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Nella Larsen's Novel "Quicksand" Defies Any Stereotypes About Black Women During The Harlem Renaissance.

1167 words - 5 pages

At first glance it seems that Nella Larsen wrote "Quicksand" just to irritate and annoy her readers with a wishy-washy black heroine who has no direction in her life, yet is constantly unsatisfied with her available roles. I was personally offended when this fictional woman, Helga Crane, was given opportunity after opportunity, first a decent job at a well-respected school, then an employer who helps her get on her feet in New York, then money sent to her from her uncle, then an open invitation to live with her aunt in Copenhagen, then a marriage proposal to a wealthy man, only to have her reject the offer and go where the wind blows her, constantly sad and complaining. I found the ending fitting, that this woman who never lifted a finger to effect any change, who never showed any passion or zest for life would find herself married to a decent yet inappropriate man who did not realize what a fragile thing he had married.

        Then I read the novel again. Upon second glance, I saw Larsen making a social commentary about a black woman's role during the Harlem Renaissance. The characters in the novel represent the different ideologies of black philosophers during the Harlem Renaissance, and through this novel, Larsen shows how each falls flat when confronted with a true, complex black woman. Not only is Helga a sympathetic character, but the very nature of her intelligence and beauty prevents her from living the life a good black woman should want, namely the teaching position at Naxos, or marriage to a prosperous man. She realizes there is something more out there for her, but having been raised as an outcast among her own people because of her lack of family, she is given little opportunity to find a suitable outlet for her talents. Not only is she unprepared to create a meaningful role for herself because of this lack of family, she is constantly buffeted by the ideologies of people she comes into contact with. Helga Crane is unable to find joy because she is tugged and pushed by what others believe she should become, yet always falling through the cracks because one theory alone can not define her, just as a black woman in Harlem is preached to and told to follow certain ideologies which are always contradictory, and never quite match what a black woman is capable of. Confronted with this complex woman, each of the characters fails Helga in their own way.

        Anne Gray represents the thoughts of Marcus Garvey by dressing the way whites dress, yet shunning any contact with them, in fact shunning anyone who has contact with them. She never ventures out of Harlem, and believes blacks should stick only to each other. While Garvey's idea of "Back to Africa " never arose, this unity and isolation among blacks found in Anne's beliefs echoes Garvey's underlying theme. Helga does not agree with this idea, as she has white relatives. James Vayle, the man who was completely content to teach at Naxos, marry Helga and live a...

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