During the Harlem Renaissance, many literary works concentrated on celebrating African American heritage. However, many other writers also began concentrating on the darker theme of naturalism. Nella Larsen s Quicksand illustrates many elements of this movement. These include a biological determinism, where man is conceived of as controlled by his primitive animal instincts and a sociological determinism, whereby the weak are destroyed and the strong survive in a world of struggle and chance. Helga Crane, Larsen s protagonist in Quicksand, illustrates the elements of both biological and sociological determinism in her inability to suppress her natural animal instinct to flee uncomfortable situations, and to comfortably conform in either of her opposing communities.
Helga cannot suppress her desire to flee from uncomfortable situations in any city that she lives in. In Naxos, she convinces herself that she is leaving a place that has grown into a machine (4). Although the conforming nature of the institution contributes to Helga s desire to leave, she is also stirred with an overpowering desire for action of some sort (4). Instead of staying in Naxos and fighting a battle against the institute s conservative attitudes, Helga chooses to flee an unpleasant reality. This exemplifies the fight or flight animal instinct that is said to control behavior in situations that become overwhelming. Instead of fighting, Helga time and time again chooses to leave what becomes unbearable to her. Once the decision is made to leave Naxos, Helga feels like a person who had been for months fighting the devil and then unexpectedly had turned around and agreed to do his bidding (5). Helga knows deep down that leaving Naxos is wrong, but the instinct to flee is so strong that she is powerless to deny it.
In New York, Helga is also consumed by the animal instinct of flight. When Dr. Anderson calls on her after a chance meeting at a nightclub, Helga had no intention of running away, but something, some imp of contumacy, drove her from his presence, though she longed to stay (51). Once again, Helga succumbs to her overwhelming desire to leave an uncomfortable situation. Later she realizes with a sense of helplessness and inevitability that the weapon she had chosen had been a boomerang, for she herself had felt the keen disappointment of the denial (51). Obviously Helga is denying her attraction to Dr. Anderson and hides it with an uncontrollable wish to wound him (51). Clearly, Helga is internally struggling with her sexual desire for Dr. Anderson by disguising it with anger towards him. However, instead of confronting these emotions, Helga again allows her natural instinct of flight to take over in order to deal with the situation.
Helga also illustrates her inability to control the instinct of flight in Copenhagen. During her stay, she is incited to make an impression and to inflame attention and admiration (74). Helga s desire to attract attention is overshadowed by her internal struggle with her natural instincts. In Copenhagen she instinctively wanted to combat this searching into one thing which, here, surrounded by all other things which for so long she has so positively wanted, made her a little afraid. Started vague premonitions (79). Helga is searching for happiness but she intuitively knows from her premonitions that her search is futile because of her inability to remain in a place that becomes uncomfortable.
By the time Helga s desire to leave Alabama is evident, it is clear that Helga s natural instinct to constantly escape the reality of her life has become her downfall. This time, she has responsibility towards her children who she wanted not to leave if that were possible (135). Perhaps, when she began to have her fifth child , Helga decides to stay in Alabama, thereby fighting the inner demons that have controlled her life (135). These children are a constant reminder to Helga of her internal struggle of the overwhelming desire to flee and, in the end, perhaps her savior against her natural instincts. Now she must allow other instincts to guide her, those of motherhood.
Helga s inability to conform in her respective communities illustrates her sociological determinism. In Naxos, she realizes that the African American society is as complicated and as rigid as the highest strata of white society. If you couldn t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn t belong (8). Although Helga knows her ancestry, she never reveals her white heritage to African Americans. However, Helga s desire to be different is reflected in her apparel. She wears elaborate, colorful clothes that cause her peers to detect the subtle difference from their own irreproachably conventional garments (18). Helga does not desire to conform in Naxos but she knows too that she is not happy in her unconformity (7). Instead of deciding to adapt to life at Naxos, Helga alienates herself from other individuals.
In New York, Helga also illustrates her inability to conform. Although she fits in as an African American in Harlem, her thoughts are consumed with the European side of her heritage. She convinces herself that she does not crave from those pale and powerful people, awareness (45). However, Helga is impressed with Audrey Denney who goes about with white people (60). The fact that Helga admires Audrey s indifference proves that she is fascinated by the white world that she has forsaken. Helga finds it useless to tell Anne that what she felt for the beautiful, calm, cool girl who had the assurance, the courage, so placidly to ignore racial barriers and give her attention to people, was not contempt, but envious admiration (62). Once again Helga confronts her own inability to conform to her own ideas of admirable behavior.
Denmark also proves to be a place where Helga is unable to conform. While there, she is confronted with the notion that she should accentuate her differences and after awhile Helga gave herself up wholly to the fascinating business of being seen, gaped at, desired (74). The fact that she embraces this philosophy proves to be a mistake. The women of Denmark know that Helga is not to be reckoned seriously in their scheme of things she wasn t one of them. She didn t at all count (70). The realization that she does not count in Denmark is not apparent to Helga until she is faced with Axel Olsen s proposal. She tells him that she couldn t marry a white man (88). Although Helga s refusal of Axel is deeper than her explanation, it is obvious that she knows she will never be able to comfortably marry someone so different from her. During this time, Helga outwardly begins to express the inner struggle between her African American and white heritage. She wonders why she couldn t have two lives , instead of the one that she is unable to adapt to (93).
Finally, Helga s life in Alabama also illustrates Helga s inability to conform. Her mission is to subdue the cleanly scrubbed ugliness of her own surrounding to soft inoffensive beauty, and to help the other women do likewise (119). Helga does not realize that the advice she offers these women is looked upon with contempt. She begins to adapt to her life after Sary Jones advises her to make de bes of et but her efforts falter during her next pregnancy (125). Instead of making the best of her life, Helga hands over this responsibility to God which eventually leads to the same feeling of dissatisfaction [and] asphyxiation that she felt in Naxos, New York and Copenhagen (134). After all of her experiences, her inability to conform leads her right back to the same place she started from. It is obvious that Helga Crane will never truly be able to fit in in any society.
It is apparent that Nella Larsen s Quicksand is concerned with the naturalistic element of determinism. Helga Crane illustrates both a biological and sociological determinism in her animal instinct for flight and her inability to conform in any of her environments. Larsen s ability to integrate these themes into the character of Helga proves that the Quicksand is not only representative of the Harlem Renaissance, but also of the naturalistic movement.