The first half of the twentieth century was marked by the rise of African-American culture when black people resided within the borders of the United States. In 1920s, the African-American culture gradually acquired the international status. What is more important is that it had a great impact on the development of the African-American literature that was largely dedicated to the analysis of racial and gender problems existing in the United States.
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In particular, the African-American authors, such as James Johnson and Nella Larsen, produced the so-called “passing novels” to highlight social and cultural contexts which mix-raced people had to face and overcome in the fight for racial and social identity. Hence, Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Nelson’s Quicksand discuss the challenges and constraints that mixed-raced people had to encounter just because of their cultural affiliation and reluctance of the White people to treat African-American culture equally.
The narrative composition of Johnson novel composition reflects the problem of passing and segregation and emphasizes the protagonist dual nature by means of introducing different plot lines in a chronological order. Similarly, Larsen’s novel discloses the protagonist’s quests through addressing different cultures and communities to find her place in this world. In particular Johnson’s novel reflects the problem of segregation and passing through the use of autobiographic narration and introduction of different plot line. In contrast Larsen’s novel discloses Helga’s searching for cultural and racial identity is presented in the third person, which influence the characterization of plot, settings, and characters.
Comparing and Contrasting the Stories through the Prism of Plot
In contrast to Johnson’s novel whose chronological structure is precisely divided into several parts, Larsen presents her work at various phases of a spatial journey that Helga Crane, the heroine, who visits Naxos, Chicago, Harlem, Denmark, and Alabama in the quest for maturity, development, and growth (Larsen and Davis XVII). By describing the seasons of the years, the author relates to the episodic narrative structure with the physical transformation of scenes, meanings, and action.
The writer also draws parallels between physical landscapes and mental process, between physical forms and baselines and human styles and manners, between economic structures and racial ones. This relation can be explicitly illustrated by the scene during Helga’s staying in the home in New York that is “incomplete accord with what she designated as her ‘aesthetic sense” as large room that delicately and perfectly fit the appointed historic things that “ming[ing] harmoniously and comfortably with brass-bound Chinese tea-chests, luxurious deep chairs and davenports, tiny tables of gay colors, …lustrous Eastern rugs, ancient copper, Japanese prints” and many other multinational items (Larsen and David 47).
In Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Johnsons makes use of a biographic narrative structure that corresponds to the novel title of the same name. The author provides more standard frames for discussing the life of an Ex-Colored Man. In particular, we see a gradual development of the way hero realizes White people’s reluctance to accept alien culture
Character analysis with regard to the problems of race and identity
Both novels contain an element of mystery about Helga Cane, which is sustained till the end of the story. But the author emphasizes that the heroin has to survive in the world of contingency and mutablity. She needs a solid basis for adjusting to the world’s new circumstances and, at the same time, Helga has to hold the purity of the self, which is not permitted by the reality in the beginning of the twentieth century. Therefore, the author introduces such symbolic elements as jazz music in a symbolic town Harlem to emphasize Helga’s affiliation to the Harlem generation. The Harlem cabare is depicted as something unreal, which is hard to conceive. Therefore, the author provides this place as mysterios element, but not as part of reality (Washington 235).
Similarly, the quests and adventures of an Ex-Colored Man where the writer depicts his meeting with rich man as something fictional that is impossible to commit to real life. Johnson novel depicts a hero who is longing to introduce a black music to a white public, but he is not able to do this because he chooses to pass for white and to become a mediocre personality with no purposes in life (Washington 240). He chooses the way of passing for white, like Helga, because he does not believe that he will manage to sustain the oposition to the African-American culture.
Aside from the protagonists’ searching for identity, both novels represent the two-polar opposition to identity. Hence, even the title of Johnson’s novel encompasses the paradox of color and race because the protagonist is presented as visibly white and legally black (Pfeiffer 403). The hero believes that it is possible to equally co-exist with white people revealing his African-American roots. However, he still prefers to suppress his ambition by passing as white. However, the difference is that Ex-Colored Man decides to pass for whites because of having no choice whereas Helga chooses life with a black man, which does not bring any satisfaction either.
