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Analyzing Nella Larsens Novel Quicksand English Literature Essay

1472 words (6 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

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In the 1920s, figures such as W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke sought to define a new black identity that had appeared on the scene.  They claimed that this “New Negro” imparted a distinctive and invaluable racial identity and culture to society and was proud of his or her race and heritage.  However this is not the view suggested by Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand. Larsen presents an indictment of this New Negro philosophy by showing Helga as a character who is ashamed and humiliated at being black. The protagonist, Helga Crane, struggles with her identity and throughout the novel attempts to dissociate herself her black identity.

But Helga questioning her value is not limited to the workplace. As a mulatta, Helga is divided into two, especially for men: her light skin bestows respectability, and her blackness signifies hypersexuality (Davis).  Her value to men oscillates accordingly.  As James Vayle becomes increasingly assimilated to Naxos and its mission to serve primarily the white upper-class, his discomfort with her “racially” scandalous origins and “lack of acquiescence” (Larsen, 1147) with the Naxos machine grows, making her less than an ideal marriage partner.  But he doesn’t break off his engagement with her, because he finds her “ancient [sexual] appeal” (Larsen, 1147) useful.  Similarly, Robert Anderson insults her by incorrectly assuming that a respectable family background imparted to her “dignity and breeding” and “good stock” (Larsen, 1107), which makes her a valuable asset to Naxos, but once she proves an unsuitable “marriage” partner, he also treats her as a sexual object, in this case at Travenor’s party.  Not surprisingly, she “savagely slap[s]” (Larsen, 1115) Anderson, which not only punishes him for making her feel “belittled and ridiculed” but also repays the symbolic slap she felt when devalued at the employment agency in Chicago.  And, of course, she resists being objectified as a “decoration,” a “curio,” a “peacock” (Larsen, 1136) and fulfilling the sexual needs and narcissism of Axel Olsen.  Indeed, Helga experiences Axel Olsen’s desire to possess her as akin to being reduced to chattel.  She tells him, “I’m not for sale. Not to you. Not to any white man. I don’t at all care to be owned” (Larsen, 1137).  His painting of her underscores how he replicates the racist fantasy about black women as jezebels or, as Helga puts it, “some disgusting sexual creature” (Larsen, 1138).  Her refusal of his marriage proposal parallels her resignation from the college: both actions seek an escape from the stifling social roles defined for women, particularly black or mulatta women. At this point, Helga begins to truly hate her black identity and the stereotypes associated with being black.

While she takes flight from debilitating relationships in Naxos, Chicago, Harlem, and Copenhagen, Helga does not escape the actualized mode of thinking integral to racism.  Her conceptualization of her problems and their solutions replicates the ways society produced racial ideologies that took physical qualities–hair texture, skin coloring, skull size–as indicators of a human being’s economic function and market value.  As Emmanuel Wallerstein puts it, “racism is that set of ideological statements combined with that set of social practices which have had the consequence of maintaining a high correlation of ethnicity and work-force allocation over time” (Wallerstein qtd. in Davis).  Helga has internalized this transformation of an economic category–black labor value–into a metaphysical concept–black value.  Simply put, for her, black means poor, enslaved, and despised and white means wealthy, free, and loved.  Helga realizes that ever since childhood “she had wanted, not money, but the things which money could give, leisure, attention, beautiful surroundings. Things. Things. Things” (Larsen, 1126). This, once again, emphasizes Larsen’s protagonist’s shame in her blackness. Helga’s desire in life was “things” and the only way she can obtain these “things” is if she were white. Larsen portrays Helga as a woman who is embarrassed and humiliated by being black which directly contradicts Locke’s philosophy of the New Negro, who embraces his or her black identity and shows racial pride.

Helga’s recurring sense of entrapment is certainly well founded, since the social quicksand into which she sinks is that of a Jim Crow America whose class, color, and gender lines extend from South to North. America was a hard and highly dangerous place for millions of black Americans during the era of Reconstruction. These conditions and their ideological justifications propel Helga to flee from the black working class but, just as importantly, from being associated with the black working class.  By identifying with the white upper-class, she tries to break the signifying chain that links her to the black working class (Frazier qtd. in Scheper, 690).  This is why she dislikes race talk among her Naxos colleagues, Harlem friends, and Copenhagen relatives and acquaintances. Before embarking for Copenhagen she thinks, “Why…should she be yoked to these despised black folk” (Larsen, 1128).  Here it can be clearly seen that Helga does not possess any racial pride, but rather feels disgust towards it. And in Copenhagen, seduced by the wealth and attention she receives, Helga vows never to return to America. Shortly after she receives Anne’s letter announcing her marriage to Dr. Anderson, Helga muses on what would have became of her if she had never left Harlem and instead married Anderson herself.  If she were to return to America, her fate would be that of “other Negroes [who] were allowed to be beggars only, of life, of happiness” (Larsen, 1133). Again, it can be seen that Helga tries to dissociate herself as much as possible from her fellow Negroes and her racial identity.

Perhaps Helga’s most desperate attempt to free herself from the racial identity assigned by society is her marriage to a Southern reverend, Mr. Pleasant Green, whose name evokes a kind of utopian fantasy and the idea of marrying for money (Scheper, 685). The marriage is a way of finally consummating her sexual desires without feeling belittled or somehow beneath her husband (Scheper, 685).  In other words, Helga hides herself in his Southern community as a way to escape the society who made her feel black and poor. Her attempt to identify with Green and his flock is, in essence, motivated by the same racist attitudes as her identification with the white upper-class: her desire not to be perceived by people as the inferior black other. However, Helga’s marriage to Green does not overcome her internalized racism.  Sex with this man only temporarily gives her an “anaesthetic satisfaction for her senses” (Larsen, 1157).  Before long her fear of being identified with the black working class reasserts itself in her attempt to conceal the poverty, class status, and racialization of black women, especially when she counsels the other women not to wear the racially and class-coded sunbonnets or aprons on Sundays because, one can assume, they would look like domestics–too conventionally black. 

Not surprisingly, her contempt for the black working class grows when she fails to uplift her neighbors and she herself becomes increasingly “proletarianized” (Scheper, 693). She must perform more and more domestic work in exchange for her sexual satisfaction, especially when she has children. Using Larsen’s own metaphor, Helga comes to view the labor cost of having a sex life as an unequal exchange, since she must pay dearly with her body–the double labor of producing children and maintaining a well-kept home. This sense of paying too much, a repetition of her observation on the novel’s first page that she “gave willingly and unsparingly of herself with no apparent return” (Larsen, 1087), grounds the realization that she has not succeeded in escaping her “fate” as a black woman. 

During the Harlem Renaissance, many new ideas about the Negro identity were being developed by philosophers, artists and writers. Locke and DuBois promoted the idea of a New Negro wherein the blacks of America would be proud of their rich cultural heritage and have a strong sense of racial pride. But authors like Larsen, did not necessarily support such ideas, but rather indicted such theories. As can be seen through the experiences of Helga Crane, Larsen conveys the message that the times and situations that blacks were facing during the Harlem Renaissance were not conducive to promote racial pride, but rather left blacks feeling hopeless and inferior. Quicksand shows the difficulties of being black during the 1920s and the struggles with racial identity that many (as represented by the character of Helga) faced during this time and the overwhelming desire to dissociate oneself from the black stereotype. This dissociation, unfortunately, resulted in a complete removal from the black community and one’s black identity. This shame and humiliation associated with blackness is a direct contradiction of Locke’s and DuBois’s philosophy of the New Negro.

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