May 4, 2012

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand tells the story of Helga Crane, the daughter of a Scandinavian mother and a black father. Helga is a young woman trying to find her place in early 20th century American society. When the novel opens, she is a teacher at Naxos, a wealthy boarding school in the South that educates black pupils. Helga becomes increasingly frustrated with the school’s segregationist race politics, which are summarised in the following passage:
And he had said that if all Negroes would only take a leaf out of the book of Naxos and conduct themselves in the manner of the Naxos products there would be no race problem, because Naxos Negroes knew what was expected of them. They had good sense and they had good taste. They knew enough to stay in their places, and that, said the preacher, showed good taste. He spoke of his great admiration for the Negro race, no other race in so short a time had made so much progress, but he had urgently besought them to know when and where to stop
As a result of her rejection of this ideology, Helga quits her job at Naxos; Quicksand then follows her as she moves to Chicago, to Harlem during its famous Renaissance, and then to Denmark to stay with her mother’s family. Over the course of the novel, Helga tries to find a place where she belongs, and also to make sense of her identity in a world that keeps trying to impose stifling definitions of what it means to be a mixed-race woman on her.

I fell in love with Nella Larsen’s amazing writing from the very first page and I could not put Quicksand down. The opening chapters in particularly really resonated with me: they show Helga drifting, trying to figure out what to do after quitting her teaching job, and slowly realising how many opportunities are in fact closed to her. The challenges Helga faces as a woman of colour are of course completely different from my own experiences, but nevertheless Larsen evoked a feeling that is familiar to me in a very powerful way.

Helga is a very interesting protagonist: she’s not without her flaws, but even so I never stopped empathizing with her. She’s particularly quick to judge others and prone to internalised racism, but Larsen does a great job of showing how this is a result of the conflicting social messages she’s been exposed to through her life. For example,
Worst of all was the fact that under the stinging hurt she understood and sympathized with Mrs. Nilssen’s [her uncle’s wife, who rejects any family association with Helga due to her race] point of view, as always she had been able to understand her mother’s, her stepfather’s, and his children’s points of view. She saw herself for an obscene sore in all their lives, at all costs to be hidden. She understood, even while she resented. It would have been easier if she had not.
(…)
Abruptly it flashed upon her that the harrowing irritation of the past weeks was a smoldering hatred. Then she was overcome by another, so actual, so sharp, so horribly painful, that forever afterwards she preferred to forget it. It was as if she were shut up, boxed up, with hundreds of her race, closed up with that something in the racial character which had always been, to her, inexplicable, alien. Why, she which had always been, to her, inexplicable, alien. Why, she demanded in fierce rebellion, should she be yoked to these despised black folk?
Race and gender are at the forefront of Quicksand. The section set in Denmark particularly does an excellent job of examining the exoticisation of women of colour – an exoticisation that is closely tied to Helga’s sexuality. Helga is treated kindly, but at the same time she’s condescended to as her personhood is dismissed. As the following sections show, she is mainly perceived as a primitive being whose function in a white society is purely ornamental:
Everyone was very polite and very friendly, but she felt the massed curiosity and interest, so discreetly hidden under the polite greetings. The very atmosphere was tense with it. “As if I had horns, or three legs,” she thought. She was really nervous and a little terrified, but managed to present an outward smiling composure. This was assisted by the fact that it was taken for granted that she knew nothing or very little of the language. So she had only to bow and look pleasant.
(…)
To them this girl, this Helga Crane, this mysterious niece of the Dahls, was not to be reckoned seriously in their scheme of things. True, she was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them. She didn’t at all count.
From a historical perspective, Quicksand is groundbreaking for its frank portrayal of Helga’s inner life – the fact that we’re openly told about her desire for Dr Anderson, her impatience with those who surround her, her experiences with racism, and the impact of these experience in how she sees herself is no small thing. We are also shown how uncomfortable Helga’s experience of her own sexuality, and again Larsen intelligently points readers towards the root cause of this discomfort. Helga is caught between feeling she’s conforming to the racist stereotype of the hypersexual black woman and repressing her emotions altogether. In either case, she is robbed of the sense that her sexuality is truly her own. Neither option is really viable, and this leaves her with no place to go.

Quicksand has a bleak ending reminiscent of novels such as The Awakening or Ethan Frome. It took me a while to make sense of my feelings about it – on the one hand, the ending could leave room for Quicksand to be read as yet another story that conforms to the long tradition of punishing women for their sexuality. There is no way around the fact that the ending puts Helga in a position of victimisation and sacrifice. But on the other hand, it makes sense to me that Helga would fail to find independence and fulfilment under her social circumstances. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of novels that draw attention to social systems that are insurmountable in their current shape and thus to how they need to be changed, rather than to individual feats of triumph and strength. I believe that Quicksand is one of these novels, and for this reason I really appreciated the ending.

