Intersectional Oppression in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand

One might expect that as a woman of colour in America during the first half of the 20th century, the most overt restrictions faced by women like Helga Crane, the protagonist of Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand, might have to do with race or gender.  Upon reading the novel, however, it quickly becomes apparent that though the trials Crane deals with have much to do with both race and gender, it is Crane’s economic situations, most especially in the first half of the novel, that perhaps restrict her more than anything.  It also becomes clear that the institutions which subject Crane to discrimination based on her gender or perceived race are able do so most effectively via economic means.


Emily Guthrie-Smith: A Painting Of a Young Mulatto.

Emily Guthrie-Smith: A Painting Of a Young Mulatto.

The novel begins by outlining how the schools systems serves to dilute Black culture by teaching the ‘white’ agenda.  The school, as Larson writes, had “grown into a machine” and was prescribing “the white man’s pattern” (Larsen, 8).  This is a clear example of a cultural melting pot and Crane expressed a clear desire to work against this hegemonic tool with the hopes of disrupting the “intolerant dislike of difference” (9) but ultimately had to “admit that money was the most serious difficulty” (10) when addressing this issue.  If she rebelled, her employment would be at risk.  Her economic dependence on the system was a “sordid necessity to be grappled with” (10), but even considering this Crane follow her principles and rejects the “place of shame, lies, hypocrisy, servility, and snobbishness” (18).  When she speaks to her abandonment of the educational institution in which she works, Crane explains that in order to do this, all “that’s needed is money” (18), but a colleague notes that should she leave without notice, the school “won’t give [her] a reference” (18), and without such a reference, it will be difficult to obtain employment.  It is the economic concerns that impede the progress Crane seeks to make.



Richard Wright, author of "Native Son".

Richard Wright, author of “Native Son”.

This struggle with finances is common in literature by Black, American authors from the era.  In Native Son, Richard Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, notes his family was “suffering and that he was powerless to help them” (Wright, 10).  The ‘power’ they need is economic power, of which Thomas has none.  This lack of economic autonomy is highlighted by the fact that police “never really searched diligently” for criminals who “committed crimes against… Negroes” (14).  When Black store owners were robbed, the police failed to protect their economic interests.  A similar theme is present in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man when the protagonist, along with several other Black youths, allow themselves be made a spectacle of a boxing ring for the benefit of a crowd of white men.  Their motivation is, of course, money (Ellison, 24-26).  If these young men had economic independence they would not have been compelled to participate in such a demeaning display, but just as Crane feels compelled to work with the school which she opposes because of her economic dependence on the institution, so to do these young men feel compelled to tolerate their exploitation.


Ralph Ellison, author of "Invisible Man".

Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man”.

It is not just Crane’s professional relationships that are influence by economics, but her personal ones as well.  Crane’s step-father is alluded to as a source of distress, as is the wife of Crane’s uncle, both of whom are white and both of whom show great distain for Crane based on her perceived race.  Crane’s mother married, not out of love, but rather because “even unloved little Negro girls must be somehow provided for” (Larsen, 26).  Crane is compelled to be exposed to her step-father’s bigoted distain out of economic need.  Had her mother been financially secure there would have been no need for Crane to tolerate prejudices from any man, but her economic destitution compelled her to allow this.  Likewise, when Crane arrives in Chicago, she seeks out her uncle, not because she feels a connectivity to him, but because she finds herself in economic straits.  There she is exposed to her uncle’s new bride whose bigoted distain is even more overt than that of her step-father.  Crane though does not confront this woman, but merely tolerates the abuse and leaves.  When she arrives to her room it is noted that the “unaccomplished object of her visit was” money (32).  In both instances Crane tolerates bigoted attitudes from people on whom she is economically dependent, demonstrating how one form of oppression is integrated with economic oppression.


Another painting of a "mulatto", though the word mulatto was derived from the word 'mule' and was meant to be an insult. The terms has fallen of use and is not seen by most as a pejorative term.

Another painting of a “mulatto”, though the word mulatto was derived from the word ‘mule’ and was meant to be an insult. The terms has fallen of use and is now seen by most as a pejorative term.

Throughout the novel there are references to money.  In one scene Crane suppresses her feelings because “she couldn’t afford anger” (38) and in another finds herself annoyed but tolerates poor treatment “for the same of the twenty-five dollars” (42) she was set to be paid.  Crane even recognizes the nature of this economic oppression when she notes that it is “only outside of [the Black community] among those others that money really counts for everything” (48).  Crane seems to recognize that her oppression is based largely on economics.


