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Quicksand and Passing

3.9  ·  Rating Details ·  3,250 Ratings  ·  106 Reviews
"Quicksand and Passing are novels I will never forget. They open up a whole world of experience and struggle that seemed to me, when I first read them years ago, absolutely absorbing, fascinating, and indispensable."--Alice Walker

"Discovering Nella Larsen is like finding lost money with no name on it. One can enjoy it with delight and share it without guilt."  --Maya Angel
Paperback, 246 pages
Published April 1st 1986 by Rutgers University Press (first published 1928)
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Nov 30, 2014 Cheryl rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Travelers to the Harlem Renaissance
Recommended to Cheryl by: Amanda & Aubrey
To lose oneself in the mire of identity crisis, discontented with life, love, and career. To seek true meaning and purpose, only to find that it eludes you:
Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent. She began to lose confidence in the fullness of her life, the glow began to fade from her conception of it. As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerabl
May 19, 2009 Laura rated it it was amazing
Shelves: modernism
Passing is one of the best books I have ever read. The conflicts in that novel are so complex and tightly composed that while reading it, I feel so conflicted and torn I can barely breathe. Beautiful language, fascinating story, complicated and well-constructed characters. This book is excellent in every way possible.
Oct 04, 2012 Kerri rated it it was amazing
Coming-of-age, woman as child, young woman with all the potential of a child until she foolishly marries an ugly man for a house, for God, for the chance to give up responsibility for her own foolishness.

Helga Crane goes from Naxos, a prestigious school dedicated to Negro uplift - call it the nonprofit sector - to suddenly realizing that she hated the hypocrisy of do-good work. When she quits Naxos at 23, declaring how much she hates it, her boss calmly looks at her and says, " Twenty-three, I s
Jun 15, 2007 Steve rated it really liked it
In many ways Larsen presents her female characters as Romantic heroines trapped in a Naturalist novel. As the poet W.B. Yeats has lyrically expressed, they’re “sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal.” That dying animal is embodied in many ways in "Quicksand" and "Passing," from sterile or racist environments (such as Naxos and Clare's home life with Bellew), to the fragile limitations of the female body, to the institutions of marriage and the responsibilities of motherhood. In a brutal ...more
Jul 12, 2007 April rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: rachel
After reading both of these novels I was so sad to find that after some scandal about plagarism Larsen abandoned her writing. I wish, I wish, I wish she had written more.
Anne Rioux
Feb 17, 2017 Anne Rioux rated it it was amazing
Not an easy read nor a happy one. Best not to read the introduction first (why do they always give away the ending?), but it helps you understand why Larsen made some of the choices she did. We had a great week in class discussing this book. It opened up a lot of students' eyes about the peculiar racism and sexism that mixed-race women have experienced (and continue to).
May 13, 2008 Bailey added it
Recommends it for: all readers
I completed Quicksand months ago, and its taken me this long to process the lessons in this story. The main character's appetite for self-satisfaction is insatiable- this leads to indecision and confusion in many facets of her life. Often I think fear can dictate our sense of personal well-being and social acceptance of our choices; here, the fear of making a choice that would stun others was a constant reason behind many of our subject's decisions. Without living a life of her own from a very y ...more
Mel Bossa
Great learning experience for me as far as being in the head and heart of a bi-racial woman living in Harlem during the Renaissance (20s and 30s), but though I fully appreciate the tenacity and talent it must have taken Nella Larsen to write such novels in those days and the sacrifices she had to endure later, dying in anonymity as a nurse in New York, I still found the books a little too forgettable for what I was expecting.

I disliked both narrators: Helga (Quicksand) and Irene (Passing), and f
Lola Allen
Apr 24, 2015 Lola Allen rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed reading both of Nella Larsen's stories and I love the way she writes. She is a very skillful writer, you only have to read a few of her well crafted sentences to see that writing comes naturally to her.

