The Worst of Both Worlds, and the Best of Neither
Helga Crane's racial mixedness as a mulatto in Nella Larsen's novel Quicksand divides her socially, emotionally, and geographically, and suspends her in a perpetual "in between" status. Her uncanny role results from a combination of qualities that simultaneously identify her with, and distance her from, each side of her ancestry. Helga's identity becomes taboo because it leads her "diverging in two contrary directions"(Freud 24) that cannot exist simultaneously.
Freud's article on "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence" follows these two separate directions that divide the meaning of 'taboo' to find that at the end they merge to repel him in their "sense of something unapproachable"(24). He defines taboo as, "on the one hand, 'sacred', 'consecrated', and on the other 'uncanny', 'dangerous', 'forbidden', 'unclean'"(24). These two separate meanings of taboo lead back to one another after they each are split in half again. The notion of taboo as something sacred or forbidden suggests that it is either something known that is holy and should be worshipped, or something that is worshipped simply because it is sacred but the reason for its holiness is unknown. The competing idea of taboo as forbidden creates the possibility that it is either something known to be unclean and therefore tainted, or it is dangerous because the reason for its filth is unknown. Each of these four possibilities converge in the sense of 'holy dread', or 'unholy dread', as the case may be, because they all evoke the same uncanny feeling.
Taboo restrictions and prohibitions not only further shroud its meaning in uncertainty, but spread its contaminating influence upon any person or object that is subjected to these restrictions; "Anyone who has transgressed one of these prohibitions himself acquires the characteristic of being prohibited"(29). This contagion perpetuates the characteristic mysterious and unknown qualities of taboo because the people who are submitting to them have no idea way, but readily adhere to them, "as though they were a matter of course"(28). The conflicting connotations of taboo are spread through these prohibitions to the people who violate them and then they continue beyond them to people who have not violated a taboo, but are still considered to be taboo themselves.
Helga feels the effects of her taboo social status early on when she is alienated because of the absence of her family. This absence becomes critical to Helga's acceptance by James Vayle's family when they are discussing their possible marriage plans.
They had never liked the engagement, had never liked Helga Crane. Her own lack of family disconcerted them. No family. That was the crux of the whole matter. For Helga it accounted for everything, her failure here in Naxos, her former loneliness in Nashville. It even accounted for her engagement to James. (Larsen 8)
The Vayle family is disturbed by...