Self-Delusion and Self-Sacrifice in Nella Larsen's Quicksand

by Kimberly Monda
Self-Delusion and Self-Sacrifice in Nella Larsen's Quicksand
Kimberly Monda
African American Review
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Self-Delusionand Self-Sacrifice in Nella Larsen's


Nella Larsen's portrait of Helga Crane in Quicksand (1928) criticizes the ways in which white racist constructions of black women's allegedl$ 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 dis- tortion 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 con- sumeristic 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 con- sumerism, 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, how- ever, when she rejects Axel Olsen's marriage proposal, thus repu- diating both the Danish packaging of her exoticism as well as the distant mother who failed to recognize her. This symbolic rejec- tion 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 por- trait of the way in which Helga's sudden release from the self-sac- rifice of sexual repression propels her into a nightmare of domes- tic 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 contem-

African American Review, Volume 31, Number 1 O 1997 Kimberly Monda

Kimberlv Monda received her Ph.D. in English from UCLA. She now holds a tenUre-track Position in the

Depa'ment Of English at Santa Barbara City College.

porary 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 novel1), 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 achiev- ing a fulfilling life, admiring Larsen's handling of the very complexity Walton felt Quicksand did not drama- tize.

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 dis- covery of her sexuality to the spiritual death and physical near-death of invol- untary pregnancies as the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green's long-suffering wife reveals Helga's failure to relate her sexual desire to her greater longing for recognition and her striving to experience her subjectivity. Because Helga never connects her desire for Robert Anderson to her earlier, even stronger need for recognition from her remote mother, Anderson's rejection of her hinted-at wish for an affair drives her into a self-destructive rage, the mir- ror image of her profound longings for connection and understanding. Larsen's bitter, satiric vision of Helga's entrapment in a terrifyingly literal por- trait of wifely and motherly self-sacri- fice condemns the racist and sexist society that allows a woman to be mur- deredsby her domestic role even as it highlights Helga's own contribution to this oppression: her failure to learn from her past and thus to grant herself the recognition she does not receive from the men in her life.

Larsen's exploration of the destructiveness of sexual repres- sion reflects her society's new openness about female sexuality, as well as the risks this new openness poses for black women. As John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman explain in Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, "the 1920s began initiating a revision of what was deemed proper for women" (213). Post-World War One America's "patriotic" suppression of radical reform movements and its conservative emphasis on the impor- tance of individual effort and fulfill- ment made sexual expression an ideal outlet for feelings of rebellion and dis- content: " . . . sex was becoming a marker of identity, the wellspring of an individual's true nature" (226). As Paula Giddings points out, the new obsession with "sexual freedom" and "glamour" also swept through urban black communities (185), but the sexual permissiveness of the 1920s that spelled new freedoms for white women had more ambiguous implica- tions for black women. In "The Task of Negro Womanhood" (1925), Elise McDougald's defense of black wom- en's morality makes it clear that, for most black women, sexuality remained an area of vulnerability rather than a source of liberation: "The Negro woman does not maintain any moral standard which may be assigned chiefly to qualities of race, any more than a white woman does. Yet she has been singled out and advertised as having lower sex standards" (379). That the only essay devoted to the African American woman in Alain Locke's anthology The New Negro, and one ostensibly dedicated to ana- lyzing her economic opportunities, must argue yet again that black women are no more sexually permissive than their sisters of other races highlights the social forces that make sexual repression a reasonab!e choice for


members of the black bourgeoisie like Helga Crane.

Larsen's exploration of Helga's sexuality involves risk, not only because it entails reclaiming a black female sexuality that has been defined and exploited by whites, but also because it means entering a literary marketplace that had celebrated the so-

called primitive and savage emotions associated with dark-skinned peoples. In When Harlem Was In Vogue, David Levering Lewis describes many black intellectuals' reservations about the "new popularity of the Negro" in white drama and fiction (92). Members of the "Talented Tenth" (the educated minority of African Americans who believed that their good fortune oblig- ated them to "lift up" their less fortu- nate brothers and sisters) "simmered indignantly," Lewis explains, over characters like Melanctha in Gertrude Stein's Three Lives (1909), Jean Le Negre in e, e. cumrnings's The Enormous Room (1922), and Nigger Jeff in Theodore Dreiser's story of that name (1899), characters whose lives were "summed up by music, sex, primeval instincts, and an incapacity for logic" (92). When the novelist Carl Van Vechten, one of the most trusted of the "Nordics" who befriended many African American artists (including Nella Larsen), published Nigger Heaven (1926), he both capitalized on and added to white America's fascina- tion with "prirnitive" black culture. The best-selling Nigger Heaven details the decline of Byron Kasson, a black college graduate who abandons Mary Love, his librarian fiancee, for nights of wild sex and cabaret-hopping with the gorgeous, man-eating Lasca Sartoris. Van Vechten's torrid descriptions of music, dancing, and drugging in "the jungle" (the nickname for 133rd Street, the location of many of Harlem's most famous clubs) set the standard for the commercialization and commodifica- tion of Harlem's nightlife. His provoca- tive novel also became a touchstone in black intellectuals' and artists' debates about how African Americans should be portrayed in literat~re.~

W. E. B. Du Bois's joint review of Claude McKay's Home to Harlem and Quicksand, both of which were pub- lished in 1928, claims Larsen's work for his side of the debate. While admiring elements of Home to Harlem, Du Bois condemns McKay for becoming a tour guide for voyeuristic white readers:

The difficulty for black women in claiming their sexuality in the face of racist stereotypes is also clear in a 1930 Crisis essay written by a married woman who asked that her name be withheld. In "White Men and a Colored Woman: Some 'Inter-racial' Activities," the writer details several painful confrontations with white-male assumptions about her sexual avail- ability. While participating in a leader- ship role in several interracial organi- zations dedicated to civic betterment and charitable projects, the writer was propositioned by three different white men, all of whom were respected in the community. While the first two requests for an assignation came fairly quickly, leaving the writer surprised and angry but relatively unhurt, the third (from a married minister!) was the most upsetting because it followed months of apparent friendship. The writer describes her profound sense of betrayal and shock when she discov- ered that the minister's collegial treat- ment served as a strategy of seduction: "A flood of horror rushes over me. Disgust and disappointment struggle for utterance. The deference and respect he had shown me were but masks for this dreadful thing" (416). The essay concludes with the author's decision to stop trying to do her part toward "cooperation between the races," a "cooperation" that many white men apparently viewed as an opportunity for attempts at dehuman- izing sexual exploitation (416). Racist white society's assumptions about black women's sexual availability help explain Helga Crane's sexual repres- sion, and also remind us of Larsen's courage in attempting to portray her heroine's sexual desire.

