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.