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“Quicksand” by Nella Larsen: The Theme of Happiness

The theme of happiness is derived from the life of Helga Crane, a protagonist whose journey to seek happiness has been disrupted by racial discrimination. Helga’s life is full of phenomenal shifts that leave her unhappy and disgruntled. Nonetheless, the novel conveys that one should act persistently and attempt to find solutions to problems rather than evading them. To achieve this objective, Helga needs to recognize her feelings instead of shutting them. Throughout the novel, she remains in a constant search for happiness. In the end, Helga seems convinced that happiness can be found in a place where she is accepted as an intelligent being regardless of her biracial origin. This definition of joy and contentment seems incomprehensible by the primary character, as seen in the obstacles faced by a woman of color living in the 1900s. Helga loses her will while on her journey to seek happiness since the search progressively becomes unbearable for an erudite biracial woman. This essay identifies and explains the theme of happiness, as depicted in the novel Quicksand by Nella Larsen. It provides an insight into how the intersection of gender, race, and class have contributed to Helga’s unhappiness.

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During her endeavors to find happiness, it is evident that Helga’s efforts are met with futility and displeasure. The first instance where indecisiveness can be pointed out is where she seems discontented with Naxos. The fact that she is of African American origin raises issues of racial identity, which suppresses her desire for free expression. While on the Greek island, Helga seems unconfident of her definition of happiness as opposed to her thoughts, as seen in chapter two. Nonetheless, she seems to understand that the source of unhappiness is the lack of inclusion and fear of free expression among African Americans. Helga’s powerful intellect does not concur with the exploitive traditions to “fit the white man’s pattern” (Larsen, 2016, p. 8). As a result, she decides to travel back to Chicago, but little does she know that this move will lead her deeper into the quicksand of racial discrimination and rejection. In the new city, she encounters varied racial views that prompt her to escape to Harlem, a place that she believes will help her get out of the quicksand of misery.

In Harlem, Helga continues to face the hardships of finding happiness in the face of racial diversity. At first, she seems to be confident that she achieved what she has been longing for in her life. Larsen (2016) states that the protagonist is welcomed well and lulled into immediate peace and contentment. Nevertheless, she mentions that “black” Harlem welcomes her without hesitation, pointing to the fact that she is received as a dark-skinned human being, and not a European, Caucasian woman. In chapter eight, Larsen (2016) clearly states that “any shreds of self-consciousness or apprehension which at first, she may have felt vanished quickly, escaped in the keenness of her joy at seeing, at last, to belong somewhere, for she considered that she had found herself” (p. 46). Although she seems to be happy at first, the fact that she says, “seeming” and “found herself” is a clear indication that she is unsure of whether her perception in Harlem was that of a dark-skinned person only.

Later chapters unveil Helga’s state of unhappiness and dissatisfaction in Harlem owing to the hatred between the blacks and whites. In this center of African-American culture, she is incapable of expressing her “white” side. Mrs. Hayes-Rore says, “…I wouldn’t mention that my people are white if I were you…” (as cited in Larsen, 2016, p. 44). This statement brings out the implication that Helga’s apparent happiness owing to full acceptance in “teeming black Harlem” was troubled due to the rejection of her other half of identity, and so her fight for happiness bore no fruits.

The next stop in the search for an enjoyable life is Copenhagen, Denmark, where she thinks that she has finally found the meaning of happiness but becomes disappointed once more. Even though she is recognized as a biracial woman in addition to having numerous material possessions, she later realizes that her origin elicits numerous discrimination issues. In chapter thirteen, it is highlighted that her aunt was a “woman who left nothing to chance. In her own mind, she had determined the role that Helga was to play in advancing the social fortunes of the Dahls of Copenhagen, and she meant to begin at once” (Larsen, 2016, p. 70). This statement reveals that Helga’s aunt is at a vantage point of using her exotic skin color to lure Axel Olsen (an artist) to fall in love with her.

In addition, chapter fourteen reveals that life in Copenhagen “conveyed to Helga her exact status in her new environment. A decoration. A curio. A peacock” (Larsen, 2016, p. 75). She is worried that she is being used as a display object due to her dark skin, which she thinks is the reason why the people of Denmark like her. This proposition does not resonate with her intellect but is following indecisiveness. Sooner or later, she starts thinking about the lives of her fellow African Americans. In social settings, Helga is seen mingling with many people but only comes across “pale serious faces” when she expects “brown laughing ones” (Larsen, 2016, p. 94). To make matters worse, she rejects Axel Olsen’s proposal of marriage, a decision that disheartens her aunt and uncle. This course of events reveals challenges that she encounters as she seeks joy and acceptance in racially discriminatory settings.

Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist seems to accept the fact that she will not find happiness soon. By then, Helga has visited many places while seeking a kind and joyous life. She redefines happiness each time she realizes that she has failed to find it. At one point, Helga foresees a perfect life when a reverend marries her, settles on religion, and gives birth to children, only to start disliking her husband, understanding the ineptness of religious conviction, and that bringing up many kids is a daunting task for her. At this time, Helga is confused because she wants to escape the situation, but she cannot leave her children.

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Persistent journey, confidence, and hope to find a solid definition of happiness as an intelligent biracial woman can be likened to the hard pull of quicksand. Regardless of the many travels to different destinations in Europe and America, and later making up her mind to start a family with a reverend, Helga is still not in a position to find happiness in her new life. Despite trying various identities and mingling with both black and white elites, she does not fit in any class and race because of her biracial status.


Larsen, N. (2016). Quicksand: A Bedford college edition. Macmillan Higher Education.

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