A racist

"untrue," Du Bois explains, they must be "savages," and "not so much as on account society "savages" are not only rude of its facts, but on account of and ill-mannered but driven its emphasis and glaring col- deprives by ungovernable sexual ors" (202).~ Du Bois con- Helga of desires. This dualism is trasts what he judges to be clear in Helga's memory of


McKay's insidious portrayal Miss MacGooden's explana- of the underside of black life herself as a tion for why she had never with Larsen's more con- desiring married: "There were, so structive presentation of her she had been given to main character: "Helga is subject-understand, things in the "McKay has set out to cater for that prurient demand on the part of white folk for a portrayal in Negroes of that utter licentiousness which convention- a1 civilization holds white folk back from enjoying-if enjoyment it can be called" (202). McKay's focus on "drunkenness, fighting, lascivious sex- ual promiscuity and utter absence of restraint" is MacGooden fits the stereotype of sexu- al repression: "lean and desiccated," she "pride[s] herself on being a 'lady' from one of the best families." Scolding her charges for their rudeness and lack of manners, Miss MacGooden exhorts them to " ' . . . please at least try to act like ladies and not like savages from

the backwoods.' " If the

girls are not "ladies," then

typical of the new, honest, young fighting Negro woman-the one on whom 'race' sits negligibly and Life is always first and its wandering path is but darkened, not obliterated by the shadow of the Veil." He concludes, "White folk will not like this book. It is not near nasty enough for New York columnists. It is too sin- cere for the South and middle West. Therefore, buy it and make Mrs. Imes [Larsen's married name] write many more novels" (202). In his haste to rec- ommend a novel that avoids catering to white readers' "prurient" tastes for black primitivism, Du Bois offers a far too sunny description of Helga Crane's

That he ignoresLamen's mocking criticism of every group she portrays, including Du Bois's own black bourgeoisie, and glosses over Helga's near-death under "the shadow of the Veil" in rural Alabama, empha- sizes the high stakes in this debate about black artists' representations of the races4

In Quicksand, Larsen's portrait of Miss MacGooden. a dormitorv matron


at Naxos, an African American college in the South modeled on ~uske~ee? exposes the destructiveness and absur- dity of internalizations of racist ideas about black peoples' sexuality. Miss

black Americans' fears of confirming white stereotypes about black peoples' inherent "savagery." The banning of bright colors also supports Naxos' campaign to turn its students into "ladies": Gorgeous, attention-grabbing colors might be read by racists as an immodest self-display, further "proof" of black women's sexual a~ailability.~

White society's stereotypes about black women's promiscuity also haunt the more sophisticated circle of Harlem's black bourgeoisie. The cul- tured, wealthy young widow Anne Grey (with whom Helga lives after she flees Naxos) despises the beautiful Audrey Denney, a light-skinned black woman who lives downtown, for host- ing " 'parties for white and colored people together.' " When Helga presses Anne to explain what makes these par- ties " 'obscene,' " Anne points out that the guests drink too much, but her real objection involves white men's desires to exploit black women: " ' . . .the white men dance with the colored women. Now you know, Helga Crane, that can mean only one thing' " (61). The sexual repression that results from Anne's fears of confirming stereotypes about black people's "primitivism" is also clear in her reflections about her new husband's response to Helga almost two years later, when Helga returns to Harlem. Anne notices the attraction between Dr. Anderson and Helga Crane long before Helga does, and vows to protect her husband from the chaotic, dangerous, "primitive" impulses that Helga awakens in him: " . . .underneath that well-managed section, in a more lawless place where she herself never hoped or desired to enter, was another, a vagrant primitive groping toward something shocking and frightening to the cold asceticism of his reason" (94-95). Here Anne describes Anderson as living out Western culture's duality between "primitive" sexual impulses and "cold" reason. Anne has internalized white, middle-class standards and stereotypes so completely that her sex- uality is permanently repressed:

Rejecting that "more lawless place" in her husband, she is pleased that with her Anderson does not have "to strug- gle against that nameless and to him shameful impulse, that sheer delight, which ran through his nerves at mere proximity to Helga" (95).

Anne's analysis of "that nameless and to him shameful impulse" echoes Larsen's early description of Helga's feelings during James Vayle's courtship at Naxos. Soon after her gen- tle mocking of Miss MacGooden, Helga struggles with her own version of sex- ual repression. After she decides to escape Naxos, Helga plans to leave her fiance as well: "Returning to James Vayle, her thoughts took on the frigidi- ty of complete determination" (7).With this substitution of the clinical term frigidity for the perhaps more suitable noun rigidity,Larsen highlights Helga's sexual repression. Part of the reason that Helga can break her engagement so easily (besides the fact that she only likes James, having fig- ured that love would come after mar- riage) stems from her fear of her own desire: "The idea that she was but in one nameless way necessary to him filled her with a sensation amounting almost to shame" (8; my emphases). Just as Larsen uses these same words in Anne's analysis of Anderson's sexu- al repression, so she connects Helga's fear of sexuality to her rejection of white society's obsession with black peoples' alleged primitiveness.

Larsen presents her own version of the cabaret dance scene for which Van Vechten and McKay were so renowned. Near the end of Helga's first stay in Harlem, Larsen uses what quickly became a cliched portrait of sexual freedom in the "jungle" of Harlem's nightclubs in order to drama- tize her story of Helga's internalization of stereotypes about black sexuality.7 After joining the mass of "gyrating pairs" who were "shaking themselves ecstatically to a thumping of unseen tomtoms," Helga judges her abandon in terms that reflect this internalization:

She was drugged, lifted, sustained, by the extraordinary music, blown out, ripped out, beat& out, by the joyous, wild, murky orchestra. The essence of life seemed bodily motion. And when suddenly the music died, she dragged herself back to the present with a con- scious effort; and a shameful certainty that not only had she been in the jun- gle, but that she had enjoyed it, began to taunt her. She hardened her deter- mination to get away. She wasn't, she told herself, a jungle creature. (59)

The ecstasy and loss of control in the

first sentence's description of pure sen-

sation gives way to self-loathing for

her participation in the "primitive" pleasures of "jungle" existence. Helga's

shame here echoes her recoil from James Vayle's passion for her, cited above. Phrases like in the jungle and jungle creature expose the way in which stereotypes about black peoples' so-called savagery have permeated Helga's consciousness.

