Places: Quicksand

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1928

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Late 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedNaxos

Naxos. QuicksandSchool for African Americans in rural Alabama patterned on Tuskegee Institute. Helga Crane, a native of Chicago and educated in Nashville, Tennessee, teaches literature at Naxos but feels completely out of place in its rural surroundings. She also feels out of sync with the Naxos mold: She despises the school’s regimentation, rigidity, and conformity. As she sits in her room in the teachers’ quarters, she surrounds herself with expressions of exquisite taste and style, bold colors, fashionable clothes and furnishings, and excellent choices in books. This display is in direct contrast to the starkness and stylelessness that characterize Naxos generally. As Helga contemplates her situation, she resolves to resign her position and leave Naxos at once. Where she will go and how she will live are of no consequence to her, and this impulsiveness is soon revealed as her most damning trait. In addition, her leaving also means the breaking of her marriage engagement to James Vayle, scion of an upper-class African American family from Georgia that has always looked down on her.

Naxos takes its name from the largest Greek island in the Cyclades, which was famed in ancient times as a center of the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine.

*Chicago

*Chicago. Great midwestern city in which Helga grew up and to which she flees after leaving Naxos. However, to her dismay, she finds no comfort there on her return. The grayness and coldness of the city only underscore her sad remembrances of the miserable childhood that she spent as a mixed-race child in a white family. This misery is compounded by the fact that her black father abandoned her and that she had been sent to school at Nashville so that she would learn how to live with her “own kind.” Moreover, Helga has difficulty finding a job that suits her training and expectations and is rebuffed by her maternal uncle’s white wife, who wants nothing to do with his half-black niece. Fortunately for Helga, she soon lands a job as an assistant with Mrs. Jeanette Hayes-Rore, a well-to-do black matron with whom she travels to New York.

*Harlem

*Harlem. African American neighborhood of the northern portion of New York City’s Manhattan Island. There, Helga finds herself among African Americans of all walks of life, from prosperous socialites and those concerned with “Negro Uplift,” to the club and cabaret set, and to the poor and downtrodden masses. She is alternately pleased to be among such a vibrant group and repulsed by the vulgarity of some. Soon the old feelings of ambivalence and discontent engulf her, and she resolves to flee New York in favor of some other place. The arrival of a check for five thousand dollars from her Uncle Peter in Chicago, accompanied by the suggestion that she visit her mother’s sister in Denmark provides her with the wherewithal for another escape, which she undertakes at once.

After returning to New York later, Helga discovers that she is still not satisfied. After an encounter with Dr. Robert Anderson, her former boss and now her best friend’s husband, Helga has what amounts to an emotional crisis and finds herself in a storefront church where she is rescued, spiritually and sexually, by the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green.

*Copenhagen

*Copenhagen. Capital city of Denmark, where Helga arrives with great relief after escaping the tawdriness of Harlem and the insult of being considered a member of African American classes to which she feels she does not belong. Although her initial stay with her Aunt Katrina and Uncle Poul in Copenhagen is pleasant, she soon develops a distaste for being constantly on display as a dark object in the midst of a predominantly blonde-haired white society. She is particularly offended by the advances of the painter Axel Olsen, whom she dismisses angrily. Interestingly, Helga realizes that not only does she miss America, but she misses being among other African Americans–her people–and she resolves to flee Denmark for Harlem so that she can re-embrace her own.

*Alabama

*Alabama. With her minister husband, Helga moves to a tiny town in rural Alabama to do the Lord’s work, but ultimately finds it as unfulfilling as everything else she has attempted. Unfortunately, Helga finds herself trapped by the marriage, by motherhood, and by the finality of the realization that there is nowhere else for her to go.

BibliographyAhlin, Lena. The “New Negro” in the Old World: Culture and Performance in James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larsen. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2006. Compares Quicksand to Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and Fauset’s There Is Confusion (1924).Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Claims the ideas in Quicksand “declare their author’s rebellion as an artist.” Notes that, in Helga, Larsen creates a character who refuses to act out the white fantasies she would be expected to perform. Also compares Larsen with her contemporary Zora Neale Hurston.Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Treats Larsen’s use of the mulatto figure as a “narrative device of mediation.” Explores the interconnections of sexual, racial, and class identity and makes the claim that Larsen offers no resolutions to the contradictions she raises in the novel.Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Presents an analysis of Helga as a mulatto and discusses Larsen’s attempted innovations in the depictions of women characters.Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Sees Helga as struggling against her sensuality, but surrendering to it in the frustrating experiences she undergoes. Her final surrender to sensuality, in the marriage to Reverend Green, results in her death.Lackey, Michael. African American Atheists and Political Liberation: A Study of the Sociocultural Dynamics of Faith. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. Includes a chapter reading the conversion narrative in Quicksand as a scene of rape.McDowell, Deborah E. Introduction to “Quicksand” and “Passing,” by Nella Larsen. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986. Extensive analysis of Quicksand. Deals with Larsen’s exploration of female sexual fulfillment and studies the novel’s narrative strategy, which reflects the tension between sexual expression and repression.
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