Category Archives: Novel

Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’ – By Hannah Winter


Nella Larsen was a modern woman who “feels that people of the artistic type have a definite chance to help solve the race problem”[1]; she wrote from the epicentre of the Harlem Renaissance, winning an award from the Harmon Foundation in 1928 for “the best piece of fiction to come out of Negro America since Chesnutt”[2] and she was the first black woman to win a Guggenheim award for creative writing in 1930. It is her critically acclaimed novels Quicksand and Passing that afford Larsen her reputation as “the major novelist of […] the Harlem Renaissance”[3] because of the way in which these texts indisputably engage with the major tropes of the period – exploring the intricate relationship between race, gender, class and sexuality – thus allowing her to discretely critique “the gendered and sexual double standards of the well-to-do black middle classes of which she was a part”[4], exploring how these factors complicated the ‘New Negro’ identity construction, leaving many coloured people like herself on a quest for their sense of belonging within the cultural climate. Her texts are subtly persuasive and powerfully poignant when situated both within the context of the Harlem Renaissance and in contemporary debates about race, gender, class and sexuality, thus arguably rendering her novels “contemporary and timeless”[5]. She does this by manipulating existing literary traditions concerning race, for instance the reductive ‘tragic mulatto’ caricature and the autobiographical elements of her texts which are employed in order to realise her ambitions for a resolution to racism and sexism.

Larsen questions racial outlines via the problematic notion of the ‘colour line’ in both Quicksand and Passing, exploring the difficulties encountered by ‘mulatto’ figures such as her protagonists Helga Crane, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield. Clare and Irene express polarising attitudes towards race, with Irene promoting the racial pride of the emerging Garveyism of the time through her “mounting anger and indignation”[6] over Bellew’s overt racism, while Clare muses “I’ve often wondered why more coloured girls […] never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do”[7], thus perpetuating the perceived racial hierarchy whilst simultaneously refuting the embracement of race seen in other strains of the movement – for instance Countee Cullen’s Edenic description of Africa in his devotional poem to his home land. These conflicting attitudes towards race arguably embody Larsen’s own internal conflict over the morality of ‘passing’ and act as reliable resources which demonstrate some of the attitudes towards race at the time. Moreover, “passing is sometimes thematized as the taking of a new, not necessarily racialized, identity in various locales”[8] as Helga Crane does in Quicksand. It is the text’s autobiographical elements such as Crane’s Danish heritage and the trope of European exploration before a return to ‘home’ in Harlem that allow Larsen to traverse the concepts of trans-nationality within the Harlem Renaissance which assisted African Americans in reconciling their racial identities. This theme echoes that of Claude McKay’s best-selling Home to Harlem which also entertains the idea of European travel, thus likening Larsen’s fiction to those texts within the sphere of influential contemporary African American writing.


The tragic mulatto paradigm inspects the inextricably linked expectations of race and gender in nineteenth and twentieth century texts, rendering Larsen’s female protagonists doubly entrapped in a slave-like racial subordination and an archaic female inferiority. However, Larsen arguably manipulates this literary convention, with her protagonist Helga Crane rejecting the racial and patriarchal expectations of her character with the emphatic declarative “I’m not for sale”[9]. Arguably, despite her displays of female independence, Larsen’s protagonist is ultimately doomed, falling into motherhood and dying alone, therefore being permanently affected by her marital status and entrapped within the stereotypical constraints of her gender. It is this inability to “[round] off stories convincingly”[10] that many of her African American contemporaries shared[11] which perhaps demonstrates one fundamental problem; there was no solution to white racism. Larsen’s protagonists are fuelled by the contemporaneous issues of gender and sexuality, exploring their connection to race at the time by refuting the typically sexualised exotic “commodification of the black female body”[12] seen in African American poetry of the time such as ‘The Harlem Dancer’ by Claude McKay, in favour of an attempted sexual independence displayed by the subversive homoerotic undertones of Irene’s attention to the “lovely creature”[13] Clare and her “mesmeric”[14] eyes. This would have been shocking for contemporary audiences, who would have only experienced black female sexuality in slave narratives, with an oppressive white male influence, or in the previously stated exoticised manner. In this way, Larsen’s protagonists are “ill suited for the proscribed existence ordinated by whites for blacks”[15] and she displays a search for new boundaries to “the limited possibilities open to African American women during the 1920s”[16], and in doing so acts as a pioneer of her time, fearlessly navigating controversial, sometimes taboo notions of black female sexuality.

In conclusion, Larsen’s “emotional nomads”[17] appealed to the disenfranchised groups of the Harlem Renaissance, namely African American women. However, these characters – marginalised for their race and gender – appeal to “any woman who has searched for […] a job where she could be paid what she deserved (despite her ovaries), or sought to fashion a love […] based on respect and honor for self and partner”[18], and it is this engagement with ongoing disputes over not only gender, but all aspects of sociological taxonomy which allocates Larsen’s works their “eternal relevance”[19].


[1] Larson, Charles R. Introduction to The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. Anchor Books (New York, 2001) pp. xii

[2] DuBois, W. E. B. Quoted in Looking for Harlem: Urban Aesthetics in African American Literature by Maria Balshaw. Pluto Press (London, 2000) pp. 47

[3] Larson, Charles R. Introduction to The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. xii

[4] Balshaw, Maria. Looking for Harlem: Urban Aesthetics in African American Literature. pp. 53

[5] Golden, Marita. Foreword to The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. viii

[6] Larsen, Nella. Passing, in The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. 202

[7] Ibid. pp. 187

[8] Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University Press (London, 2007) pp. 12

[9] Larsen, Nella. Quicksand, in The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. 117

[10] Larsen, Nella. Passing, in The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. 365

[11] Ibid. pp. 365

[12] Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance. pp. 11

[13] Larsen, Nella. Passing, in The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. 180

[14] Ibid. pp. 191

[15] Golden, Marita. Foreword to The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. vii

[16] Carroll, Annie Elizabeth. Word, Image and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana University Press (Indiana, 2007) pp. 227

[17] Golden, Marita. Foreword to The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. vii

[18] Ibid. pp. viii

[19] Ibid. pp. viii

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Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’ – by Izzy Rhodes


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.

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