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]

Crane is the haughty, aloof and often arrogant, refined mixed-race daughter of a Danish white mother and a West Indian black father. Her father died soon after she was born. Unable to feel comfortable with her European-American relatives, Crane lives in various places in the United States and visits 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 Southern Negro boarding school (based on Tuskegee University), where she becomes dissatisfied with its philosophy. She criticizes a sermon by a white preacher, who advocates the segregation of blacks into separate schools and says their striving for social equality would lead blacks 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 finds 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 Negro man, whom she does not really love, but with whom she can gain social benefits. In Denmark she turns down the proposal of a famous white Danish artist for similar reasons, for lack of feeling. By the final chapters, Crane has married a black Southern preacher. The novel's close is deeply pessimistic. Crane had hoped to find sexual fulfillment in marriage and some success in helping the poor southern blacks she lives among, but instead she has frequent pregnancies and suffering. 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, functioning as a psychological problem due to her failure to create a sense of self that fits into the community. She finds this process alienating, her only comfortable identity is as an outsider. Due to this, Helga Crane produces a peculiar relationship with happiness in which she doesn't know what it is, but she knows she doesn't have it.

Social Critique[edit]

Whether or not the novel is interested in producing a social critique is up for debate. The reader walks away questioning if Helga Crane's issue 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.


  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.