Quicksand (1928) is psychological fiction novella by Nella Larsen (1891-1964). Helga Crane is a biracial woman struggling to find her place in a racially segregated society. Facing bigotry and sexism, Helga moves between the Black and white communities, unsure of her next step. Larsen uses Helga's story to analyze themes of racial identity and gender inequality. 

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Table of contents

    Quicksand: Summary

    Helga Crane is working as a teacher at Naxos, a private school for young Black girls in the American South, but grows tired of the school leadership's racist attitude towards the Black teachers. As a biracial woman, she sometimes enjoys the privileges of her lighter complexion but often faces discrimination.

    She addresses her concerns to Dr. Richard Anderson, a Black doctor who holds sway in the school leadership. Anderson unsuccessfully attempts to pacify Helga's concerns, and she quits her job to return home to Chicago. She plans to stay with her Uncle Peter, the only white relative who has shown her kindness; however, Peter's new wife refuses to let Helga remain at the house because of her race.

    Quicksand Dress StudySmarterFig. 1 - The racist leadership at Helga's school insists the Black teachers wear drab clothing.

    With no skills outside teaching, Helga struggles to find work in Chicago. When she gains a position as an assistant to a traveling lecturer, she visits Harlem for the first time and is excited to see the neighborhood's celebration of Black culture and art. Helga meets Anne Grey there, a wealthy widow who offers Helga a room in her house. The pair quickly bond over their shared increasing race consciousness in the Black community. Anne introduces Helga to the vibrant cultural scene of Harlem and the city's upper-class Black society.

    Quicksand was out of print from the 1930s to the 1970s, as Nella Larsen's work remained largely ignored until she found a new audience in the 2000s.

    As Helga meets successful Black professionals and artists, she feels at home for the first time in her life and hopes she can contribute to the community's burgeoning activism. However, Helga soon begins to notice that many of the educated Black people she meets are ashamed of some aspects of Black identity and mimic the styles and characteristics of the white community.

    When Helga runs into Dr. Anderson on the streets of New York, she feels a spark of attraction but refuses to meet him again. Soon after, she receives an apologetic letter from her Uncle, who suggests Helga visit her family in Denmark. Tired of racial segregation and the shallow nature of Harlem's intellectuals, Helga decides to start a new life in Denmark.

    What is Helga's reaction to the Harlem jazz clubs?

    Welcomed by her white Danish relatives, Helga feels comfortable in her new life and receives flattering attention from the locals, who view her as an exotic beauty. Herr Olsen, a young artist, offers to paint Helga's portrait and begins to develop feelings for her during the sessions. Olsen asks if Helga would consider becoming his mistress, but she refuses, feeling objectified by the offer.

    Meanwhile, news arrives from New York informing Helga that Dr. Anderson is engaged to Anne Grey. Feeling increasingly disconnected from the Black community and isolated in Danish society, Helga yearns to return to Harlem. She rejects Olsen's subsequent marriage proposal, reasoning that she can not be in an interracial marriage and must marry a Black man.

    Back in New York, Helga runs into Anderson at a party. Their romantic feelings are rekindled, and they share a secret kiss. Finally feeling like she has found something she can commit to, Helga hopes the pair will be able to pursue the affair. However, when they next arrange to meet, Anderson tells Helga he must remain loyal to Anne, and they can take the relationship no further.

    A distraught Helga spends the next day wandering in the rain and finds shelter in a religious gathering hosted by Reverend Green. During the service, Helga finds herself overwhelmed by a spiritual feeling and sense of belonging. After the meeting, she permits Reverend Green to walk her home.

    Before meeting Reverend Green, what is Helga's attitude towards religion?

    Quicksand City StudySmarterFig. 2 - Helga struggles to find her place in the big city.

    In search of a new life, Helga embraces religion and marries Reverend Green. The couple moves to rural Alabama, where Helga initially enjoys her social standing as a preacher's wife. However, she soon begins to miss her old life. During the delivery of her fourth child, Helga develops a fever and suffers a series of hallucinations. The grim reality of her life choices becomes apparent; she has no belief in religion and does not love the man she married. When her baby dies a week later, Helga sinks into a deep depression. She considers running away but can not leave her children. When she finally musters up enough energy to leave her bed, she begins to go into labor with her fifth child.