As often as it is noted that money restricts Crane, it also opens doors for her.  Crane’s first employer after leaving the school promises Crane a job with a group of people to whom the employer is making a donation.  Crane is concerned that these people may be upset for “being made to take [Crane] because of the money” (44) her employer was donating, but the economics at hand assure her acceptance.   Likewise, when Crane receives five thousand dollars from her uncle, she is overcome by a feeling of “relief, [and] of liberation” (57).  It is clear in this scene that Crane understand her oppression as an economic one and that money is a means to freedom.  Both instances demonstrate how Crane’s oppression can, at least to some degree, be alleviated by an improved economic situation.



Like Sarah Baartman (pictured above), Helga Crane is put on a 'tour' of sorts by her own family.

Like Sarah Baartman (pictured above), Helga Crane is put on a ‘tour’ of sorts by her own family.

There are other aspect of the book which do speak more specifically to race, most notably Crane’s trip to visit family in Europe.  Once she arrives her white relatives expect her to put on a show of sorts, to perform what they think to be ‘Black’ and what might fairly be called ‘Jungle Black’, a European construct of what ‘Black’ is supposed to be.  She is expected to put on long earrings and exotic bracelets and entertain guests in flamboyant dresses.  One is reminded of the ordeal Sarah Baartman had to endure as she was taken from her homeland in African and forced to go on tour in a freak show through Europe.  Crane’s ‘tour’ is not so invasive Baartman’s was, but it is clear the spirit is the same.  Eventually her aunt and uncle seek to marry her off to a local painter of some fame with the hopes of improving their social standing in their community.  In Europe she is exploited both for her gender and her Blackness, so even with a degree of financial independence Crane finds herself subject to exploitation.


Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen

More than about her exploitation though, the novel seems to be about her search for happiness.  Happiness is something Crane has heard of but is uncertain of how to obtain.  As she escapes one form of oppression, she finds fleeting moments of what she thinks is happiness, but soon finds another form of oppression seeking to subdue her autonomy.  She is overly invest in the capitalist system and plays the part of consumer eagerly, but she doesn’t recognize that this is a product of the ‘white man’s pattern’ she was trying to deconstruct whilst teaching.  Such social constructs of happiness leave he void.  By the end of the novel, the title seems to come into play.  There is a metaphorical quicksand around the protagonist and before she realizes it she has become trapped.  Her search for happiness is curtailed and instead she is left hoping that she might at least find contentedness, but it seem certain that she will fail even to find that.


There is no denying that many of the trials Crane endures are based on her perceived race as well as her gender, but it is also clear that her lack of economic autonomy does prevent Crane from progressing.  That is not to say that economics is the only means by which Crane is oppressed.  Bigotry and prejudices based on both her gender and her perceived race impact Crane’s life immensely, as do social constructs which she does not seem to be fully aware of, but it is also true that the weight of these issues would not be so powerful were they not working in concert with the economic restrictions which Crane must navigate.


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Works Cites:


Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  Random House Inc.  New York, New York.  1947.

Larson, Nella.  Quicksand.  Penguin Books. Toronto, Ontario.  1928.

Wright, Richard.  Native Son.  Harper and Brothers.  New York, New York.  1940.


Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.


  1. Hello Rambler,
    I logged on again to read some of your other essays this evening but had missed Quicksand at first glance. I am reading Kathryn Stockett’s, The Help right now. The economic theme, as you mention in the other works cited above, is always prevelent when it comes to racial division. I can’t recall at the moment who said this but they said (paraphrased) To be a woman is to be a minority in America. To be a black woman is to be in the the largest minority group in America. This was said some years ago. Perhaps this is not as much of a precedent now in comparrison to the first half of the 20th century but I don’t think much has changed. I think of my Asian woman friends, my Native American woman friends, all woman of diverse origin from the so called secular norm and see that the struggles are still the same. Unless you are born to money, marry money or have a talent that our culture will pay you big dollars for, no matter what your race, if you are a woman, you are most likely near or below the poverty level line. And this is America. Equal opportunity for all….,,except women ! I wonder if in the year 2114 this will have changed even marginally for the better.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful response!

  3. The top photo is Marian Anderson and not Larsen.


  4. Thanks Justin. That will be corrected shortly.

  5. Hello, I would like to cite your article about Quicksand in my seminar paper. What name of author should I use?

  6. Jason Horn.

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