Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

Quicksand and Passing are two novellas packaged together and reissued by Serpent’s Tale in the UK. They both share the key theme of being a woman of colour in America early in the twentieth century but the two pieces explore ideas around this in different ways.

Helga Crane is twenty-three and a teacher at Naxos, ‘the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country’. Helga’s out of favour at the school and urgently wishes to leave despite her engagement to a colleague. Her fiancé has ‘naturalized’, fitting into the school and its values. Helga, however, ‘…could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity’. She’s failed to impress his family too:

Negro society, she had learned, was as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society. If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t “belong”. You could be queer, or even attractive, or bad, or brilliant, or even love beauty and such nonsense if you were a Rankin, or a Leslie, or a Scoville; in other words, if you had a family. But if you were just plain Helga Crane, of whom nobody has ever heard, it was presumptuous of you to be anything but inconspicuous and conformable.

Helga leaves Naxos and the south in search of happiness. Although she is unaware of the form happiness might take for her. Arriving in Chicago, she goes to the home of her uncle, her deceased mother’s brother, but is rejected by his wife who denies any connection between Helga and her husband. In a veiled conversation, it’s implied that the issue is that Helga’s mother had her out of wedlock to a white man.

In keeping with the title of the book, Helga’s situation changes seemingly quickly again and again. After weeks of unemployment, she finds a job with a woman, Mrs Hayes-Rore, who gives speeches on ‘the race problem’ before moving to New York to live with a relative of Mrs Hayes-Rore’s. Before leaving she’s advised:

I wouldn’t mention that my people are white, if I were you. Colored people won’t understand it, and after all it’s your own business.

Whenever she finds somewhere she thinks she fits – and Larsen moves her between black and white society – she is eventually disabused of her feelings, often through the behaviour of those around her. The novella ends when she finds herself in a situation she cannot leave. It’s a sobering end showing that women, regardless of education and connections, actually have few outcomes available to them.

Passing – which is the stronger of the two stories – focuses on a rekindled friendship between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. The friendship is one from childhood, broken following the death of Clare’s father, after which she was sent to live with relatives and rumours of her becoming a sex worker spread through the group she left behind. Two years before the books begins, the women have come across each other in a hotel tearoom:

Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?

Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gypsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro.

Although Irene is passing in the hotel, Clare is passing in every day life and Irene judges her for it. Initially this leads Irene to question the behaviour of other friends but the tension really rises when she meets Clare’s husband.

John Bellow greets his wife with the words, “Hello, Nig”, leading Irene to believe he knows that she is black. However, he then explains his nickname for her:

“When we were first married, she was as white as – as – well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s getting’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger…No niggers in my family…They give me the creeps. The black scrimy devils.”

Clare’s reason for getting back in touch with Irene after this incident is that she wants to spend more time in Harlem with people of colour. Irene strongly suggests that this is risky behaviour considering her husband’s ignorance but Clare doesn’t care. It seems as though this story has an obvious conclusion to reach but Larsen complicates it with problems in Irene’s marriage leading to a swift, shocking, unexpected twist that had me gasping aloud.

Quicksand and Passing are taut novellas exploring the clash of black and white society and the roles women would take to be seen as acceptable in different circumstances. Larsen explores a range of viewpoints and considers women in a number of positions on the social spectrum. The stories are interesting windows into the time period but also tightly plotted, compelling tales in their own right. Highly recommended.

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18 thoughts on “Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

  1. I’m so glad you’ve reviewed these novellas, Naomi. They’ve been sitting on my kindle for ages, so I must get around to reading them fairly soon. (It’s easy to forget about ebooks when the bookshelves are right in front of you!) Passing sounds particularly good – those quotes are strong.

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    • I had them on my kindle too and I know exactly what you mean about forgetting they’re there. Passing’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Quicksand’s worth it for the ending which is a very powerful in light of everything that happens before it.

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  2. I read these last year as the events in Ferguson, Missouri were playing out which made them all the more chilling. Both are excellent but I’d agree that Passing is the most sucessful, not to mention gut-wrenching. An amazingly brave book given that it was written in the early twentirth century.

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  3. I had never heard of either of them, so thank you for these two reviews, Noami! I’m very interested in Passing. Having been through some friend troubles of lately I am eager to read about other women’s friendships and how they made it out of their troubles and differences.

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  4. I’ve thought of these for my book club (which focuses on novellas) so it’s good to read about them (and know you feel Passing is the stronger of the two). It seems like you would get an interesting discussion.

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