    In 1929, Nella Larsen was awarded the Harmon Foundation's Bronze Medal for Literature for Quicksand.

    Quicksand: Characters

    The novel's main character, Helga Crane, is involved in a love triangle with her friend Anne Grey and Dr. Anderson.

    Helga Crane

    Helga Crane is a highly educated biracial woman trying to figure out where she belongs in a racially segregated America. Coming from interracial marriage, Helga's mother was a white woman from Denmark, while her father was a biracial man from the West Indies. Her light-skinned complexion and dark hair make her a striking beauty that stands out in white and Black environments.

    Helga profoundly identifies with her Black identity and becomes a proponent of a new Black consciousness separate from the mainstream white culture. She is encouraged by her time in Harlem, visiting jazz clubs where she meets an emerging class of Black intellectuals and artists. As well as race, Helga's experience is shaped by the limitations of gender norms and sexism. Despite being highly educated, she struggles to express her opinions and desires in a male-dominated society.

    Anne Grey

    When Helga moves to Harlem, she becomes roommates and friends with Anne Grey, a wealthy widow who shares Helga's commitment to promoting her Black identity. The well-connected Anne can introduce Helga to the lively cultural scene of Harlem and the Black intellectuals proclaiming a new culture rooted in Black empowerment. Anne often complains about white people and is also a vocal supporter of segregation. Helga begins to feel uncomfortable when Anne opposes interracial marriages and realizes that despite Anne's hatred of white people, she often mimics white culture at the cost of her Black identity.

    Dr. Robert Anderson

    When Helga is working at the Naxos school, Dr. Anderson is the principal of the Black school and an important figure in the institution's leadership. While he shares Helga's concerns about the school's racist attitudes and policies, he believes she should stay and try to fix the problem instead of leaving. When the pair meet again on the streets of New York, Helga finds herself attracted to Anderson and is heartbroken when she hears he is set to marry Anne.

    Quicksand: Themes

    In Quicksand, Nella Larsen explores themes of race and identity.

    Race and Identity

    Helga struggles to find her place as a light-skinned Black woman. Disgusted by the racist attitudes of the South and the dominant white society, Helga moves to Harlem, where she finds herself in a predominantly Black setting. However, she also struggles to find her place amongst the upper-class Black set, who talk about race consciousness and Black identity but often mimic white fashions and manners. In the exclusively white environment of Denmark, Helga is an exotic figure but soon becomes an object of fetishization. Caught between her Black and white identities, Helga finds herself unable to integrate into any of these settings fully.

    Quicksand Segregation StudySmarterFig. 3 - In a segregated America, Helga suffers discrimination because of her biracial identity.

    Helga is ostracized by the racism of everyday life in America. Even in the Black community, many of the people she meets suffer from internalized racism, which causes them to be embarrassed by their own identity and culture.

    In a desperate attempt to feel part of something, Helga finally tries to find a sense of identity by becoming a preacher's wife. But her embrace of religion, marriage, and motherhood proves unfulfilling and dooms her to an unhappy life of poverty and servitude.

    As well as tackling racism, Nella Larsen uses Quicksand to investigate the problem of sexism, particularly society's sexual objectification of Black women. Helga faces this stereotype throughout the book. During her job search in Chicago, some prospective employers assume she is a prostitute. In Denmark, Helga is fetishized by many men, including the artist who paints her portrait. Larsen uses Helga's experience to show how society dehumanizes Black women by objectifying them to the status of exotic objects.

    During the early 20th century, many white readers were drawn to the works of Black writers like Larsen because they believed Black women were more sexually liberated and adventurous than the repressed dominant white culture. However, Helga can never truly explore her sexuality on her terms and is limited by the misogynistic expectations of the period. He labels her desires as dangerous and immoral when she shares a secret kiss with Anderson.

    Quicksand Objectify StudySmarterFig. 4 - Helga is initially flattered by the attention she receives in Denmark but realizes she is being objectified.

    Even in marriage, Helga is not sexually liberated. Her sexuality becomes a means of reproduction rather than pleasure. Just as she is recovering from the grief of losing her fourth child, she becomes pregnant with her fifth.

    Quicksand: Analysis

    Quicksand is told through a third-person omniscient point of view, giving the readers insight into Helga's thoughts and insights. The novella is a work of psychological fiction.

