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  • The Influence of Main Street on Nella Larsen's Quicksand
  • Robert E. Fleming (bio)

The importance of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1881) as a source for Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928) has been noted in print (Lay), but another source—one closer to home—is Sinclair Lewis' Main Street (1920). The influence of Main Street is apparent throughout Larsen's novel, especially in the particulars of the protagonist's character and appearance, but it plays its most important part in the last thirty pages, where it provides Larsen with a model for the bitter ending of her work.

Larsen's Helga Crane and Lewis' Carol Kennicott share many character traits and background details. Both were orphaned early—Helga at fifteen and Carol at thirteen—and were reared by relatives who sent them to small, conservative colleges where they shut out their dreary surroundings by dreaming of great adventures in their later lives. Such dreams lead both to reject suitors who might make good husbands but who promise dull though secure futures. After graduation, both settle down briefly into stifling jobs that do little to further their lofty ambitions, Helga [End Page 547] as a teacher in her former college, an all-black Southern institution, and Carol in the public library in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although she never works as a librarian, Helga briefly entertains the idea of working for the public library in Chicago, the same city where Carol has taken her postgraduate course in library science at an unnamed school. Both Helga and Carol are given to extravagant clothing and bizarre interior decoration, and both read literary works considered shocking by their more conservative contemporaries. All of these parallels are present throughout both novels.

Even more important, though, are the parallels apparent in the closing chapters of Larsen's novel. Helga, following the example of James's Isabel Archer, has traveled to Europe in the company of an older female sponsor and has rejected several apparently eligible suitors. At this point Larsen departs from the plot model that James has furnished and closely follows the outline of Main Street. Like Carol, Helga meets and marries a professional man from a small town, and the remainder of Quicksand tells the story of her defeat at the hands of her husband, his neighbors, and the squalid environment itself.

Helga Crane's new husband, the ironically named Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green, is like Dr. Will Kennicott in being one of the leading citizens of his hometown, an unnamed village in Alabama. Accustomed to the unquestioning respect and obedience of his flock, Pleasant Green is as unprepared as Kennicott for an emancipated woman. Like Will, who had briefly courted Gopher Prairie schoolteacher Vida Sherwin before meeting Carol, Green has been linked with a woman of his congregation, Clementine Richards. Like Vida, Clementine at first despises the preacher's new wife, considering her to be "without proper understanding of the worth and greatness of the man, Clementine's own adored pastor, whom Helga had somehow had the astounding good luck to marry" (198-199). Like Vida, Clementine fits into the society of the small town and lives by its standards rather than attempting to change them.

Helga's attitude toward her own sexuality closely parallels Carol's. Carol has always avoided thinking of sex until her marriage forces her to confront this element in her nature. After Carol's honeymoon, Lewis reflects: "It had been a transforming honeymoon. She had been frightened to discover how tumultuous [End Page 548] a feeling could be roused in her. Will had been lordly—stalwart, jolly, impressively competent in making camp, tender and understanding through the hours when they had lain side by side in a tent pitched among pines high up on a lonely mountain spur" (22). Helga feels similar stirrings in the first months of her marriage. In spite of the drudgery of housework and pastoral visits, she is balanced between delight and disgust when she contemplates her newly found sexuality: "And night came at the end of every day. Emotional, palpitating, amorous, all that was living in her sprang like rank weeds at the tingling thought of night, with a vitality...


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pp. 547-553
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