While Larsen exposes the link between racist constructions of black peoples' alleged closeness to the primitive and her heroine's sexual repression, she also personalizes and complicates the role such stereotypes play in this repression by connecting Helga's inability to acknowledge her sexual desire to her painful family his- tory. Alice R. Brown-Collins and Deborah Ridley Sussewell's analysis of the "multiple self-referents" that have emerged from African American wom- en's histories in the United States and have shaped their identities provides a useful framework for understanding Larsen's nuanced portrait of the impor- tance of both cultural and individual experiences in Helga's struggle to resist the self-sacrifice of repression. In "The Afro-American Woman's Emerging Selves," Brown-Collins and Sussewell define the three self-referents that inform the African American woman's sense of self: first, the "psychophysio- logical referent," the "Black woman's knowledge of herself as a woman" based on the fact that "females develop a sense of self through attachments, whereas males devdop a sense of self through separation"; second, the "African-American self-referent," com- prising both the "Afro referent," which "reflects the Black American's African legacy and is credited with providing the positive foundation from which Black individuals and the community have developed" (including a sense of "weness" or group identity), and the "Euro referent," which "reflects the history of slavery and the experience of being Black in a predominantly White environment" (i.e., an "environment that is hostile and that does not vali- date the Afro-American's feelings of worth"); and, third, the "myself refer- ent," which "refers to self[-]knowledge that is considered to be unique given one's personal history" (6-8).

The second of these referents is especially useful in analyzing Helga's sexual repression: Helga has incorpo- rated the "Euro referent" of black peo- ple's alleged sexual rapaciousness into her sense of self. Brown-Collins and Sussewell point out that every black woman has her own personal equation between the Afro and the Euro refer- ents. The authors could well be describing Helga when they warn that "there are those situations in which the Euro self has intruded and overpow- ered her Afro referent. It is in these cases that the Black woman suffers from poor self-concept and self- esteem" (8). Helga's "myself referent" helps explain her extreme vulnerability to this intrusion. Raised by her white mother after her black father aban- doned them both, and brought into a hostile white family at the age of six (when her mother remarried), Helga grows up in an environment of racial prejudice that makes it impossible for her to develop a positive sense of iden- tity as an African American. In fact, only after her mother's death when Helga is fifteen, and her Uncle Peter's decision to send her to "a school for Negroes," does Helga discover that, " . . . because one was dark, one was not necessarily loathsome, and could,


therefore, consider oneself without repulsion" (23). Karen Nilssen not only fails to grant Helga recognition, but actually rejects her, blaming her for the dark skin that signals Karen's socially taboo first marriage to a black mang We learn of her racist rejection of her daughter when Uncle Peter's new wife repudiates Helga's claim on her uncle's kinship, echoing earlier, more painful rejections: "Worst of all was the fact that under the stinging hurt she under- stood and sympathized with Mrs. Nilssen's point of view, as always she had been able to understand her moth- er's, her stepfather's, and his children's points of view. She saw herself for an obscene sore in all their lives, at all costs to be hidden" (29). Here Larsen dramatizes her heroine's double alien- ation: If a black woman's relational self is determined by, first, the sense of connection with her mother and, sec- ond, the "weness" of a black identity (growing out of shared social and political realities), then Helga's efforts to gain access to her subjectivity appear doomed from the start, because she lacks both of these traditional sources of communal identity.

Larsen makes it clear that Helga's painful experience of white racism within her immediate family creates additional pressure on her to repress her sexual desire; in fact, Helga's sexu- al repression represents her larger inability to experience herself as a desiring subject. Larsen invites us to read Helga's wild swings from a desire for connection to self-destructive rage during her meeting with Dr. Anderson at Naxos as evidence of psychic dam- age from Helga's childhood experience of her mother's rejection. On the train to Chicago, Helga unconsciously asso- ciates these two figures, sliding from wondering about "what had happened to her there in that cool dim room .. . under those piercing gray eyes" to memories of her mother (22). Given the link between these two characters in Helga's psyche, her rage at Dr. Anderson's "detached, too detached" inquiry into why she hates Naxos and his "staring dreamily out of the win- dow, blatantly unconcerned with her or her answer," makes sense (19).Her violent reaction to Anderson's per- ceived distance-"a desire to wound" him "blaze[s]" within her-reflects the child Helga's suffering over her moth- er's similar remoteness, which she remembers later on the train: "She visualized her now, sad, cold, and- yes, remote. The tragic cruelty of the years had left her a little pathetic, a lit- tle hard, and a little unapproachable" (23). Helga's rage gives way, however, to a longing for connection once Dr. Anderson seems to understand her feelings: His "kindly" tone as he responds, " 'Ah, you're unhappy' " (20), his effort to explain the school's mission, and his "pleading" with her to stay all grant Helga the recognition she wants from this man whose initial dis- tance unconsciously reminds her of her mother.

But Helga's new vow to remain at Naxos after all disappears under a flood of humiliation and anger-the intensity of which again reminds us that Helga is reacting more to her mother's original rejection than she is to Anderson-when she interprets Anderson's admiration for the " 'elusive something' " that she brings to their community (a quality he ties to her status as a " '"lady" '"with " 'dignity and breeding' ") as proof of his failure to understand her and to recog- nize her true self. Driven by her "lacer- ated pride," Helga attempts to punish Anderson but ends by hurting herself as she tells him that she " 'was born in a Chicago slum,' "the daughter of a gambler who deserted her white, immigrant mother, capping off her self-destructive tirade by insisting that her parents probably were not even legally married (21). The degree of her self-punishment is clear when, as she drifts off to sleep on the train (after paying twice the fare in order to escape the crowding and discomfort of the Jim Crow car), she experiences loss and regret: "Why, if she said so much, had- n't she said more about herself and her

understood, even sympathizedu (26). With these final thoughts, Larsen reminds us of what Helga really wants from Anderson-the recognition that her mother failed to grant her.