    Psychological fiction or psychological realism is a literary genre that focuses on a character's inner thoughts and develops rather than the plot. Famous examples of the genre include Fyodor Dostoevsky's (1821-1881) Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881) by Henry James (1843-1916).

    Larsen spends large portions of the book focused on Helga's thoughts, desires, and reflections, highlighting more significant social issues of class, race, and gender. Quicksand was a groundbreaking work that explored the realities of life for Black women in American society. Larsen was one of the first authors to show readers the perspective of a group that had been mainly ignored until this point. Drawing on her life experiences as material, Larsen presented the struggles of a biracial woman against society's racist and sexist limitations. Like Helga, Larsen was born to a Danish mother and a West Indian in Chicago. She struggled for many years with her biracial identity, never feeling accepted by the Black or white community.

    Quicksand was published during a literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, which saw the emergence of many important Black writers and artists. Larsen was one of the few women in the movement and was particularly unique because of her ability to enter Black or white social settings. Larsen was able to accurately critique the shortcomings of each group's limited sense of identity and explore the plight of the individual.

    Quicksand Sign StudySmarterFig. 5 - Caught between the white and Black communities, Helga constantly exists on shaky grounds.


    The book's title describes Helga's uncertainty. Unable to plant her foot solidly in either the Black or white worlds, Helga is always standing in quicksand, unsure of her next move. As well as race, Helga is trapped in the gender expectations of her time. Any expression of sexuality is viewed as immoral and dangerous as she struggles to escape the trap of these limitations; she feels herself sinking deeper into the quicksand.

    Quicksand: Quotes

    The section below looks at quotes from Quicksand regarding race and identity.

    "These people yapped loudly of race, of race consciousness, of race pride, and yet suppressed its most delightful manifestations, love of color, joy of rhythmic motion, naive, spontaneous laughter." (Ch. 3)

    In her struggle for acceptance, Helga gravitates toward the Black upper classes in Harlem, who proclaim to celebrate Black identity but shun any experiences of blackness. Their rejection of vibrant Black identity is an example of internalized racism and the adoption of white values.

    "Why couldn't she have two lives, or why couldn't she be satisfied in one place?" (Ch. 16)

    Helga is constantly aware of her dual identities and biracial heritage, which leaves her unable to feel at home in either Black or white settings. As she moves from place to place, looking for a home, she faces different forms of ostracization.

    Quicksand - Key takeaways

    • Quicksand is a novella by Nella Larsen.
    • The story follows a biracial woman who struggles to find her place in the highly segregated society of early 20th-century America.
    • The novel is written in a third-person omniscient perspective and is an example of psychological fiction.
    • Nella Larsen drew on personal experiences and struggles as a biracial woman to create the novel's protagonist, Helga Crane.
    • The title symbolizes Helga's inability to completely fit into Black or white society.


    1. Fig. 1 - DELIA K. CARSON by Unknown Author, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DELIA_K._CARSON.jpg
    2. Fig. 2 - Photo of downtown Chicago Loop in 1900, corner of Dearborn & Randolph streets by Unknown Author, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chicago-Loop-1900.jpg
    3. Fig. 5 - W061 warning by Blackplate, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ISO_7010_W061_warning;_quicksand,_mud,_deep_mud,_or_silt.svg
    Frequently Asked Questions about Quicksand

    When was Quicksand written?

    Quicksand was written in 1928. 

    Why is the novel called Quicksand?

    The novel's title refers to Helga's uncertain sense of identity and her inability to feel entirely comfortable in Black or white social settings. 

    Is Quicksand by Nella Larsen a true story?

    Although Nella Larsen drew on her own experiences as a basis for Quicksand, the novel is not based on a true story. 

    How does the novel Quicksand end?

    Helga tries to find her sense of self by marrying a preacher and becoming a mother. During the labor of her fourth child, Helga falls into a fever and realizes she has chosen the wrong life path. 

    What is the summary of the Quicksand?

    Quicksand is the story of Helga Crane, a young biracial woman struggling to find her sense of belonging in a segregated society. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Helga refuses the marriage proposal of which character? 

    The novel's title refers to Helga's inability to find ____________. 

    Helga leaves the Naxos school because of the institution's ________ policies. 


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