By Nella Larsen Essay, Research Paper
The Tragic Fate of an Unrequited Childhood
By Darcy Jo Gaugler
In reading Quicksand written by Nella Larsen one may come to the end of the book with a reaction much like??what!?? Then, in frustration, throw the book down, lean an aggravated head back, and continue to ponder the books in its entirety. One may wonder how a promising life could end in such a sad way. Where did Helga Crane go wrong? What could she have done differently? Along with these questions, a reader may feel strongly enough to condemn Helga to her fate. Others may be sympathetic. Either way, close analysis will show that Helga Crane courageously through her actions and opinions tries to listen to her true self, but unfortunately, a rocky childhood mixed with her complex personality combine to, in the end, make her a tragic heroine.
In the very beginning Helga makes choices that are aligned with her true self. In Naxos, she is not happy. She feels like it is a place that is distasteful to her personality because of ?its air of self-rightness and intolerant dislike of difference? (262). So, she decides to leave. This is the mark of an individual who is confident enough to realize when a situation in her life is no longer suitable. Although her decision happens quickly, it is not without merit. So, she decides to go see the dean of the school to resign the following day.
It is in his office where the reader begins to recognize the personality flaw that taints her life. She goes in with great intentions?to quit a situation that is causing her pain and then find an environment less stifled and more suited to her own ideals. However, after explaining to Robert Anderson her reasons for leaving, Anderson then explains to her some very basic yet realistic facts of life. He says, ?Some day you?ll learn that lies, injustice, and hypocrisy are a part of every ordinary community. Most people achieve a sort of protective immunity, a kind of callousness, toward them. If they didn?t, they couldn?t endure? (273). After this speech, Helga becomes silent, and begins to realize that she does not want to leave. Her respect, and perhaps desire for Anderson, ?this man who was talking so earnestly of his work, his plans, his hopes? (273) has caused an immediate change in her attitude. Many readers would feel this is fickle and indecisive. But what human has not committed these same actions? It is not here where she has made a mistake. Later on in the conversation, Anderson mentions her childhood. Here, Helga acts on immature instincts, and becomes selfishly engaged in her own self-pity, ?The shamed feeling which had been her penance evaporated. Only lacerated pride remained? (273-274). It is here where Helga Crane walks out and quits. Thus, she left Naxos not because of its less than liberated environment, but purely because she was ashamed of her childhood and prideful of herself. This incident is reminiscent of the fatal personality contradiction that marks her life.
In Harlem, Helga acts on various instincts that truly show her depth, her integrity, and her sense of adventure. Arriving there, she is set up with Anne who ?was interesting, an odd confusion of wit and intense earnestness; a vivid and remarkable person? (291). They had a nice friendship in Harlem with a social and economic situation suited to Helga?s tastes. The people in Harlem were easy-going and interesting. Helga was happy. Yet, as time wore on Helga became discontent. The more she knew of Harlem the less she desired to frequent it. She began to slowly see the hypocrisies of Harlem particulaly through Anne who ?would not have desired or even have been willing to live in any section outside the black belt, and she would have refused scornfully, had they been tendered, any invitation from white folk?but she aped their clothes, their manners, and their gracious ways of living? (294). It bothered Helga to listen to Anne who Helga felt had not even been subjected to racial prejudices. These talks reminded Helga of her own childhood that was tainted by racial prejudices, but at the same time her own mother was white. She could not bear it. She basically could not get over the confusion of her own childhood. It is always here in her life where she becomes restless.
So, because of her inability to deal with her mixed emotions, after receiving money from her uncle, she decides to fly off to Copenhagen. In Copenhagen she was basically a doll, and she loved it. It gave her a profound sense of self-importance. Yet, she gradually become discontent again particulary after her aunt started to pressure her about finding a suitable mate. It was as if she didn?t feel good enough to be loved. She loved that her difference was enhanced, but only socially. Romantically, she held convictions that caused her to shy away from a match with a white man. When Axel Olsen proposes to her she profusely denies him, ?But you see, Herr Olsen, I?m not for sale. Not to you. Not to any white man. I don?t at all care to be owned. Even by you? (324). Her relatives are outraged at this. This is a contradiction in her. She wants to be around white people, that is supposedly why she leaves Harlem, but she holds the same thoughts that caused her to dislike Anne. Again, her childhood causes her discontent. Her relatives sense this in their questioning, ?Come now, Helga it isn?t this foolishness about race. Not here in Denmark. You?ve never spoken of it before. It can?t be just that. You?re too sensible. It must be something else? (327). Helga decides to go back to Harlem because of what she learned, ?I?m homesick, not for America, but for Negroes? (328). This is important for her self-awareness.
In Harlem, things are more relaxed, but she realizes she needs love. Yet, this love is displaced in Robert Anderson who is now fixed up with Anne. She had the chance to love him, but she denied it for stubbornness long ago. When she realized she can not have him, this is where she recognizes her own fatal flaw, ?And now she had forfeited it forever. Forever. Helga had an instantaneous shocking perception of what forever meant. And then, like a flash, it was gone, leaving an endless stretch of dreary years before her appalled vision? (340). After this realization, she basically throws her life into the sketchy Rev. Pleasant Greene in a life more oppressed than any she had chosen before.
Her childhood continually haunts her. In every situation she is reminded of her feeling of not belonging and her discontent. Her mother was white and her father black. Her father left her mother, and Helga lived her childhood in a place where nobody cared to include her. Her stepfather and siblings despised her. All this proved too much for her to handle. She could not see love (Anderson) when it was there because her fear was much to pervasive in her life. Thus, when anything uncomfortable occurred around her, she ran away. In the end, it was her downfall. She was doomed to live her life in the thresholds of the oppressive South with many children and empty religion.