H elga attempts to escape the intertwined social and vsvcho-


logical pressures that cause her to repress her sexuality by rechanneling her desire into what appears to be a safer outlet-an elegant consumerism. Her pursuit of beautiful things and her pleasure in self-display temporarily free her from the self-sacrifice of repression caused by racist construc- tions of black peoples' "primitive" nature and by unresolved feelings about her "unloved, unloving, . . . unhappy" childhood (29).At first Helga seems to gain access to her repressed desire as she conflates being admired with being understood and believes that she experiences the recog- nition she never received as a child. Larsen warns us, however, that this escape is illusory, for Helga's life of conspicuous consumption transforms her into a European fantasy about African primitivism, a version of the racist construction of black identity that had tormented her in the United States. Larsen thus exposes the ways in which the pleasures of consumerism lead her heroine to participate in her own objectification.

Larsen's opening portrait of Helga as a beautiful object displayed among her elegant and tasteful things seems to challenge racist economic hierarchies. Quicksand begins with a loving description of the furnishings of Helga's room at Naxos, objects which reflect a "rare and intensely personal taste" (I),and invites us to admire Helga-"deep sunk in the big high- backed chair, against whose dark tapestry her sharply cut face, with skin like yellow satin, was distinctly out- lined" (2)-as the most beautiful object of all. With this presentation of Helga as the epitome of costly refinement,


sumerism and self-display can function as weapons against white racist demands that blacks "stay in their places" and "know when and where to stop" in their upward climb. These condescending phrases from a popular white preacher's lunch-time address to the students and faculty of Naxos anger Helga, as does his self-serving exhortation against black materialism: "He hoped, he sincerely hoped, that they wouldn't become avaricious and grasping, thinking only of adding to their earthly goods, for that would be a sin in the sight of Almighty God." Given the context of racist social hier- archies captured in the preacher's insis- tence that blacks "be satisfied in the estate to which they had been called, hewers of wood and drawers of water," Helga's expensive tastes seem to function as a challenge to white "superiority" (3).

Similarly, Helga's new life of leisured materialism in the supposedly unprejudiced circles of upper-middle- class Copenhagen initially satisfies the emotional yearnings that still plague her from her unhappy childhood. When Helga envisions this new life while still in Harlem, she imagines it gratifying her unfulfilled need for recognition from her mother: "With rapture almost, she let herself drop into the blissful sensation of visualizing herself in different, strange places, among approving and admiring peo- ple, where she would be appreciated, ~ndunderstood" (57).When she awak- zns from her first nap in Aunt Katrina ~ndUncle Poul's luxurious home, Helga glories in the "realization" of all her "day-dreams and longings": "Always she had wanted, not money, 7ut the things which money could give, leisure, attention, beautiful sur- roundings. Things. Things. Things." Here Helga associates the "tasteful" ~ccumulation of the right things with ler ideal life, her true identity. jurrounded by sumptuous objects, Helga feels "consoled at last for the spiritual wounds of the past" (67).

The consolation of possession is soon complemented by the other half of the consumeristic equation, the plea- sures of self-display, as Helga's rela- tives prepare her for an active social life: "She was incited to make an impression, a voluptuous impression. She was incited to inflame attention and admiration. She was dressed for it, subtly schooled for it." Although the focus is on inspiring her male observers' desire rather than on experi- encing her own, Helga derives plea- sure from her status as a displayed object: "And after a little while she gave herself up wholly to the fascinat- ing business of being seen, gaped at, desired" (74). Rachel Bowlby's descrip- tion of the promotion of consumerism among American and European women in Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola

provides a useful framework for the analysis of the Dahls' subtle schooling of Helga. Bowlby argues that "the making of willing consumers readily fitted into the available ideological par- adigm of a seduction of women by men, in which women would be addressed as yielding objects to the powerful male subject forming, and informing them of, their desires" (20). If we add racial dynamics to Bowlby's gendered model, we can define the complexity of Larsen's portrayal of Helga's seduction by her Danish hosts. The Dahls literally "form" and "inform" Helga of her desires as they turn her into the embodiment of European fantasies about exotic African women.

For a while, Helga's plunge into the gratifying and stimulating rounds of consumption and self-display seems to liberate her from the self-sacrifice of sexual and emotional repression. But as Larsen quickly shows us, Helga for- feits the power to define her sexuality and desires on her own terms in exchange for the sexualized pleasures of ownership and self-display. These pleasures are so seductive that they overcome Helga's resistance to embodying white European fantasies


about dark-skinned women. As Frau

and Herr Dahl costume Helga for her

first social event in Copenhagen, a tea

held in her honor, they augment her

dress of "shining black taffeta with its

bizarre trimmings of purple and

cerise" by adding "long . . . brightly

enameled" earrings and "glittering"

shoe buckles that make Helga feel "like

a veritable savage" (69; my emphasis).

Aunt Katrina completes this costuming

of her niece when, guided by Axel

Olsen (one of Copenhagen's most suc-

cessful painters and therefore an excit-

ing social acquisition), she takes Helga

on a shopping spree that ends with

dresses "in screaming colors," "a leop-

ard-skin coat," "turban-like hats,"

"strange jewelry," "a nauseous Eastern

perfume," and "shoes with dangerous-

ly high heels" (74). As Helga becomes,

again in Bowlby's phrase, a "willing

consumer" directed by her aunt and

uncle, she embraces her expected role,

finding excitement in inciting the

desire of the white men who gaze upon

her as the perfect specimen of the very

"jungle creature" she had fled Harlem

to escape.9

Helga cannot admit why the

stereotypically barbaric clothes, which

she refers to as a "fantastic collection of

garments," put her "almost in a mood

of rebellion." Instead, without ever

labeling these items as symbols of a

racist, commercialized primitivism, '

Helga's unarticulated resistance gives

way to a sexually charged thrill of

ownership: "Gradually Helga's pertur-

bation subsided in the unusual plea-

sure of having so many new and

expensive clothes at one time. She

began to feel a little excited, incited"

