Helga Crane is a beautiful young teacher in Naxos, a southern American boarding school for black students. She is half Danish on her mother’s side, half African-American on her father’s side. Her only family is an aunt and uncle in Denmark.

Dr. Anderson, a distinguished black teacher professes love for her, but she feels stifled by him and the vision of their life ahead. She quits her job and flees to New York and the exciting cultural life of Harlem.

She thrives in that environment and men flock to her. There she meets James Vayle whom she likes and the Reverend Pleasant Green whom she does not—but once again, when Vayle proposes permanence, she flees to Copenhagen.

There, she spends an extended visit with her Aunt Katrina and Uncle Poul. At first the Danish couple are startled by her blackness, but they quickly adapt and enjoy the elevated status conveyed by having this intelligent, beautiful black woman in their world. Upon receiving another offer of marriage, Helga grows suspicious of her family’s use of her and flees once again.

She returns to America where she marries the Reverend Pleasant Green, although she doesn’t love him.  As babies come in succession, Helga develops severe post-partum depression. 



First published in 1928, this novel is a prescient treatment of a black woman's experience. Although Helga has many privileges and opportunities, she is never satisfied and always fearful of commitment. The ambivalence of lifestyle reflects a deeply rooted conflict about her identity as an African-American and a Dane. The quicksand of the title reflects the sense of suffocation she feels even in situations that ostensibly should be comfortable and secure.

The novel has strong autobiographical overtones. Larsen had a Danish mother and an African-American father. She trained as a nurse, but left the profession to write. When she failed to publish her third novel, she returned to nursing full time, and ended her career as a respected hospital supervisor. No one in her medical sphere realized that she’d ever been a writer.


Nella Larsen received the Harmon Foundation's bronze medal for achievement in literature in 1929 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in creative writing in 1930.


Penguin Classics

Place Published

New York




Thaddious M. Davis

Page Count