I absolutely can’t wait to read Nella Larsen’s Passing, which I hear is an even better novel.

They read it too: My Friend Amy, Rebecca Reads, Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, A Striped Armchair, Paperback Reader

(Have I missed yours?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

13 comments:

  1. I haven't read Quicksand, but I really enjoyed Passing. Like Quicksand, it also examines what it means to be a woman of mixed race in the Harlem Renaissance. I'd love to get my hands on this one!

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  2. Wonderful review, Ana! Nella Larsen's name rings a bell, but I am not able to remember where I have heard of her. This book looks quite fascinating because of its premise. I love the title too. It it sad that the story has a sad ending. Maybe it helped readers of that era to identify with the heroine. Thanks for this wonderful review.

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  3. One of the topics I'd really like to explore in my reading is the one of gender in the civil rights movement. It sounds like this book would really be a good one to read and expand my knowledge of the history. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    This next part doesn't relate in any part to this post or even to your blog, but on a comment you left on my blog some time back: YES, email me! I DO want to hear from you :-)

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  4. Just starting Passing, so it was nice to get someone's take on her other novel. Funny -- in the foreward, it's mentioned that Quicksand was a lot more critically acclaimed than Passing. Am looking forward to getting into it.

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  5. Your last paragraph is exactly what I would want to say about this novel. Larsen is writing the truth for a woman such as Helga at this time, and these sorts of triumphs were rare. She's writing from that experience, and I appreciate that.

    This book and Passing are both really really interesting, though I'd say Passing is even more so in terms of the psychological study. I hope you enjoy it!

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  6. Your last paragraph is exactly what I would want to say about this novel. Larsen is writing the truth for a woman such as Helga at this time, and these sorts of triumphs were rare. She's writing from that experience, and I appreciate that.

    This book and Passing are both really really interesting, though I'd say Passing is even more so in terms of the psychological study. I hope you enjoy it!

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  7. I enjoyed Passing, but it was very, very short and I wanted more! This one sounds like a really great one to get my hands on.

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  8. I couldn't say whether I liked this one better or Passing. They are both such important books. I read one right after the only, only kept her stories but would like to read them now as well.

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  9. This one sounds interesting. I really enjoyed The Awakening (not that it was a happy book) and so I'm curious about this one.

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  10. This sounds like a very daring novel for 1928! I wonder why it's not taught more in US schools? It sounds like it would really be worthwhile.

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  11. I'm not a fan of The Awakening, but I do like Ethan Frome. :)

    I have always found it interesting that black women are seen as so much more sexual than white women, and I can very much see how that would affect a woman of mixed race. It's such an intriguing issue the idea that race dictates sexual drive. I'll have to find some books on the subject.

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  12. I'd never heard of this author, though I'm now fascinated--especially with Passing, to be honest. I think in particular I find your comments on the ending to be interesting. Novels usually do tell the stories of "exceptional" characters, and in an historical or period novel, this can be very misleading.

    I've thought a lot about emotional or psychological anachronism in historical fiction, and how it affects my understanding of history, as well as how its absence affects my appreciation of a story. The House of Mirth is another one that I think fits this list--really, a lot of Edith Wharton books have endings that are far more realistic than happy. They're so much more interesting, but I have to admit I'm a sucker for a happy ending.

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  13. It is a very difficult balance for a writer, I imagine, because on the one hand, you don't want to, as a writer, punish women for their sexuality, but on the other, you want to write the real world, a world which unfortunately punishes women for their sexuality, I should think. I'm glad you were able to make peace with the ending, anyway.

    Its interesting, though, the relationship between perceived libido and racial/gender bias. Thinking about it now, the 'scary minority has insatiable lust' trope is pretty common - homosexuals are often thought of this way, as are hispanic people here in the states, and 100 years ago, the Irish and Italians, for example, were thought of the same. With all of these (excpept perhaps for homosexuals) there is this barely suppressed terror that the minorities will 'outbreed' the nice white majority and start to dominate the culture, a sort of barely sublimated horror of impending power in the hands of the minority. Even the history of good movements, like Birth control here in the states, shamefully has some overtones of spreading-the-pill-around-to-the-filthy-poor-people-so-they-stop-breeding. Which is very troubling.

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