These two novellas by Nella Larsen are concerned with questions of identity. How do we find our identity? How does society inform our identity? And how do we break free when we don’t care for society’s definitions? In particular, the novels focus on the world of African American women in 1920s America and the constraints that they face. The main character of one novella pushes against every limitation set before her, and the other has followed the obvious and clear path, only to find herself fascinated and repelled by one who made a different choice.
Helga, the main character in Quicksand, is a biracial schoolteacher from Chicago, now working at Naxos, a highly regarded school for black Southerners. She balks at the rules and expectations of Southern society and decides to return to Chicago, where she receives no help from her white relatives and encounters difficulty finding a job. Eventually, she finds work that leads her to New York, where she decides to stay until she comes to the conclusion that she will be happiest living with her dead mother’s relatives in Denmark. And so on. She craves change more than anything:
She began to make plans and to dream delightful dreams of change, of life somewhere else. Some place where at last she would be permanently satisfied. Her anticipatory thoughts waltzed and eddied about to the sweet silent music of change. With rapture almost, she let herself drop into the blissful sensation of visualizing herself in different, strange places, among approving and admiring people, where she would be appreciated, and understood.
Helga’s discontentment could perhaps be attributed to the fact that she is biracial and thus cannot quite fit in anywhere. Her race and her sex certainly have an effect on the choices available to her, but the need for change seems to be part of her personality—it’s in her soul somehow. As a black woman, she is shut out from some places and treated as a novelty in others, but she is able to find work and friends. Her hunger for change is inside of her, and the constant shuttling from one life to another becomes in itself a sort of monotony (and sometimes tiresome reading). Helga never changes or grows; she just moves on. In the end, she reaches a dead-end, having chosen a life that leaves her a victim of her own body, the one part of her life she cannot escape.
It’s interesting to me that she makes no attempt to “pass” for white, a choice that’s central to Larsen’s 1929 novella, Passing. The main character in this novella, Irene, has done what was expected of her. She got educated, married a doctor, and became a central figure in Harlem society. Her world is shaken when she runs into a childhood friend, Clare, who, as it turns out, shed her black identity not long after her father died and she went to live with two white aunts. Her husband, Jack, has no idea that Clare is of mixed race, and Clare plays along when he jokingly calls her “nig” in reference to her darkening skin. Irene, who is light enough to pass for white in front of Jack, witnesses the incident and is horrified that Clare has married someone so openly racist.
Irene vows not to let Clare back into her life, but she can’t stop thinking about her. Clare wants desperately to be among her own people, so Irene helps her gain a foothold in Harlem society. Throughout this time, she seems fascinated and appalled by Clare, whose freedom and joie de vivre seem to draw everyone’s attention, even though they know little about her. Clare, shows no signs of feeling oppressed by society’s expectations. She does what she pleases, even knowing the consequences could be dreadful.
Irene sees why such a life—and such a person—would be appealing, but it’s a life she would never choose for herself. Or would she? Does her growing anger at Clare hint at desires she herself has? What would she choose if she didn’t care about the consequences? Irene has built what looks to be a perfect life, and Clare’s existence seems to threaten it on multiple levels. And so Irene’s resentment rises.
Nella Larsen only wrote these two short novels and several short stories, but these two books cemented her reputation as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. They’re fascinating glimpses into their particular time and place, but the questions they ask, which at first glance seem so specific to that time and place, are questions that probably haunt just about everyone. Who am I? Who could I be? Who could I have been? Big questions for a pair of small novels that aren’t so small after all.