Nella Larsen was born in 1891 to a Danish mother and a father who hailed from what was then referred to as the Danish Antilles. Her father died soon after she was born, leaving her to be raised in a white household in which she was constantly looked down on by her step-father and the wider community. Throughout her life, she struggled to find a place where she felt at home, spending years living in Denmark and several Black communities in the US. Because of her dual heritage and economic background, it was common for her to be treated like an outsider. She turned to literature as a means of expressing this feeling of displacement.
Written and published during the closing years of the roaring '20s, Quicksand is one of only two complete novels published by the author.
It never feels like Larsen created the world in which Quicksand takes place. Instead, there is the sense that the various communities present in the novel have been drawn from her own reality. Larsen's talent as writer then, went into constructing a character with complex emotions and an intangible internal struggle, who could interact with these communities and in doing so, utterly transform them.
Helga Crane, the protagonist of Quicksand, has a perspective that is difficult to pinpoint. As a character, she has a very familiar background. The daughter of a Danish mother and a Black father of indeterminate origins, she begins the novel teaching at a Southern school for Black children named Naxos. Institutionally racist and suffocatingly conservative, Crane decides to quit her job. What follows is a crucial insight into her painstaking thought process, a perfect introduction to her character and one that can be viewed as a microcosm of what makes her such a compelling protagonist.
Whilst waiting to meet the headmaster of Naxos to discuss her leaving, it is revealed that she perceives many injustices in the school. Some real, some, like her belief that the rest of the staff hates her, clearly exaggerated. Helga Crane is haughty, determined to reveal no weakness. Her peers are clearly intimidated by her and, whilst not an unkind person, she is pleased by this state of affairs. But she is also deeply insecure; she is constantly obsessed with her self-image and wary of any slights against her character.
When she meets the headmaster, she is resolute in her desire to leave. After he tells her the school needs someone who is willing to criticise it however, she becomes equally resolved to stay. This decision appears absolute, until the headmaster tells her she has "dignity and breeding." Immediately the reader is shown a maelstrom of emotions and obscured insecurities. She states that "the joke is on you, Mr Anderson. My father was a gambler who deserted my mother, a white immigrant." Her voice is dismissive, but it is clear she is defensive. She leaves soon afterwards.
Helga Crane is compelling because of how detailed her psychological profile is. An unreliable narrator that the reader grows to understand more than she does herself, it is clear that Larsen poured her soul into character.
Crane's constant vacillation plagues her everywhere she goes. Every time she finds a new place to live, a new niche to occupy, she appears to find contentment. Often she is able to explore new things about herself, her taste in fashion, her political beliefs, her sexual desires, but inexorably, no matter how content she becomes, unhappiness closes in on her. Doubts creep into her mind and she finds herself reaching for the door.
A big factor behind Crane's constant disillusionment is the intense levels of segregation she encounters. As someone with dual heritage, she never feels truly comfortable in communities that, whether by their own choosing or not, define themselves by their race.
Her time living in Denmark may be the most effective example of this. From the very beginning of the novel Crane relates her desire to be desired, to wear fancy clothes and inspire envy in others. In Denmark, this happens. Her relatives, excited to meet their "exotic" niece, dress her in the most beautiful and colourful clothes she has ever seen. She is shown off all over the city, attracts many influential suitors, and is seen to be the jewel of her family home. She is happy, at first, but grows discontented and listless.
It is devastating to see her begin to hate herself for this. She thinks she is broken, ungrateful, even spoilt. The readers, due to Larsen's perceptive writing, are far better equipped to understand the cause of Crane's feelings than Crane herself. She is unable to realise that the reason she is unhappy is not her fault. It is appalling that her family would ever consider her "exotic", a pretty trinket to further their social status. Such a dynamic is entirely dehumanising, and once again places emphasis on her dual heritage as the defining aspect of her as a person. Circumstances like this chase Crane to the very end of the novel.
Haunting. The only way to describe the ending to Quicksand is haunting. Nothing is resolved. There is no internal epiphany that pulls her from her stupor, and externally, the world remains obsessed with "good breeding" and systemic oppression. She ends the story trapped in a final niche she cannot escape, still unable to fit her dual heritage into any one community. It is sad to see a character you are invested in miss out on a happy ending, but what is truly heartbreaking about this ending is the thought that of the many parallels between Helga Crane and Nella Larsen, the ending to their stories may be one of them.
I hope that by narrativising her own struggle, Larsen was able to process it, and find some level of peace. For anyone wanting to know more about Larsen and the context of her work, I would highly recommend reading Thadious Davis' book Nella Larsen: Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance.