“The joke is on you, Dr. Anderson. My father was a gambler who deserted my mother, a white immigrant. It is even uncertain that they were married. As I said at first, I don’t belong here.”
Helga’s biting comment to Dr. Anderson at the close of Chapter Three reveals the central theme of race and identity. This comment is made in response to Dr. Anderson’s reference to Helga’s good “breeding,” which she finds particularly insulting as she interprets it as a reference to her skin color. The quote illustrates how Helga’s mixed-race background informs her identity and search for belonging. Her frequent desire to act impulsively, often to wound, reveals her ongoing sense of alienation, of not belonging in Black society or among white society. Helga’s later regret in saying this to Dr. Anderson reveals her conflicting feelings about her identity, as not only was the comment not entirely true, but it feels disloyal to her white mother. This motif of push and pull between the two sides of her background reveals an ongoing internal conflict that Helga will struggle with throughout the course of the novel.
“She began to make plans and to dream delightful dreams of change, of life somewhere else. Some place where at last she would be permanently satisfied.”
Helga’s search for belonging is further explored at the end of Chapter Ten when she receives Uncle Peter’s letter and check and decides to act on his advice to go to Denmark. This is the third of her moves, from Naxos to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark, following the pattern of enthusiasm followed by disillusionment that characterizes her life. In every place Helga lives, her search for belonging is always influenced by her mixed-race identity. While much of this struggle is explored internally through Helga’s thoughts, it cannot be divorced from the way each setting in the book treats racial relations. In Naxos, Helga finds the educational institutions mimicry of white sensibilities to be a betrayal of Black culture and individuality. In Harlem, Helga finds her peers’ focus on “the race problem” also blurs her individuality and causes her to feel shame about the fact she is a mixed-race woman. In Copenhagen, Helga deals with the Danes’ simultaneous exoticization and erasure of her Black identity. In all these places, Helga struggles to reconcile the various parts of her identity and feel a true sense of belonging.
“Life wasn’t a miracle, a wonder. It was, for Negroes at least, only a great disappointment. Something to be got through with as best one could.”
As Helga recovers from the birth of her fourth child in Chapter Twenty-Four, she has a renewed cynical perspective on how America’s racist attitudes have influenced the outcome of her life. She has lost her briefly strong faith and now sees religion explicitly as a tool whites use to keep Black people quiet and in their place. Here, Larsen uses the tragedy of Helga’s fate to explore the effect of America’s racist society on Black Americans, painting the tragic outcome of Helga’s life as inevitable. Helga’s worry over the future of her children provides another example of the internal struggle she continues to grapple with when it comes to her identity. The novel’s ending serves as an example of how American society’s insistence on defining individuals by their race, particularly Black and mixed-race people such as Helga, is damaging to both those individuals and to society as a whole.