Sunday, April 06, 2008

I Believe There's Something More 'Cause This Isn't What I've Been Looking For

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

After reading several books (including Reconstructing Womanhood, and Psychoanalysis and Black Novels) which analyzed this novel, I finally read it. Larsen portrays Helga Crane as a character that is constantly searching. Every time she begins a new life, she is at first happy, but after about a year, her old dissatisfaction sets back in. Throughout the novel, she tries to define what she wants as happiness but she doesn't know what that means to her outside of her enjoyment of material things. She doesn't feel like she belongs anywhere, feeling a sense of yearning and lack everywhere she goes. She doesn't feel comfortable in the black community, and critiques her friend Anne, who is very racially conscious:
She hated white people with a deep and burning hatred, with the kind of hatred which, finding itself held in sufficiently numerous groups, was capable someday, on some great provocation, of bursting into dangerously malignant flames. But she aped their clothes, their manners, and their gracious ways of living. While proclaiming loudly the undiluted good of all things Negro, she yet disliked the songs, the dances, and the softly blurred speech of the race. Towards these things she showed only a disdainful contempt. (80)
After spending time with her mother's side of the family in Denmark, Helga realizes that she doesn't fit into white society, either. In white Europe, she is admired but excotized. It's a very different type of racism than in the United States and perhaps less malicious, but racism nonetheless. In Copenhagen, her race makes her an attraction but all the attention and admiration she receives are based on the idea of her as the "Other."

Another constant theme in Helga's portrayal are her sudden changes. Once she begins feeling dissatisfied, it is only a matter of time before she will decide to leave and move on in her life. Usually, whenever she decides this, she feels the need to leave immediately. Once she makes up her mind, she acts upon it almost that very moment. As a result, her marriage isn't as surprising as one might think since Helga, though very intelligent, has never been one to deliberate upon her desires, decisions and whims.

Helga never finds what she is looking for, and one of her impulsive decisions ends up trapping her for good. Her spirit basically broken, when she finally begins to realize her own unhappiness at this final situation, she delays planning her departure, which is a first for her character, until it is too late.

The collection also included Passing which I'd already read, and three short stories. The introduction contains a lot of biographical data, and explains many existing confusions and contradictions about Larsen's life. It was well researched, but didn't contain too much textual analysis. However, since I'm not sure if other books with Quicksand and Passing also include the short stories, I'd definitely recommend this version just for completeness.

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