disregarded[vii]. The protagonist’s heart-breaking empathy “… with Mrs. Nilssen’s point of view, [and] her mother’s, her stepfather’s and his children’s points of view…”[viii] engage the readers in understanding the rift deep within America between the black and white populations. Larsen depicts these polar attitudes manifesting its disruption in the isolation and acute self-awareness of those whose heritage crosses both.[ix]
The reader is presented with a thorough chronicle of an independent female African-American’s experience at the time. The added social and economic constructs of both Harlem and Danish lifestyles inform the readers of the profoundly prejudice society Helga and Larsen occupied. The consumerist age the decade illustrates is highlighted when Helga is decorated by her aunt: “The earrings… and buckles came into immediate use and Helga felt like a veritable savage…”[x] Larsen interestingly contrasts this new materialism and bourgeoisie with the idea of “savage” primitivism. In this line Helga’s aunt uses her exotic niece to parade around Copenhagen to elevate her own status. Helga is used to illustrate Larsen’s own disgrace at the oppression she sought to be free from during her search for her identity. This polarised identity from the one she was used to having projected on her in America, is one that Jeffrey Gray recognises through the “… shuttling geographical movement [that] also corresponds to the binarism [of the] primitive vs. uplift, where the United States represents the primitive of the repressed self, and Europe the idealised (and aestheticized) Other.”[xi] Albeit a positive pedestal she is placed on in Europe, her isolation is equally as intense. Consumerism has its foundations in vanity and beauty, adding to the use of Helga as a mirror to reflect the author’s solitude. As an outsider in Naxos, Harlem, Copenhagen and Alabama, Helga has no true sense of belonging. Larsen uses Dr. Anderson as a metaphor for Helga’s lack of stability, and no cemented place to call home. The consumerism within the text visually emphasises Helga’s isolation,as she is constantly admired in Europe, but is instructed to conform to the unit that Naxos operates as, suppressing her identity.
In conclusion, the text acts as a microcosm to condense both the inter and intra-racial frictions of stereotype and prejudice, during the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to social issues African-Americans faced, it also addresses the economical traits of the era through aesthetic images connoting the inescapable materialism and consumerism that was rife in the 1920s. Larsen affectively uses race to discuss social inequality, but also features class in order to accentuate the struggles Africa-Americans faced in local, national, and global scales.
[i] Kimberly Monda, Self-Delusion and Self-Sacrifice in Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’, (African American Review, Vol. 31, Issue 1, Spring 1997), p. 23.
[ii] DuBois believed in total integration between blacks and whites, both socially and politically. In doing this, he was accused of trying to imitate white culture, and abandon the heritage of Africa-Americans.
[iii] The tenth of the black population with a ‘superior’ intellect and education was used to model his uplift of African-Americans to the same ‘status’ as white-Americans, in order for segregation to dissolve.
[iv] Nella Larsen, Quicksand, ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, (The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol D: 1914-1945, 2012), p. 608.
[v] ‘The Roaring Twenties’ after the First World War in the lead up to the Wall Street Crash was made visible with the aesthetic materialism that engulfed the Westernized consumerism of America.
[vi] Both Larsen and her protagonist’s mothers were from Denmark, yet their experience in American lead them to reject their daughters. Her mother’s sister embraces and respects Helga as a foreign and exotic relative when she lives with her in Copenhagen.
[vii] Marcus Garvey was an activist against the motion of disregarding African heritage and embracing and conforming to white standards, and would have found Anne’s stance within this image as direct correlation to the values he too felt against whites in America.
[viii] Larsen, Quicksand, p. 568.
[ix] Larsen was brought up in a family who didn’t share her heritage since the age of 6. In the text, she reflects her isolation through Helga, who recognises that she is unwelcome in the white community, even by those as close to her as her own family.
[x] Larsen, Quicksand, p. 592.
[xi]Jeffrey Gray, Essence and the Mulatto Traveler: Europe as Embodiment in Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’, (Journal of Transnational American Studies 4, no. 1, January 1, 2012), p. 4.