In Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, Helga Crane runs into many problems on her quest to find a place in which she feels comfortable. There are many factors that preclude her from finding happiness. One issue that Helga encounters is her inability to deal with the past. It seems at many points throughout the novel that she is exhausting herself by trying to abandon the past.
Early on in the novel, when Helga is at a club, she is drawn into the chaos of the people around her. She describes her experience in a positive way, and she has an uncharacteristic moment of feeling like part of the crowd. Helga describes being “lifted” and “sustained” in this moment (59). However, her trance is ended and she notes that she “dragged herself back to the present with a conscious effort“(59). This phrase is what separates the Helga that is having a moving experience from the typical, dissatisfied Helga. This description leads the reader to believe that Helga is always fighting to keep her focus solely on the present, ignoring the past.
Later in the novel, Helga encounters a religious ceremony taking place and has a similar experience. She is drawn into the commotion if this group as well and says she feels “A miraculous calm” and she feels her life “becom[ing] very easy” (114). This language directly contrasts the ‘conscious effort” that Helga describes when coming out of her experience in the club (59). This time, instead of exhausting herself by fighting against the past, she accepts it and says that she allows herself to “sink back into the…holiness of far-off simpler centuries” (114).
Based on these two distinct moments, it can be seen that Helga exerts energy to keep herself only in the present moment, in which she is consistently unhappy. However, when she allows herself to accept the past, she is made calm, even if only for a brief period of time. The differences between Helga's state of mind in these two moments show the negative impact that fighting against the past, rather than using it to her advantage, is having on her.
Helga Crane, the protagonist of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, is a character who thrives on the thrill of the unknown, moving haphazardly among Naxos, Chicago, Harlem and Copenhagen looking for her next adventure. Fittingly, Helga also lives in fear of the past, remembering the horror of being ostracized during her “sorry, unchildlike childhood among hostile white folk in Chicago” for failing to be appropriately white or black enough to identify with a single group (46). As she grows older, her mixed ethnicity remains a point of contention even among her colleagues in Naxos, where she claims to have “an uncomfortable sojourn among snobbish black folk” (46).
As a result, Helga strongly resists having children; when she finally does begin producing babies, she refuses to make active decisions about their upbringing in the hopes that she can avoid blame if they grow up as unhappy as she is. Helga hides her passivity in religion, choosing to attribute her tranquility to faith in God: “Actually and metaphorically she bowed her head before God, trusting in Him to see her through. Secretly she was glad that she had not to worry about herself or anything. It was a relief to be able to put the entire responsibility on someone else” (126). She refers to her children not with the maternal affection one would expect but as “little dab[s] of amber humanity which [she] had contributed to a despised race” (127). Her conviction that her children will grow up in the dark, exclusionist world she did is so strong that Helga takes to her bed out of a lack of a better coping mechanism. The novel does not propose a solution for either Helga’s apathy or society’s wont to ostracize mixed-race children, damning them forever to the allegiance-less existence she endures. In fact, the novel ends with Helga grudgingly carrying her fifth child after failing to “work out an arrangement” that would solve, on a small scale, her children’s lingering question of identity (135). Helga's extreme misery is a sign to the reader that it is unhealthy to dwell excessively on the past.