(74). According to Bowlby, it is danger-

ous to rely upon consumerism as a

source of personal identity. Bowlby

points out that "the consumer citizen is

not so much possessor of as possessed

by the commodities which one must

have to be made or make oneself in the

form objectively guaranteed as that of a

social individual" (28).The destructive-

ness of depending upon objects to

define the self becomes even more pro- Quicksand, when the self in question is African American and the ob'ects are chosen by white Europeans. lb

Larsen also highlights the $elf- alienating power of consumerism when Helga sees her "true" self in the cliches of a minstrel act that electrifies the bored crowd at a vaudeville house. The narrator's description of the two African American dancers, inflected by the Danish audience's point of view, captures the Danes' enthusiastic con- sumption of the commodified, and dehumanized, performers: "And how the singers danced, pounding their thighs, slapping their hands together, twisting their legs, waving their abnor- mally long arms, throwing their bodies about with loose ease! And how the enchanted spectators clapped and howled and shouted for more!" (82-83). Like their white American counterparts who frequent Harlem's cabarets in order to slip the constraints of "civi- lization," the Danes relish this version of black experience because it allows them to express primitive emotions as they "howl" and "shout" for more. Although Helga at first feels "a fierce hatred for the cavorting Negroes on the stage" who have "shamed" and "betrayed" her, her sense of exposure quickly gives way to gratitude for the Danes' appreciative recognition of her difference: "Else why had they decked her out as they had? Why subtly indi- cate that she was different? And they hadn't despised it. No, they had admired it, rated it as a precious thing, a thing to be enhanced, preserved" (83). Whether repelled by stereotypes of so-called black primitivism in New York or inspired by them in Copenhagen, Helga cannot define her- self in terms free of racist constructions of blackness.

When Helga rejects Axel Olsen's marriage proposal, she seems to resist both the social and personal forces that have led her to experience the self-sac- rifice of sexual repression. As the ego- tistical Olsen expresses his shock and disappointment, he labels the unspo-

mother did that' " (88).By imagining Olsen as potentially like her mother, capable of coming to hate the dark per- son she had once loved, while simulta- neously rejecting him, she acts out her unexpressed rage at her mother for this profound betrayal.

Later that same spring, Helga com- pletes the rejection of her mother by creating a sympathetic portrait of the father she never knew, inventing a sense of connection with him based on their shared racial identity. Blame for her father's desertion gives way to identification: "She understood, now, his rejection, his repudiation, of the for- ma1 calm her mother had represented" (92). Imagining her father's escape from her mother's alien Danish "calm" (a characterization that rewrites her first description of her mother as "in love with life, with love, with passion, dreaming and risking all in one blind surrender" [23]), Helga reinforces her own rejection of Olsen, a stand-in for her mother. After finally having expressed, though indirectly, her rage toward her mother for not loving her enough, Helga identifies with what she imagines as her fatherts longing for his own people: "She understood his yearning, his intolerable need for the inexhaustible humor and the incessant hope of his own kind, his need for those things, not material, indigenous to all Negro environmentsu (92). Here Helga offers her own definition of her difference from her Danish relatives. This description of her race's "inex- haustible humor" and "incessant hope" rewrites the stereotype of the "primitive" exotic captured in Olsen's portrait of her as a "sensual creature," albeit in a fashion that does not chal- lenge essentialist constructions of racial identity. And her emphasis on "those things, not material" invokes an alter- native value system to her experience of white society as rooted in money and consumption. Helga's identifica- tion with her unknown black father thus completes the repudiation of her white mother, whose cruel withdrawal made it impossible for her to develop a

sense of her own agency; it also allows her to replace racist stereotypes about black people with her own definition of what she admires in the African American community.

This identification with her father

frees Helga from her self-destructive need for recognition from her distant mother, allowing her to gain tempo- rary access to a sense of agency and therefore to her repressed sexuality. When Helga returns to Harlem and admits her desire for Robert Anderson after he kisses her at a party, for exam- ple, she finally seems free of the com- plex blend of external and internal pressures that had choked off her desire. The powerful but abstract images that describe her newly acknowledged desire are free of associ- ations with "savagery" or "primi- tivism": "Riotous and colorful dreams" invade her "prim hotel bed"; she lives over "the ecstasy which had flooded her" during Anderson's kiss (105); she feels "happy" and "exalted" as she looks forward to their meeting; and the "hardiness of insistent desire" over- comes her fears of transgressing her society's sexual mores (107). These sex- ual feelings also liberate Helga from her participation in con~umeristic val- ues; for, as Cheryl Wall points out, Helga now plans to give herself freely to the married Anderson rather than exchange her sexuality for a lucrative marriage (104).

What begins as apparent free- dom from the self-sacrifice of sexual repression quickly becomes, however, a nightmare of domestic self- sacrifice when Anderson's refusal to have an affair drives Helga into the "fattish yellow" arms of the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green, and into a life of unremitting exhaustion and pain as she gives birth to twin boys and a girl all within twenty months (111). Although Helga never fully realizes it, she want- ed much more than a sexual initiation from Dr. Anderson; she wanted the recognition of her desire, her will that

her mother never granted her. As Anderson struggles with his embar- rassed apology and Helga reassures him that the kiss meant nothing to her, she longs for him to guess her true feel- ings underneath her casual dismissal. When he fails to read the emotions concealed by her urbane words, she slaps him "savagely" and then, after his silent departure, berates herself for her "silly" fantasies, assuming that he "knew that she had wanted so terribly something special from him." While Helga may be right about Anderson's motives for sexual restraint, that " . . . he was not the sort of man who would for any reason give up one par- ticle of his own good opinion of him- self" (108), her certainty that he knew her true desires invests him with unre- alistic powers of insight.

While self-awareness has never been Helga's long suit, her efforts to understand her emotions and to make the right choices about her life become disastrous after the destabilizing shock of Anderson's rejection. Certainly the motives for Helga's impetuous mar- riage are complex. Deborah McDowell interprets it as a reaction against black bourgeois sexual repression: " . . . the James Vayles and the Robert Andersons are largely responsible for constructing and upholding the contra- dictory sexual images of women which Helga has resisted through the novel" (xx). McDowell continues, "Further, because she is born out of wedlock, Helga is preoccupied with the issue of 'legitimacy.' Marriage to a preacher is, then, legitimacy redoubled" (xxi). Thadious Davis also reads the mar- riage as a sign of Helga's sexual repres- sion and of her desire for family con- nection, but adds another layer, argu- ing that the marriage functions as a "reenactment of her mother's solution to being deserted by her first husband" (268). While these readings are persua- sive, they fail to highlight the self-anni- hilation triggered by Anderson's rejec- tion. Both Helga's clouded reflections about whether she should marry Green as well as her astonishing ability to ignore or gloss over the surreal horror of her married life emphasize her total loss of subjectivity.