Importance of Setting in Supporting the Thesis
The problem of passing and identity is explicitly revealed through setting. Although both stories are fictional, they still describe real historic places being the signifier of a particular cultural heritage. Neither The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man nor Quicksand takes place in one location because both heroes failed to find their places and reach the essence of identity (Brickhouse 534). Hence, Johnson’s hero starts his journey and searching for self-assertion in Connecticut; then, he backs to Atlanta, moves to New York, goes to Europe and returns to America.
Finally, he finds himself in New York again. Helga Crane, being in desperate quests for an identity and self-realization, decides to travel from Naxos to New York; then, she perform in Europe and after a short staying in Harlem, she returns to the American South (Brickhouse 536). It should also be noticed that both protagonists are restlessly rushing form one place to another as if revealing their feeble attempts at defining their place in life. Moreover, through setting, authors manage to render the protagonists’ failure to overcome a “passing” stage.
The expression of racial passing through geographic mobility is not coincidental. According to Brickhouse, if a person has to pass, he/she must move to somewhere else, to a place where his/her identity is unknown (534). Traveling for both characters is a kind of an escape from the past environment. The passing Helga and Ex-colored Man have to leave their families and friends, everything that was related to their history in order to build a new identity that would give them a chance for self-realization and development.
Structure and Narrative Traditions in the African-American Literature
While considering structure and setting, a special consideration requires Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. In particular, the novel is often perceived as a historic document narrating a real life story. Presented in the first person, the novel as if highlights searching for self-realization. With the help of this device, Johnson attempts to achieve the effect of self-analysis and secret confession of his secrets and sufferings: “I know that in writing the following pages I am divulging the great secret of my life, the secret which for some years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my earthy possessions; and it is a curious study to me to analyze the motives which prompt me to do it.” (Johnson 1). Autobiography is a strong method for expressing her grief and suffering as if the author attempts to convey his feelings and expressions Pfeiffer (405).
Unlike Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Quicksand is presented in the third person narrative as if the author wanted to conceal her real feeling and emotions. Indirect reflection of her life is, perhaps, done on purpose for the reader to be more focused on general problem of passing and identity: “Helga’s own feelings defeated inquiry, but honestly confronted, all pretense brushed aside, the dominant one, she suspected, was relief” (Larsen and Davis 12). This idea is supported by Hostetler who believes that Helga’s world is perceived through colors. In this regard, the heroine stands between white and black being opposed to American and African culture (Hostetler 35). She focuses on colors in clothing to emphasize her female identity and to use this power in fight for rights.
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Summing up, although thematic concerns are identical in both novels, the author still resorts to different various devises to disclose the problem of passing and identity. Hence, the narrative tradition of Johnson’s novel reflects the problem of passing and segregation through autobiographic narrative form and introducing different plot line. Larsen’s novel discloses Helga’s quests for identity through highlighting flashbacks as if showing her failure to find her place. All literary device and comparative analysis revealed that both author strictly follow the tradition of the African-American literature.
Brickhouse, Anna. Nella Larsen and the Intertextual Geography of Quicksand. African American Review. 35.4 (2001): 533-560.
Hostetler, Ann E. The Aesthetics of Race and Gender in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. Modern Language Association. 105.1 (1990): 35-46. Print.
Johnson, James. W. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. US: Penguin, 1990.
Larsen, Nella and Davis, Thadious M. Quicksland. US: Penguine, 2002.
Pfeiffer, Kathleen, Individualism, Success, and American Identity in the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. 30.1 (1996): 403-419. Print.
Washington, Salim. Of Black Bards, Known and Unknown: Music as Racial Metaphor in James Weldon Johnson’s “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”. Jazz Poetics: A Special Issue 25.1. (2002): 233-256. Print.