Crane’s Irritating, But How?

In relation to Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand, and with most novels in general, we have to ask ourselves how we sympathize with our protagonist Helga Crane. Do my own previous experiences allow me to understand the struggle in which she goes through? Well yes in the sense that I know the struggle of constantly being on the move but that doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with all interpretations and perceived “whining” regarding her ever-changing lifestyle. Perhaps whining is too harsh a word. Sianne Ngai describes it as, “Concentrated on the protagonist’s signature aloofness… ‘irritation’ becomes the index of a more general affective opacity through Quicksand… more specifically to what we might call the problem of incorrect or ‘inadequate anger’” (175). My point is that Crane is quick to find irritation in exchanges that warrant some sort of reaction based on racial discrimination. Yet not only are these reactions unwarranted, she uses the same logic of racial discrimination as a means for being put on display.

Let’s pick this up when Helga travels from Chicago to New York by train and states conversing with Mrs. Hayes-Rore. During their conversation things become tense when the topic turns to adultery between races. Mrs. Hayes-Rore becomes distant because this kind of subject matter “was beyond definite discussion” and Helga becomes irritated by Mrs. Hayes reaction even though admittedly acknowledges that “among black people, as among white people, it is tacitly understood that these things are not mentioned” (42).  Knowing Helga has mixed heritage, she shows disdain for the reaction by “giving the support table a violent kick” (43). However this reaction isn’t warranted because using her race as an irritant, she grows incensed by the idea of a white woman being uncomfortable with a black woman talking about adultery even though Helga herself acknowledges that no matter what race you belong to, black or white, talking about these things is taboo. Yet Helga uses racial tension as a means for becoming irritated at the situation.

You could refer to that interaction as playing some sort of race card and if Helga Crane was consistent in her interpretations of events like this we would have no reason to argue because at least she would be staying to true to her value of being upset whenever race was brought up in any format. Of course she isn’t consistent though. Right before she leaves Chicago, she visits a “Negro Episcopal” church even though she isn’t religious. “She hoped that some good Christian would speak to her, invite her to return, or inquire kindly if she was a stranger in the city. None did, and she became bitter, distrusting religion more than ever” (37). All of the things she’s wishing to happen to her in this moment require attention, for her to be made into some sort of spectacle. Since nothing happens she becomes irritated. What dooms her here is the “othering” of the church. Again we know Helga’s background so by referring to it as “Negro Episcopal,” would she really have to do that if she identifies as mixed race already? She becomes irritated because of a racial activity, or in this case, inactivity.

Even if you take the title Quicksand for example and try to draw something from that, what do you get? Sand itself is a irritant of the skin so there’s possibility of Larsen trying to tell us that Crane is quick to get irritated? Maybe, but perhaps Ngai says it best when referring to inadequate anger. Crane exercises power over situations when she shows control of her emotions like when having to deal with the constant marriage proposals from Herr Olson. She surpasses her anger but she constantly finds her irritation getting the best of her. By getting irritated at every possible point she can, she could be subconsciously trying to show some sort of control over this emotion that seems to always overcome her.

I digress, the question is how does affect theory apply here? Well for me personally, I see the struggle for Helga’s character having to constantly be on the move. I can’t related to her racial discrimination but more importantly, however, I just don’t necessarily look favorably upon people who are always trying to find a reason to complain.


3 thoughts on “Crane’s Irritating, But How?”