The tortuous, contradictory reason- ing that leads Helga to become Mrs. Green smothers what appears to be a brief moment of experiencing herself as a desiring subject. Her thoughts about forcing Green to marry her begin with the pressures of social convention as she questions "her ability to retain, to bear, this happiness at such cost as she


must pay for it." Helga then admits that pursuing marriage seems too diffi-


cult: "The question returned in a slight- ly new form. Was it worth the risk? Could she take it? Was she able?" (116). The "risk" Helga contemplates is ambiguous here. Is it simply her fear that Green might refuse to make an "honest" woman out of her? Or does it involve a "risk" that would be more true to her actual desires? Helga's recurring admiration for the indepen- dent, sexually confident Audrey Denney allows us to read this new question as an oblique consideration of her earlier plan to have sex outside the safety of marriage. This faint vision of gaining access to her desire disappears, however, when she decides "that such thinking was useless" and comes to the "resolution" to take "a chance at stabil- ity, at permanent happiness." The string of Helga's subtle distortions and self-delusions, too varied and nuanced to detail here, culminates in her tri- umphant "feeling of elation, revenge" as she crows over having "put herself beyond the need of help" from Dr. Anderson (117). But this so-called revenge comes at far too high a cost, and actually represents self-punish- ment, as she consigns herself to marry- ing a repulsive man.

Helga's loss of subjectivity is also clear in her inability to recognize her true feelings and desires after she mar- ries the Reverend Green. The disjunc- tion between Helga's efforts to live out the cliche of a marriage of service dedi- cated to the "uplift" of the race and the nightmare reality of her life with Green strengthens the portrait of her danger- ous self-delusion. Helga imagines that she will "do much good to her hus- band's parishioners" as she experi- ences a resurgence of her "young joy and zest for the uplifting of her fellow men" (119). The women listen politely to her advice about gracing their small, ugly homes with "soft inoffensive beauty," choosing the "proper things for Sunday church wear," and teaching their children the "ways of gentler deportment," and dismiss her as " 'uppity' " once she is out of earshot (119). Further, Larsen almost seems to test our credulity with the contrast between Helga's admiration for her husband and the reality of his limits: In a church that used to be a white man's stable, and still smells of manure, Helga hears her husband "expound with verbal extravagance the gospel of blood and love" and feels "proud and gratified that he belonged to her," oblivious to the "atmosphere of self- satisfaction which poured from him like gas from a leaking pipe" (121-22). In less than two years Helga has three children, twin boys and then a baby girl, and finds herself pregnant for a third time. In constant pain, almost mad with fatigue, Helga forces herself to " 'trus' in de Lawd,' " as Sary Jones (a mother of six) advises, becoming the submissive, devoted wife and mother her community expects (126).

Helga's delusions about her new life of relentless domestic self-sacrifice explode after she barely survives almost forty-eight hours of labor, an ordeal that leaves her bedridden and semi-conscious for weeks. Her hours of "racking pain and calamitous fright" expose the inadequacy of traditional rewards for maternal self-sacrifice, namely adoration for the new baby and belief in an afterlife (130). When the midwife presents Helga's fourth child for her "maternal approval," Helga can no longer play her expected role: " . . . she failed entirely to respond properly to this sop of consolation for the suffering and horror through which she had passed" (127). Similarly, the agony of this latest childbirth shat- ters both Helga's wifely devotion and her religious faith: "She knew only that, in the hideous agony that for interminable hours-no, centuries-she had borne, the luster of religion had vanished; that revulsion had come upon her; that she hated this man" (229). Raging against the "white man's God" and the "idiotic nonsense" about rewards in the afterlife for present suf- fering (130), Helga finally compre- hends the true dimensions of the wife- ly and maternal self-sacrifice expected of her: sex with a man who repels her,

and slow murder bv childbirth. As she reluctantly regains her strength, she defines her choices: " . . . she was deter- mined to get herself out of this bog into which she had strayed. Or-she would have to die" (134).

When Helga "awakens" from her religious delusion and confronts her horror over her new life, she seems to face her true feelings and situation. Larsen hints, however, that Helga's greatest tragedy is not her remarkably inappropriate marriage, or even her physical danger from too frequent childbirth. Rather, the author implies that Helga's process of self-reflection stops short, masking an even deeper layer of self-delusion, and consigning her to her own version of the compen- satory myth of rewards in the afterlife that she derides in the rural folk around her. While Helga's recognition of her hatred for her husband and her realization of her profound entrapment are important first steps, her analysis does not go far enough. For example, although her current discontent seems very different from her earlier restless- ness (if only because its causes are so much more pressing), Helga judges her unhappiness in this marriage as of a piece with her former struggles:

. . . she had to admit that it wasn't new, this feeling of dissatisfaction, of asphyxiation. Something like it she had experienced before. In Naxos. In New York. In Copenhagen. This dif- fered only in degree. (134)

Of course, Helga has indeed felt trapped before, but this partial truth seems inadequate. What might have been an opportunity to face some of the underlying causes for her earlier discontent. as well as for the obscene mistake of'her marriage, instead stops with this first layer of superficial analy- sis.

