Self-Delusion and Self-Sacrifice in Nella Larsen's 'Quicksand.'
Monda, Kimberly, African American Review
Nella Larsen's portrait of Helga Crane in Quicksand (1928) criticizes the ways in which white racist constructions of black women's allegedly inherent lasciviousness have cut black women off from experiencing their legitimate sexual desires. Helga fears her desires because they seem to confirm stereotypes about black peoples' "primitivism" and "savagery." The first part of this essay treats Larsen's criticism of the sexual self-sacrifice of repression, a repression that stems from both white society's distortion of black peoples' sexuality as "savage" and from Helga's equally damaging family dynamics. The child of a black father who abandoned his family shortly after she was born and a Scandinavian immigrant mother, Helga associates her mother's coldness and rejection with their racial difference. Karen Nilssen's failure to grant her daughter the recognition that would help her gain access to herself as an active subject helps explain Helga's emotional repression as an adult.
The second part of this essay examines Helga's attempt to escape the self-sacrifice of emotional and sexual repression by quitting racist America for the liberal environs of Denmark and the affection of her dead mother's sister, Katrina Dahl. Helga channels her unacknowledged sexuality into the pleasures of consumeristic purchasing and self-display as the wealthy Dahls dress her in gorgeous clothes and show off her "exotic" beauty to their friends. Larsen uncovers the objectification at the heart of consumerism, exposing Helga's experience of desire and agency as illusory. This objectification returns her to the white constructions of black "primitivism" she had fled Harlem to escape. Helga finally seems to elude the tangle of cultural and psychological pressures that demand her sexual and emotional repression, however, when she rejects Axel Olsen's marriage proposal, thus repudiating both the Danish packaging of her exoticism as well as the distant mother who failed to recognize her. This symbolic rejection of her mother allows Helga to identify with her unknown and formerly reviled black father, an identification that permits her to gain temporary access to her subjectivity and, when she returns to Harlem, to acknowledge her long-repressed desire for Dr. Anderson.
The essay concludes with an analysis of Larsen's chilling portrait of the way in which Helga's sudden release from the self-sacrifice of sexual repression propels her into a nightmare of domestic self-sacrifice; Larsen ends her story of sexual discovery with Helga's sinking into what she finally recognizes as a "quagmire" of endless, life-threatening pregnancies and childbirths (133). Eda Lou Walton, one of the most perceptive of Quicksand's contemporary reviewers, felt that Larsen's treatment of her heroine's sexuality was incomplete:
To tell the story of a cultivated and
sensitive woman's defeat through her
own sex-desire is a difficult task. When
the woman is a mulatto and beset by
hereditary, social and racial forces over
which she has little control and into
which she cannot fit, her character is so
complex that any analysis of it takes a
mature imagination. This, I believe,
Miss Larsen is too young to have. (212)
While Walton's review stands out for its understanding of Larsen's interest in her main character's sexuality (most other reviewers focused solely on the racial dynamics of the novel(1)), it fails to grant Larsen the benefit of the doubt. Most critics today read Helga's tragic end as a powerful criticism of the social forces that conspire against her achieving a fulfilling life, admiring Larsen's handling of the very complexity Walton felt Quicksand did not dramatize.
In the context of my analysis of the different pressures toward (and forms of) female self-sacrifice that Larsen explores, Helga's "fall" from the discovery of her sexuality to the spiritual death and physical near-death of involuntary pregnancies as the Reverend Mr. …