  1. Stone,
    Reading Helga Crane, I often felt sympathy towards her, but also a lot of frustration. Helga herself struggles with understanding where she feels she fits in with her peers, as she constantly feels she is between two worlds, white and black. I understand Helga’s struggle here, as I find it hard to orient myself sometimes based on race and skin color. I agree with the Ngai statement you used “ ‘irritation’ becomes the index of a more general affective opacity through Quicksand…” (175). I find that Helga, like you say, is quick to find that one specific thing that irritates her to which she justifies as a reason to flee, especially when she becomes “irritated” with her race. In the scene in the train, we defiantly see Helga do this, as she is almost looking for anyway to escape the train car with the black people. Helga sees the white conductor as her savior, justifying her reasoning to want to flee by saying“…or would she have to remain here all night, without sleep, without food, without drink, and with that disgusting door panel to which her purposely averted eyes were constantly straying?”(Larsen, 24). Helga here is making up excuses for why she wants to leave the train car she is in, trying to make herself feel better about not wanting, or feeling comfortable amongst the people in the current car she is in. The other train scene, where Helga and Mrs. Hayes-Rore are traveling to New York is an interesting one, and I understand how you read Helga becoming irritated at the conversation that the two women are having about adultery. I read Helga as not wanting to open up about her family, or lack thereof, as she says“as she went on, again she had that sore sensation of revolt, and again the torment which she had gone through loomed before her as something brutal and undeserved”(Larsen,36) feeling tormented and ashamed to open up about her mixed race heritage and her lack of a concrete family. It’s interesting that you sense racial tension between Helga and Mrs. Hayes-Rore, as I see it as Helga becoming irritated at having to open up about her family. When I first read Mrs.Hayes-Rore, I read her as an African-American women, or someone of mixed race like Helga, it is interesting to view her as a white women, which changes everything I thought about her! I also like how you are honest about not relating to Helga’s racial discrimination, as maybe not being able to empathize with Helga’s feeling of not belonging makes you not look favorably upon her. I, too, found her to complain a lot, but I also understand how she feels, as to not seeing where she truly belongs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stone,
    I think you are right to wonder whether we are meant to sympathize with Helga, but I also think part of the point Larsen is trying to make is that we cannot totally identify with her. Part of the reason Helga is dissatisfied is because she never feels she can relate fully to one community. Also, when you say Helga “uses the same logic of racial discrimination as a means for being put on display” are you saying Helga uses her irritation of racial discrimination to get attention? I don’t totally agree with your argument that Helga plays a sort of “race card,” or at least, I think it is much more complicated than this. You say that at the church Helga is searching for attention, but I read this rather as her wanting a deeper connection. At this same point in the novel the narrator writes how Helga was feeling “terrified and lost” (37). I think another example of Helga longing for a deep connection, rather than attention is when she is in Denmark witnessing the performance of the two American colored people. Helga is upset because she feels their performance puts something inside of her on display, the narrator writing that “she felt shamed, betrayed, as if these pale pink and white people among whom she lived had suddenly been invited to look upon something in her which she had hidden away and wanted to forget” (85). Despite this discomfort, Helga still “returned again and again” and possessed “urgent longings” (85). Lastly, one thing you say which is interesting is that “by getting irritated at every possible point she can, she could be subconsciously trying to show some sort of control over this emotion that seems to always overcome her.” This interesting, as I think Helga constantly being on the move is her way of trying to assert control. Irritation as a subconscious way of asserting control doesn’t quite make sense to me. I am more inclined to agree with Ngai’s reading that Helga’s irritation is involuntary and is fascinating precisely because it is out of her control. Thanks for your post.

    – Stephanie

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s interesting that you bring up the issue of sympathy or likeability of Helga. Perhaps this is an aesthetic failure of the book, since often the readerly experience is expected to be one of identification and sympathy. I found Helga to be particularly unsympathetic in a way that had to be intentional. Not only is she insensitive to racial injustice in the way that Ngai describes, she is also stunningly vain as exemplified by the example you mentioned of her motives for going into the church and especially when she goes to Denmark. Even though she eventually experiences her characteristic irritation (for reasons petty and not so petty) she enjoys being a spectacle and perceived as special and unique. Even though she doesn’t literally die at the end of the novel, she does suffer a kind of spiritual death, and I wonder what we are supposed to take from this. Do we feel compassion for Helga, or feel like her pride, vanity, superficiality, and flightiness led her to this point? Is the book a morality lesson about proper affect and response to racial prejudices, wherein Helga does everything wrong and so therefore her fate is so dire? Or do we see her as a victim of her circumstances, immature, for sure, but nonetheless undeserving of her fate?


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