Nellallitea "Nella" Larsen (1893-1964)
Nella Larsen was a very successful African American Fiction writer. Nella Larsen's appearance with her writing of "Quicksand" and "Passing" won her the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship award for creative writing. Nella Larsen's work contains an overall view of the world from the Harlem Renaissance era, including a Feminist perspective. Themes included in the novel, remain as modern problems of today, middle-class verses lower-class issues and color consciousness. Nella Larsen was a light skinned biracial women who was born to a Danish mother and a Caribbean father on April 13, 1891, in Chicago and died on March 30, 1964.
- Plot Summary
- Major Works
- Websites & Referenced Materials
"Nella" Larsen introduces the main character Helga Crane, a young girl of twenty two, with delicate but well turned arms and legs. Helga teaches at an elite southern school named Naxos (referenced to a Greek Island in the Aegean Sea). The school was an example of the theory that African Americans needed to improve their lot, the policy of "Black Uplift". The education at Naxos, implored no new ideas and tolerated no new innovations, in other words individualism was very discouraged. Helga becomes disenchanted with the hypocrisy at the prestigious school and begins re-evaluating her career choice as a teacher.
"The great community, she thought. was no longer a school. It had grown into a machine. It was now a show place in the black belt, exemplification of the Whiteman's magnanimity, refutation of the black man's inefficiency. Life had died out of it"
Helga after a reverse psychological debate with the new principal at the school, a Dr. Anderson, and struggling with guilt regarding a need for service to ones race in educating young students, Helga makes a decision. She boldly leaves the town of Naxos and boards a train bound for Chicago. She soon discovers that the city is not her home. In reality Helga has no home or friends. But, after a series of bad interviews and bad employment agencies, Helga finds herself employed as a paid companion to an educated Mrs. Hayes-Rore, as a speech coordinator and secretary of sorts.
*NOTE* In these chapters the character Helga bears a striking resemblance to Larsen herself. The references to the name Helga may be of Germanic or Eastern European origin, as well as the references to the Chicago area, and a similar family situation of a biracial child.
"Helga Crane, who had been born in this dirty, mad, hurrying city, had no home here. She had not even any friends here." -Quicksand
Helga relocates to Harlem, on the advice and cooperation of Mrs. Hayes-Rore, where she becomes part of the Black middle-class community. After coloring the truth (hiding her biracial heritage), as Mrs. Hayes-Rore suggests, Helga enjoys residence in the home of Anne Grey. Anne Grey was a woman obsessed with the race problem and fed her obsession frequently. Money as Money was still not very important to Helga. However, Helga with her initial happiness at being finally in a place she could call home fades into feelings of shame and fear.
*NOTE* Issues of economic class dominate in these chapters.
"It was as if she was shut up, boxed up, with hundreds of her race, closed up with something in the racial character which had always been, to her, inexplicable, alien. Why, she demanded in fierce rebellion should she be yoked to these despised black folk?" -Quicksand
Helga continues on her journey to find that strange "something" that has been eluding her. She travels to Denmark, after a gift from her uncle, Peter Nilssen, of five thousand dollars (a payment of apology for his wife's rather selfish bigotries). Helga relocates to live with her white relatives. In Denmark she is treated like a lost treasure, to be admired and viewed from afar. Dressed in the finest of fabrics and trinkets, painted by the finest of artists, Helga was young, a foreigner but remained different. After a proposal of marriage, Helga offers her explanation of retort, stating that she could never marry outside of her race, thus causing extreme distress for her white relatives who cannot understand Helga's decision. In time, as the novelty of the new foreigner wears off, Helga longs for life in Harlem.
"So life went on. Dinners, coffees, theatres, pictures, music, clothes. More dinners, coffees, theatres, clothes, music. And that nagging aching for America increased. Augmented by the uncomfortableness of Aunt Katrina's and Uncle Paul's disappointment with her, that tormenting nostalgia grew to an unbearable weight." -Quicksand
Helga travels back to Harlem, promising to venture back to her white relatives in Denmark after a short visit of 6 weeks. At a party, meeting and greeting numerous "substantial" persons of the community, Helga, reunites with her former fianc'e. However, his personality remains the same, but to her surprise Helga detects herself enamored with Anne's new husband Dr. Anderson, the former principle of Naxos. A romantic interlude happens with Dr. Anderson, and Helga is stirred with passion. Later, after a secret meeting between Helga and Dr. Anderson, Helga finds that Dr. Anderson has rebuked her romantic efforts, with a formal apology and an admission that he was a "fool" to have kissed her.
"She had ruined everything. Ruined it because she had been so silly as to close her eyes to all the indications that pointed to the fact that no matter what the intensity of his feelings or desires might be, he was not the sort of man who would for any reason give up one particle of his own good opinion of himself. Not even for her. Not even though he knew that she wanted so terribly something special from him." -Quicksand
Helga after being rebuked by Dr. Anderson flees into the night. In a terrific thunder storm Helga who is drenched finds refuge in a church where numerous individuals give her comfort. Amidst all the withering, chanting and dancing, reminiscent of a southern revival, Helga meets the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green. Suspecting that God had directed her to the church Helga thinks she found her "something," her happiness. She quickly marries the Reverend Green. Helga lives and endures the duties of a wife of a Reverend and has 3 children in the space of 20 months, and one soon after. As the novel concludes, Helga is bewildered that God has indeed made her endure hardship, childbirth, poverty and much more. She plans to leave when she notices she is again pregnant with her fifth child.
"She had ruined her life, made it impossible ever again to do the things that she wanted, have the things that she loved, and mingle with the people she liked. She had to put it brutally as anyone could, been a fool." -Quicksand
* The Wrong Man (1926)
* Freedom (1926)
* Quicksand (1928)
* Passing (1929)
* Sanctuary (1930)
*Websites & Referenced Materials
Paul Ruben's Perspectives on American Literature-reference section about Nella Larsen
*Note-Literary Traveler requires a log in and account information*
Literary Traveler-Discovering Parallels to Nella Larsen (focusing on "Passing") 
PBS-American Masters Series, The American Novel 
Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Second Edition. New York, W.W. Norton & Company. 2004. Print. Pages 953-962, 1085-1167.
Last edited on 16 October 2020, at 03:28
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