The inadequacy of Helga's self- reflection emerges more fully in the narrative echo between Helga's criti- cism of her neighbors' blind faith and her own compensatory fantasies of escape. Helga easily defines the con- nection between religious faith and acceptance of unjust economic and social oppression: "How the white man's God must laugh at the great joke he had played on them! Bound them to slavery, then to poverty and insult, and made them bear it unresistingly, uncomplainingly almost, by sweet promises of mansions in the sky by and by" (133-34; my emphasis). When Helga "derisively" gives voice to these thoughts-" 'Pie in the sky' "-her nurse's hasty rejoinder that she is not well enough for such rich food inspires a third repetition of this analysis: " 'That,' assented Helga, 'is what I said. Pie-by and by. That's the trouble' " (134; my emphasis). Although she diagnoses her fellow parishioners' delusions, she cannot recognize her own. Helga understands neither the longing for recognition that supported her physical attraction to Robert Anderson nor the nature of the disap- pointment that drove her to the self-' destructive "revenge" of jumping into bed with the unappealing but accessi- ble Reverend Green. Larsen's chilling conclusion highlights Helga's unwit- ting resemblance to the very people she mocks:

It was so easy and so pleasant to think about freedom and cities, about clothes and books, about the sweet mingled smell of Houbigant and ciga- rettes in softly lighted rooms filled with inconsequential chatter and laughter and sophisticated tuneless music. It was so hard to think about a feasible way of retrieving all these agreeable, desired things. Just then. Later. When she got up. By and by. She must rest. Get strong. Sleep. Then, afterwards, she could work out some arrangement. So she dozed and dreamed in snatches of sleeping and waking, letting time run on. Away.

And hardly had she left her bed and become able to walk again with- out pain, hardly had the children returned from the homes of the neigh- bors, when she began to have her fifth child. (135; my emphasis)

Unable to escape the "quicksand" of economic dependence and sexual vul- nerability that defines marriage and motherhood in Larsen's rural South, Helga faces her fourth, and probably


last, childbirth. Fantasies about all the "agreeable, desired things" of her past allow her to endure the horrors of her new life, including having sex with a man who now repulses her so pro- foundly that she would pray for his death if she still believed in God (130). In other words, like the supposedly nai've, long-suffering rural black people she ridicules, Helga manufactures her own compensatory lies that stop her from actively protesting her condition.

While recovering from the forty-eight hours of torturous childbearing thatvended her escape into the self-delusion of religious faith, Helga asks her nurse to read Anatole France's "The Procurator of Judea," a choice that reinforces my reading of Larsen's emphasis on Helga's self- delusion at novel's end. As Deborah McDowell points out, this story's "blasphemous, anti-Christian views parallel Helga's own belated insight into the role of Christianity in her oppression" (xxii). While the story clearly reflects Helga's bitter certainty that God "didn't exist" (130), the fact that Helga falls asleep "while the superbly ironic ending which she had so desired to hear was yet a long way off" is equally important (132). Helga's anticipation of the story's ironic ending invites us to consider the irony of her own ending; namely, that she survives her days deluded by dreams that she will escape her suffering "by and by." The last line of France's story reveals that Pontius Pilate, like Helga, fails to understand the ways in which he con- tributed to his own downfall. Angry that his career serving the Roman Empire as Procurator of the Jews in Syria was "cut short" in its "prime," Pilate believes himself to be the inno- cent victim of "intrigues and calum- nies" (France 7). The gentle comments of Pilate's friend, Aelieus Lamia, reveal, however, that Pilate does not recognize the ways in which his own personality (his imperiousness, and his disdain for those who do not share his values) led to his forced retirement.ll After Helga falls asleep, her nurse reads the last line, " 'Jesus? . . . Jesus-of Nazareth? I cannot call him to mind' " (132). The "superbly ironic" ending that Helga awaits-Pilate's failure to remember that he had autho- rized the crucifixion of Jesus-thus parallels the irony of her own end, her retreat into "pie in the sky" dreams of luxury, ease, and sophistication that allow her to endure Green's unwanted advances and to risk death by child- birth.

In Quicksand, Larsen brilliantly dramatizes the ways in which social forces impinge upon the individual psyche. Unable to acknowledge her sexual desire because of racist con- structions of black peoples' allegedly primitive natures, Helga also fails to experience her subjectivity because of Karen Nilssen's cruel rejection of her dark daughter. Larsen thus depicts mirrored forms of oppression: A racist society that cuts Helga off from experi- encing her sexuality reflects the racist mother whose inability to recognize her African American daughter deprives her of access to herself as a desiring subject. At novel's close, Helga Crane cannot grant herself the recognition her mother, her father, and the men in her life have failed to give her. External and internal pressures toward self-sacrifice triumph as she becomes a mere extension of her hus- band and children, lost in escapist fan- tasies that allow her to tolerate remain- ing the object of their desires rather than the subject of her own.

  1. See Davis (277-81) for a summary of the contemporary reviews of Quicksand. Notes
  2. See Lewis (180-89) for a summary of this debate.

3. Du Bois begins his review with lavish praise for Quicksand, followed by a condemnation of McKay's novel that supports later stereotypes about this dean of African American letters' priggish-


ness: "It is, on the whole, the best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the heyday of Chesnutt, and stands easily with Jessie Fauset's 'There is Confusion,' in its subtle comprehension of the curious cross currents that swirl about the black American. Claude McKay's 'Home to Harlem,' on the other hand, for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I felt distinctly like taking a bath" (202).

4. See Carby (174) for an insightful analysis of Larsen's struggle to depict black female sexuality.

  1. See Davis (89-1 10) for a description of Larsen's disillusionment with Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (Booker T. Washington's famous experiment in Negro education), where she was head nurse of the John Andrew Memorial Hospital and Nurse Training School during the 191 5-16 school year.
  2. See McDowell (xviii) for an analysis of Larsen's use of "clothing as iconography" to dramatize Helga's sexual repression.
  3. Near the end of Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven, a white editor warns the aspiring writer Byron Kasson that the "fresh, unused material" of Harlem's night life will not remain the province of African Americans for long: " 'Well, if you young Negro intellectuals don't get busy, a new crop of Nordics is going to spring up who will take the trouble to become better informed and will exploit this material before the Negro gets around to it' " (223). Of course, this is what Nigger Heaven actually does; and, for many readers, exploit is the operative word.
  4. Larsen is a little vague about whether Helga's parents were married or not. Although Helga tells Dr. Anderson that it is " 'uncertain that they were married' " (21), later (on the train to Chicago) she regrets having "terribly wrong[ed] her mother by her insidious implication" (23). While her racist aunt, Peter Nilssen's new wife, insists that Helga's parents were not married (28), Katrina Dahl, Karen Nilssen's sister, says that they were (78). Even if Helga's parents were legally married, negative social attitudes toward miscegenation provide another source of shame for Helga about her parents.
  5. As Carby argues, "Larsen displaced to Europe an issue of central concern to the intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance: white fascination with the 'exotic' and the 'primitive.' Outside the black community, Helga became a mere object for white consumption" (172).
  6. McDowell emphasizes the sexual objectification Helga faces throughout Quicksand: "Their [the Danes'] transformation of Helga into a sexual object continues the familiar pattern in the novel in which Helga is alternately defined by others (primarily men), as a 'lady' or a 'Jezebel.' Neither desig- nation captures her as a sexual subject, but simply as an object. She is not allowed to choose the terms and the objects of her sexual desire" (xix).
  7. Davis's interesting reading of the significance of Larsen's allusion to "The Procurator of Judea" seems to suggest an unrealistic solution to Helga's problems: "The forgetfulness that Pilate claims regarding his condemning Christ to death is indicative of Helga's own potential course. If she could lose all historical consciousness and forget her former life, the claims of art and self-fulfillment, then she would be a mother to her children and a wife to her husband" (275-76).