The way she created the 'tragic heroine' or 'tragic mulatto' as was the term attributed to such protagonists in those days, was very touching. You couldn't help but feel for the heroines and what they were going through. You're happy when they're happy, torn when they're torn and
Derek Baad
Aug 17, 2008 Derek Baad rated it really liked it
I read Quicksand, the first novella in this book, as part of the MA exam reading list, and though I was a little resistant at first, it eventually won me over. Following Helga Crane as she escapes a prominent but stifling faculty position at a southern all-black school to move to Chicago, Harlem, Copenhagen, back to Harlem and finally to rural Alabama. With each new place she goes through the same emotional cycle of elation, irritation, then rejection as she moves on to a change of scenery and p ...more
Apr 30, 2013 LitEscapes rated it it was amazing
After reading these two powerful short stories, Nella Larsen is now up there with one of my favorite authors. Both stories beautifully depict the restless and beleaguered spirit of smart, young, black women in 20th century America. What is so striking is how much I related to the feelings, emotions and internal battles of the characters. Despite it being of another time, I think many women, especially women of color, will resonate with the suffocating limitations of race, class and gender that t ...more
Nov 28, 2009 Robert rated it it was amazing
A light and yet incredibly intricate novel that throws into question every notion about identity -- the title is rather odd, in that in combines two separate short novels, the first mediocre, the second brilliant, but entirely appropriate, because Passing is a novel of intellectual quicksand, likely to trouble some your habitual ways of thinking and feel you are on slippery ground.
Oct 04, 2011 kenny rated it really liked it
the harlem renaissance is the only historical era i care one whit about, and these two novellas represent some of my favorite writing from it. i re-read them often. i think they're incredibly evocative and mercurial; for a long time, i've had a fantasy of writing a treatment of *passing* as a full-length film. but i'm too lazy.
Sep 10, 2010 Agnes rated it liked it
Nella Larson was an author that was thought of as crazy, a liar, a plagiarist in which she simply vanished for awhile in her career. But this book is very insightful. Some believe that Helga, the protaganist in Quicksand, is a biography of Larson's life itself. But the two books are seen as a movement, filled with sexual desire and the representation of one's race. Overall a great read!
Jul 28, 2011 Phillip rated it it was amazing
These two novels were really fascinating. They explored issues facing African-American women during the Harlem Renaissance era, particularly light skinned women. There is a tremendous emphasis on liminal figures in these books--African-Americans marginalized by race, lesbianism repressed and projected, and individuals passing between race and through sexualities.
Apr 30, 2009 Jill added it
Just wrote a 15-page final paper on this book, although I greatly enjoyed both stories, am happy to put my earmarked/post-it-noted/highlighted copy DOWN. :)
Jeanne McDonald
Sep 26, 2016 Jeanne McDonald rated it really liked it
My heart ached throughout the whole of the novel. Both stories beautiful pieces of prose, reflective and thought-provoking.
Feb 02, 2010 Alexis rated it liked it
Read this one in my first year working for a school. I liked it a lot and so did the 11th graders.
Dec 23, 2014 Fedelm rated it really liked it
Mild spoilers (I try to be vague about the endings).

This edition (Rutgers University Press, 1986) brings together two amazing Harlem Renaissance novels by Nella Larsen, both concerning mixed race young women in the 1920s.

