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Journey to Self in “Quicksand” by Nella Larsen Essay


The first Larsen’s novel is considered to be in a certain manner biographical. The lead character of the novel has a definite resemblance to the author. Both of them were the children from the interracial marriage of the black man and the white woman. In spite of the fact that there are only two novels in Larsen’s literary heritage, these works are highly appreciated by the contemporaries.

The lead character of the novel is a pretty woman of a mixed marriage. She was brought up by her mother’s brother. From the very beginning of the novel, the author reveals the problem of the individual and its place in society. Helga Crane is a stranger in this world. She feels lonely, alienated, and unsatisfied with the surrounding reality. Being the daughter of two races, she is not recognized by any of them.

The whole novel is the description of the endless row of Helga’s trips. It is an endless journey, in which the lead character tries to find herself. She leaves Naxos and her fiancé because she is not satisfied with her career of the teacher and the attitude towards her. The problem of cultural interaction is emphasized in the novel by the description of the gap between Helga and her fiancé’s family.

She is a stranger to them because of her mixed ancestry. Helga comes to the conclusion that both the societies of the black and white people are overfilled with prejudices, and are too complicated for her to be accepted. “Negro society, she had learned, was as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society” (Larsen 19).

At the same time, she feels that in the communication with the whites, she misses the surrounding of the black people. And vice versa, in the society of the black, she experiences the white side of her mind. In fact, she does not fit any of them.

Helga leaves Naxos and moves to Chicago, then to New York, then to Denmark to the family of her mother. Everywhere she tries to find her place in society. However, in fact, there were few opportunities for her.

The first meeting between Helga and Dr. Anderson took place in the office of the school in Naxos. Dr. Anderson was the principal of this school. He was a tall and handsome man, rather reticent and detached. Helga falls in love with him.

In Naxos, Helga tried to explain to him the reasons for her leaving. She had a strong doubt whether Dr. Anderson would understand these reasons. “For her, the situation seemed charged, unaccountably, with strangeness and something very like hysteria” (Larsen 41).

She tries to explain to him her anguishes of body and mind, her frustration of the injustice of the society, her attempts to find her place in this world. Though Helga’s arguments were in a certain manner strange for Dr. Anderson, he began to persuade Helga not to leave them. He was rather convincing in his speech.

“Someday, you’ll learn that lies, injustice, and hierocracy are a part of every ordinary community” (Larsen 44). He was rather a good orator. Representing the logical arguments, he tried to play on Helga’s feelings and emotions. “You are a lady. You have dignity and breeding” (Larsen, 46). Moreover, he was very close to persuade Helga.

However, there was a difference between them. Dr. Andersen conceived all of Helga’s reasons for leaving form the point of view of their professional activity. He thought Helga’s decision to leave was connected with the school they worked at. He was a fulfilled person, and it was difficult for him to understand Helga’s hesitations concerning her place in the world and society.

This fact irritated Helga. When the conversation between them reached the topic of the family, Helga made a decision. This decision was to leave school and to leave Naxos. “As I said, I don’t belong here. I shall be leaving at once” (Larsen, 47).

Maybe this very conversation, the mentioning of the events of Helga’s childhood, her offense caused the following events. In spite of the fact, she was in love with Dr. Anderson, Helga married another man.

After returning from Denmark to Harlem to be present at the wedding of Dr. Anderson and her playmate Anne Grey, Helga, at a certain point, thinks that Dr. Anderson loves her. The long kiss, which had happened between them, embarrassed her. “Everything seemed to have changed in the space of time which she knew to have been only seconds” (Larsen 233).

After that kiss, during their occasional meetings, both of them pretended as nothing had happened. Helga tried to persuade herself that this sudden sensation of passion, which she had experienced, was accidental. But at a certain moment, she began to realize that she did not want to return to Denmark without “exploring to the end that unfamiliar path into which she had strayed” (Larsen 236).

But during their meeting, Helga’s elation disappeared. Their conversation went wrong. Dr. Anderson’s apology was not the same Helga expected to hear. She was in love with him. Even realizing the fact of his marriage, even realizing on the subconscious level all the hopelessness of their further relations, she took offense at Dr. Anderson’s indifference.

For several days she had been trying to sort out her feelings and Dr. Anderson’s motives for kissing her. She had to confess to herself that she loved Dr. Anderson. Yet the only reason of this kiss was explained by Dr. Anderson by the alcohol reaction. He said that he could not forgive himself for “acting such a swine at the Tavenor’s party” (Larsen 239).

It goes without saying that, like any other woman, Helga took offense. “She felt that he had belittled and ridiculed her” (Larsen, 240). In an unthinking moment, she slapped him in the face. She wanted to make him feel the same pain as she felt. This slap meant the definite end of their relations.

Later on, Helga was not convinced whether she had conducted herself right or not. “She had, she told herself, been perfectly justified in slapping Dr. Anderson, but she was not convinced” (Larsen 241). It was the end of their relations. Helga realized the fact that she had ruined her own life and maybe the life of Dr. Andersen too.

“Ruined it because she had been so silly as to close her eyes to all indications that pointed to the fact that no matter what the intensity of his feelings or desires might be, he was not the sort of man who would for any reason give up one particle of his own good opinion of himself” (Larsen 241).

At the end of the novel, we can see Helga married another man from whom she has four children. However, her marriage is not happy. The problem of Helga is the problem of the individual who tries to find her place in a society full of contradictions. She was too proud to go against her heart. Perhaps her leaving Naxos ruined all her life.

Works Cited

Larsen, Nella, , 1928. Web.

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IvyPanda. "Journey to Self in "Quicksand" by Nella Larsen." May 5, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/journey-to-self-in-quicksand-by-nella-larsen/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Journey to Self in "Quicksand" by Nella Larsen." May 5, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/journey-to-self-in-quicksand-by-nella-larsen/.

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