Works Anon. "White Men and a Colored Woman: Some 'Inter-racial' Activities." Crisis Dec. 1930: 416. Cited

Bowlby, Rachel. Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola. New York: Methuen, 1985. Brown-Collins, Alice R., and Deborah Ridley Sussewell. "The Afro-American Woman's Emerging Selves." Journal of Black Psychology 13.1 (1986): 1-1 1 Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. Davis, Thadious M. Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman's Life Unveiled. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1994. D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. New

York: Harper, 1988. Du Bois, W. E. B. "Two Novels." Crisis June 1928: 202. France, Anatole. "The Procurator of Judea." Golden Tales ofAnatole France. New York: Dodd, 1927.

1-25. Giddings, Paula. Where and When IEnter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Bantam, 1984. Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. 1928. Quicksand and Passing. Ed. Deborah E. McDowell. New Brunswick:

Rutgers UP, 1986. 1-135. Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was In Vogue. New York: Oxford UP, 1979. McDowell, Deborah E. "Introduction." Quicksand and Passing. Ed. McDowell. New Bruswick: Rutgers

UP, 1986. ix-xxxvii.


Helga's desire for recognition from Anderson is also clear in her self- destructive reaction to his rejection, which culminates in her marriage. The following day Helga remains haunted by feelings that recreate the shame and self-punishment that had poisoned her childhood: "Whatever outcome she had expected, it had been something else than this, this mortification, this feeling of ridicule and self-loathing, this knowledge that she had deluded herself" (109). At first, Helga attempts to understand the implications of this painful experience, but she cannot "go on with the analysis" (110). So agitated that she must escape the isolation of her hotel room, Helga ventures out into a driving rain storm, stumbles into a storefront church for shelter, and rechannels her frustrated sexual energy into the "weird orgy" of a wild reli- gious conversion (113). As Reverend Green walks her home after the revival meeting, Helga notices his desire for her and marvels: "That man! Was it possible? As easy as that?" (115). The morning after she seduces him, Helga dwells on the newly discovered plea- sure of sex, contrasting it with her ear- lier self-commodification: " . . . slowly bitterness crept into her soul. Because, she thought, all I've ever had in life has been things-except this one time" (116). Here Helga fails to realize that she cannot divorce her sexual desire from her longings for understanding and connection, longings that made Anderson attractive to her in the first place.


now repudiates by refusing him. Olsen characterizes his marriage proposal as Helga's " 'reward' " for ignoring his earlier sexual proposition, a strategy he attributes to her having been " 'corrupted by the good Fru Dahl' ": " 'You have the warm impulsive nature of the women of Africa, but, my lovely, you have, I fear, the soul of a prostitute. You sell yourself to the highest buyer' " (87). Here Olsen identifies Helga's complicity with her aunt's dis- play of her as an exciting, inciting object, and her apparent willingness to make a lucrative marriage. At the same time, he makes a false distinction between Fru Dahl's efforts to display Helga and his own version of Helga's "African" nature, a stereotype he cap- tures in his painting of her, which Helga dismisses: "It wasn't, she con- tended, herself at all, but some disgust- ing sensual creature with her features" (89). In rejecting Olsen, Helga refuses the intertwined materialism and racism of her white relatives' values: " 'But you see, Herr Olsen, I'm not for sale. Not to you. Not to any white man. I don't care at all to be owned. Even by you' " (87). Having been seduced into playing the role of "primitive" other through the false experience of subjec- tivity granted by consumeristic pur- chasing and self-display, Helga now begins her attempt to define her identi- ty as a black woman on her own terms.

This attempt also involves con- fronting the personal, psychological cause for her inability to experience herself as a subject-her mother's fail- ure to grant her recognition. Helga's rejection of her Danish suitor resonates with her unresolved feelings about the much earlier, archetypal rejection of the child Helga by her mother. For instance, Helga explains her refusal in racial terms that lead her to admit what is only latent in her early memories of her unloved childhood: " ' . . . I could- n't marry a white man. . . . We can't tell, you know; if we were married, you might come to be ashamed of me, to hate me, to hate all dark people. My



matrimonial state that were of necessity entirely too

repulsive for a lady of delicate and sen-

sitive nature to submit to" (12). Fear of

racist constructions of black women's

over-sexed natures also seems to shape

Naxos' prohibitive rules about wom-

en's clothing. While waiting to tell Dr.

Anderson, the principal of Naxos, of

her plans to leave, Helga feels "con-

tempt" for the "dull" navy blue, black,

and brown dresses of the office staff

and remembers fragments of the dean

of woman's speech: " 'Bright colors are

vulgar-. . . ~~~k-~~~~lpeople wear yellow, or green or

red' (17-18). This acceptance of white,

middle-class dress codes reveals, Helga

thinks, a dangerous form of self-hate:

These people yapped loudly of   race consciousness, of race pride, and   yet suppressed its most delightful manifestations, love of color, joy of   rhythmic motion, nai've, spontaneous   laughter. Harmony, radiance, and sim-   plicity, all the essentials of spiritual   beauty in the race they had marked for   destruction. (18)

Although Helga's frustrations about Naxos make her portrait of the black leaders dedicated to the "uplift" of their race especially satiric, her analysis of the politics of dress exposes many

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