Summary: Chapter Fifteen
After almost two years in Denmark, Helga is unhappy. She feels “discouragement and helplessness.” She receives a letter that Anne is marrying Dr. Anderson and would like Helga to attend. Helga dismisses the idea of returning, due to the treatment of black people in America. Helga is conflicted over Dr. Anderson marrying Anne, but she convinces herself that she doesn’t care. The Dahls, Herr Olsen and Helga attend a circus performance that ends with a minstrel show: two black men dancing and singing rag-time songs. Helga is disgusted by the performance and the audience’s favorable response.
Herr Olsen asks Helga to marry him. She recalls a time earlier where he had propositioned her, but she ignored it at the time, thinking him a gentleman and that there must have been a mistake. Helga realizes that she despises Herr Olsen. He professes his love to Helga, confident in her acceptance. Helga does not respond immediately. He tells her that she has the “soul of a prostitute” and has been holding out for the highest bidder. Helga’s rejects him harshly, then explains more calmly that she could never marry a white man. Herr Olsen is confused, and then states that it is “a tragedy.” He tells her that he truly understands her and his finished portrait of her is the “true Helga Crane.” She reflects on how well he took the rejection. Helga does not like the portrait, although local critics praise it. When Helga asks the maid, Marie if she likes it, Marie says that she does not, because “it looks bad, wicked.”
Summary: Chapter Sixteen
The Dahls are disappointed that Helga has turned down Herr Olsen. Helga feels that she has let them down, as the marriage would have connected their family to an artistic family. Helga tries to explain to Herr Dahl that race was the factor in her refusal of Herr Olsen, but Herr Dahl points out that she has never spoken of race problems in Denmark before. Helga becomes upset and cries. This makes Herr Dahl uncomfortable, so they give up on the conversation. Helga expresses her gratitude to the Dahls and says that she would do “anything for them but this.” Helga considers the letter from Anne and soon longs to return to America. The Dahls understand that she is homesick but hope that she will come back to them. Helga leaves on a boat, planning to return in the fall, but with “fear in her heart.”
Analysis: Chapters Fifteen–Sixteen
Although Helga finds Denmark unhindered by the overt racism of white America, she is still pigeon-holed and defined by her mixed-race identity in many social contexts. In many ways, the Danish treatment of Black people as a curiosity causes Helga to feel just as othered as she felt in her home country. Helga is disturbed by the Danes’ uncritical enjoyment of the minstrel show, which she feels makes a spectacle of Black Americans and causes her to feel betrayed. Axel Olsen’s portrait of Helga is another example of this fetishization of her Blackness as it is well received in artistic Danish circles, but Helga herself finds it disturbing and an inaccurate version of her true self. Axel Olsen’s confusion at Helga’s rejection of his proposal based on racial grounds is a clear example of his fetishization of her as he states her African heritage makes her more sensual and equates her to a prostitute. All of these instances of fetishization make Helga deeply uncomfortable as they are constant reminders that even a society as progressive as Denmark is susceptible to racial biases.
Helga’s longing to leave Denmark is framed as a homesickness for Black American society. Although Danish society is more accepting than white American society, the Danes ignore racial issues almost to the point of erasure, causing Helga to feel completely foreign and isolated. The scene when Helga tells Axel Olsen she cannot marry a white man and will not be owned recalls an image of slavery, but he remains confused and unable to understand how his attempts to buy her have caused her to react this way. Herr Dahl also proves his own inability to understand Helga’s isolation when he reduces her to tears by insisting that race could have nothing to do with her refusal of Axel Olsen’s marriage proposal. At this point Helga begins to understand for the first time her father’s abandonment and forgives it, finding in herself the same need to live in Black society. She contrasts the calm white Danes who are uncomfortable with tears and emotion with the vibrancy of the Black community she remembers in Harlem and longs to return. Once again, a place that seemed like home to Helga has failed to content her, and she responds yet again by leaving.