In Quicksand the protagonist Helga is a lovely, intelligent young woman who travels to a number of places to visit family or make friends and find a home. However, she is restless from the very beginning and the constant search for identity and belonging repeatedly eludes her. S
Moses Hetfield
May 16, 2017 Moses Hetfield rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Moses by: Prof. Allyson Hobbs
This book contains two novellas by Nella Larson, Quicksand and Passing. Both are stories about the experiences of biracial African-American women in the 1920s. Quicksand tells the story of Helga, an African-American woman raised by her Danish-American mother and white family, and her struggles to fit in in the South, Harlem, and Denmark. Passing is told from the perspective of Irene, a light-skinned African-American, but is really about Clare, a friend (if that's the right word) of Irene's who p ...more
Larsen, Nella, Deborah E. McDowell, and Nella Larsen. Quicksand ; And, Passing. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1986. Print.
Book: Quicksand:
Summary: Helga Crane, the protagonist of the first novel Quicksand, is a mulatto woman caught between several worlds, but not a member of any of them. Born to a Danish woman and West Indian man in Chicago, she is never really accepted by her mother 19s white husband and is treated poorly by him. These negative experiences seem to be engraved in Helga 19s psyc
Passing is a story of deception and hidden things. The title refers most obviously to the narrative of racial passing that moves the plot along. Clare is a black woman passing as white; she has even married a white man under the pretenses of being white. The narrative begins with the reintroduction of Clare and Irene (the protagonist of the story) at a restaurant where they are both passing as white and Irene's introduction to Clare's husband, who turns out to be quite racist. Humiliated by the ...more
Glen Engel-Cox
Sep 11, 2015 Glen Engel-Cox rated it really liked it
For a novel written in 1929, I found this wonderfully modern, written in such a subtlety of style that I have to compare it to my favorite author, Jonathan Carroll. And you should know by now that when I compare something to Carroll, I truly have discovered something that I feel is wonderful.

Passing is about mulatto women in the 1920s who were light-skinned enough that they could “pass” as white in society, but were bound to the black community through their family. The novel puts two such women
Aug 26, 2013 Diane rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 09, 2015 Rachel rated it it was amazing
I read Quicksand for a class on African American Women Writers last fall, and finally just got a chance to read Passing on my own. What follows is a review for each:

I didn't know what to expect when I'd picked up Quicksand. I remember feeling frustrated with the protagonist, who could never seem to feel happy anywhere, yet I didn't once want to put the book down. Knowing Larsen's writing a little better now, I think it's safe to say the frustration I felt for Helga Crane was intentional. Helga g
Jan 22, 2012 Antona rated it it was amazing
Nella Larsen catapulted me back in time with her stirring story about a time in the country where freedom and independence was not currency for all people, despite it being set in the early twentieth century, the place of black people was still precarious. Her very female story merges the gender issue along with the issues of race, place, identity and what makes one who they are. I loved and cried at the conundrum of being "one drop" and knowing that if one went one way - it could potentially op ...more
Feb 12, 2017 RSterling rated it liked it
I preferred Passing to Quicksand.
Aug 09, 2015 Jayna rated it really liked it
I really enjoy Larsen's perspective on the world. Both of these texts take an in depth look at what it meant to be bi-racial or multi-ethnic at a time when that was more than taboo. The sense of otherness that Larsen's characters battle is akin to that in many modern Bildungsroman novels, yet it comes from a different catalyst. The idea of accepting oneself in a world that cannot find a "place" fitting or has expectations that quell an aspect of one's very nature is the driving force of these te ...more
Feb 27, 2014 J.C. rated it really liked it
I was required to read Passing for my Gay/lesbian Lit class, but I ended up reading Quicksand as well, in my spare time. Both stories are well constructed works with beautiful prose and interesting protagonists and characters. Having the two stories back to back also creates an interesting paradox of sorts, as they almost contradict each other when it comes to major themes and ideas. For me Passing was the one that interested me more, mostly due to the fact that i've never heard of racial passin ...more
Dec 11, 2016 Deborah rated it liked it
Honestly, I wish I hadn't read the introduction. As I rated this edition as a whole, I would have rated higher if not for the introduction.

While I can understand Helga Crane's habit of indecision in "Quicksand," it was entirely frustrating to experience as a reader. However, this may well have been the goal that Larsen was trying to achieve.

Of the two stories, I was more captivated by "Passing." Irene's torn emotions between admiration, jealousy, and loathing are genuine and true to many femal
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Nellallitea 'Nella' Larsen (first called Nellie Walker) was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote two novels and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, what she wrote earned her recognition by her contemporaries and by present-day critics.
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