Quicksand (Larsen novel)

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Quicksand is a novel by American author Nella Larsen, first published in 1928.[1] This is her first novel and the first draft was completed in a short period of time. The novel was out of print from the 1930s to the 1970s. Quicksand is a work that explores both cross-cultural and interracial themes. Larsen dedicated the novel to her husband.[2]

Discussing the novel, Jacquelyn Y. McLendon called it the more "obviously autobiographical" of Larsen's two novels. Larsen called the emotional experiences of the novel "the awful truth" in a letter to her friend Carl van Vechten.[3]

Plot summary[edit]

Helga Crane is the aloof and refined mixed-race daughter of a Danish white mother and a West Indian black father who died soon after she was born. Rejected by her European-American relatives and not raised with her West Indian father, Crane feels adrift and "without people." Over the course of the novel she travels throughout the United States and Denmark searching for people among whom she feels at home.

In her travels she encounters many of the communities which Larsen knew. For example, Crane teaches at Naxos, a black boarding school (based on Tuskegee University), where she becomes dissatisfied with its philosophy of sober racial uplift and accommodationism. She criticizes a sermon by a white preacher, who advocates for Booker T. Washington-style racial segregation and warns black students that striving for social equality will lead them to become avaricious. Crane quits teaching and moves to Chicago. Her white maternal uncle, now married to a bigoted woman, shuns her. Crane moves to Harlem, New York, where she becomes the secretary to a refined but often hypocritical black middle class woman obsessed with the "race problem."

Taking her uncle's legacy, Crane visits her maternal aunt in Copenhagen, where she is treated as a highly desirable racial exotic. Missing black people, she returns to New York City. Close to a mental breakdown, Crane happens onto a store-front revival and has a charismatic religious experience. After marrying the preacher who converted her, she moves with him to the rural Deep South. There she is disillusioned by the people's adherence to religion. In each of her moves, Crane fails to find fulfillment. She is looking for more than how to integrate her mixed ancestry. She expresses complex feelings about what she and her friends consider genetic differences between races.

The novel develops Crane's search for a marriage partner. As it opens, she has become engaged to marry a prominent Southern black man, whom she does not really love, but through whom she can become a part of the black elite. In Denmark she turns down the proposal of a famous white Danish artist for whom she is the embodiment of an exoticized African ideal. By the final chapters, Crane has married a black Southern preacher whom she finds physically revolting. The novel's close is deeply pessimistic. Disillusioned with religion, her husband, and her life, Crane fantasizes about leaving her husband, but never does.

Themes and preoccupations[edit]

Quicksand functions as a semi-autobiographical novel as there are direct ties between Nella Larsen's life and the life of the fictional Helga Crane. Like Larsen, Helga is of mixed racial background, her mother having been Danish and her father African American. Additionally, like Helga Crane, Larsen moved frequently trying on a variety of careers. She trained as a nurse and a librarian and worked in both of these fields before writing Quicksand.[4]

Social critique[edit]

Whether or not the novel is interested in producing a social critique is up for debate. The reader is left wondering whether Helga Crane's issues are a result of society not allowing her to be complete or if her problems due to her own character. Another possibility is that what is being critiqued is a view of race, a view that calls for racial differences and categorizations that Helga could not possibly fit into because she is both white and black.

The "tragic mulatta"[edit]

As in Larsen's sole other published novella Passing, the plight of the bi-racial woman in 1920s U.S. culture is central to the novel. Helga Crane's experiences of isolation and emotional exclusion in both black and white cultural spaces, her struggle to identify with both her Danish and African-American families and communities, and her encounters with sexual oppression and exoticization resonate strongly with the trope of the tragic mulatta in American literature.

The "New Negro" Identity[edit]

Black Female Sexuality and The Exoticization of the Black Female Body[edit]

Jim Crow Travel[edit]

Religion and Spirituality[edit]

Education and Racial Uplift[edit]


In 1928 Quicksand earned Larsen the second prize for literature from the Harmon Foundation, an organization which celebrated the works of black artists.[5]


  1. ^ Lewis, Vashti Crutcher (1990). Perspectives of Black Popular Culture. Popular Press. pp. 36–45. ISBN 978-0-87972-504-4.
  2. ^ Davis, Thadious. "Nella Larsen". ic.galegroup.com. Gale. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  3. ^ Jacquelyn Y. McLendon (1995). The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. University of Virginia Press. pp. 71–93. ISBN 978-0-8139-1553-1.
  4. ^ Kaplan., Carla,. "Nella Larsen: A Chronology." in Passing : authoritative text, backgrounds and contexts, criticism. Kaplan, Carla. New York. ISBN 0393979164. OCLC 71266538.
  5. ^ McDowell, D. (1987). Introduction, Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen. Ed. Deborah McDowell. American Women Writers Series. New Brunswick.