Quicksand Summary

Nella Larsen


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Quicksand Summary

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Quicksand, Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel about a mixed-race woman caught between two cultures, is loosely based on the author’s own experiences as a “mulatto”—a term for someone with both black and white ancestry.

Helga, a 20-year-old mixed-race woman, lives in 1920s small-town Georgia, where she works as a teacher. The daughter of a white, Danish mother and a black father, she resents the way she is forced to teach young black children to approximate white culture, thereby making them “respectable.” She expresses these feelings to the new principal, Dr. Anderson, but is frustrated by his lack of understanding. Fed up with her life, she breaks off her engagement to her fiancé, James, and decides to move north and stay with her mother’s brother, Peter, in Chicago. But when she arrives, Peter’s new wife sends her away, denying she’s even related to her white family.

Helga struggles to find work in Chicago. She is eventually hired by Mrs. Hayes-Rore, a travelling black lecturer who needs assistance with her speeches on racial equality. The two travel to New York, staying with Mrs. Hayes-Rore’s friends in Harlem. Helga becomes close with one of them, Anne Grey. Anne involves Helga in her busy social life, and Helga begins to feel as though she’s found a new home. And yet, as time passes, Helga experiences discontent with Anne and her life in Harlem. Anne is self-absorbed and cynical about racial equality. She harbors prejudice against white people as a group, but copies their hairstyles, clothing, and manner of speech. At the same time, she denigrates black culture, which Helga finds deeply hypocritical. At a health conference, Helga runs into Dr. Anderson and finds herself attracted to him. Anne later tells her that Dr. Anderson has left Georgia and now lives in Harlem.

Feeling disillusioned by black Harlem culture, Helga decides she will visit her mother’s sister, Katrina, in Copenhagen. Before she goes, she attends one of Anne’s dinner parties, where she sees Dr. Anderson sitting with Audrey Denney, a woman committed to hosting interracial events. Anne hates Audrey, but Helga admires her. Helga travels to Copenhagen, feeling free from racial tension in America. Aunt Katrina greets her warmly, but quickly turns Helga into an attraction, dressing her in exotic clothing and adorning her with heavy makeup and loud jewelry. People stare at Helga as she walks the streets. Helga takes this well, reveling in her uniqueness and feeling important. One of Katrina’s friends, a painter named Axel Olsen, asks to paint Helga’ portrait. Katrina pushes Helga to pursue a relationship with Axel.

Helga hears that Dr. Anderson is going to marry Anne, which upsets her. Axel proposes marriage to Helga, but she sees his proposal as inappropriate—he did not ask her uncle and Katrina for permission and pressured Helga to sleep with him. Axel compares Helga to a prostitute, and refers to himself as the highest bidder. Helga rejects his proposal. Helga’s relatives are deeply disappointed at her refusal. Helga returns to New York to stay with Dr. Anderson and Anne, who are newly married. Anne is cold towards Helga, resenting how “white” Helga’s time in Denmark has made her. At a party, Helga runs into James, her ex-fiancé, now the assistant principal at the school in Georgia. He tells Helga he’d like to propose to her again. Later, Helga and Dr. Anderson share a passionate kiss, and she pulls away first. They meet alone sometime later, where he apologizes and blames alcohol for his behavior. Rejected, Helga slaps him and runs off. It is raining, and Helga takes shelter from the storm in a small church. The congregation, in the middle of a service, welcome her and beg Helga to come to Jesus. Helga weeps, crying for God’s mercy.

The church’s leader, Reverend Pleasant Green, escorts Helga home. Helga, still reeling from her moment of ecstasy at the church, sets her sights on the Reverend, seeing him as stable and safe. Helga marries Reverend Green and the two move to Alabama. Helga embraces her role as a preacher’s wife, dealing stoically with the poverty involved in that role. The women of the congregation are wary of Helga, seeing her as materialistic and snooty. She gives birth to three children in twenty months—twin boys and a girl. She adores her children, but is worried about her newest pregnancy and her ability to keep house and care for her existing children. The birth of her fourth child breaks Helga. She realizes she hates her husband and that there is no God. Her infant dies, but Helga is relieved. She regrets bringing black children into a difficult, racist world, and that Christianity is a white man’s religion, forced upon black Americans to keep them submissive and hopeful.

Helga thinks of her past life with some fondness, dreaming of it as she sleeps. She knows that she could never abandon her children—her life in Harlem, in Copenhagen, even in Georgia, is gone forever. Just as Helga recovers from her fourth pregnancy and is finally able to walk, clean her house, and care for her sons and daughter, she learns she is pregnant once again.

In Quicksand, Larsen uses Helga’s experiences to explore racial tensions in 1920s America and Europe and how mixed-race people struggle to find their identity within two insular cultures, neither of which truly accept them. Helga attempts to find a home in Harlem Renaissance-era New York, rural Georgia, sophisticated Copenhagen, and poverty-stricken Alabama. Ultimately, she is unable to find true acceptance anywhere, and resigns herself to her fate, finding solace in her children while regretting bringing them into the world that has so frequently rejected her.