Helga Crane is a teacher at an all-black school in the South. She is in her early twenties and of mixed racial descent. She is regarded as attractive, with dark eyes, broad brows and skin “like yellow satin.” She is a teacher at the Negro school in Naxos, but it is “a show place in the black belt,” often used to demonstrate how successful black education could be. Helga sits awake in her room. She thinks of the patronizing white preacher who told the black students that they had good taste because they knew their place: as future laborers.
Helga thinks about how she does not fit in—not only at the school, but also in town. She gets more upset as she thinks about the school and eventually throws her books and papers across the room. Helga decides that she should leave the school, but that will also mean ending her engagement to James Vayle, a fellow teacher. She feels no regret over ending the engagement, although she does like Vayle (and liked that his family name was respected). She realizes that she will need money and that she will need the school to pay her out so she can return to Chicago. Other than her Uncle Peter, she and her remaining family have a mutual dislike. They will not help her. Helga reflects on how she never belonged in Naxos and goes to sleep relieved at the idea of leaving the town.
Helga wakes up feeling anxious, until she remembers that she had decided to leave Naxos. She thinks about how it would be best to wait until the school year is over, in June, but an inner force drives her to leave sooner. She has difficulty identifying her full desires. A loud bell rings, signaling breakfast. She chooses not to go. She hears Miss MacGooden yell at students in the hall. Margaret Creighton, a fellow teacher, comes to her room and tells her that she will be late for class. Helga tells her that she is leaving. Margaret warns Helga that leaving in mid-year will look bad on her teaching record and asks her to stay, but Helga is determined to leave.
Helga waits to see Dr. Anderson, the head of the school. She thinks about how she has been told not to wear bright colors, but she had purchased expensive clothes of royal blue, purple and deep red. When she speaks with Dr. Anderson, she tells him that she despises the school, with its hypocrisy and its cruelty to students and teachers. Helga describes Naxos as a “venomous disease.” Dr. Anderson tells her that there is injustice and hypocrisy in every community and that Naxos needs people like her. His words cause her to reconsider leaving. She is almost ready to tell him that she will stay, when he tries to compliment her by saying that she has “dignity and breeding.” Infuriated, she replies that she was born in a Chicago slum to a gambler and an immigrant who might not have been married. She tells him that she is leaving that afternoon.
Helga rides a train back towards Chicago. She is in an uncomfortably warm car with “others of her race.” She thinks about the argument she had with Dr. Anderson and realizes that she was rude. She thinks about her mother, an immigrant from Scandinavia. After Helga’s father left, her mother remarried out of necessity, to an unpleasant white man. Helga’s mother died when Helga was fifteen, and Helga was rescued by her Uncle Peter, who sent her to a Negro school. She was both happy and lonely there. Helga thinks of her conversation with James Vayle. She liked him but did not love him. With a ten-hour ride remaining, Helga manages to convince the conductor to let her rent a sleeping cabin, despite her race.
Helga arrives in Chicago and thinks about how she has no home or friends in the city. She decides to stay at the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). She travels to her Uncle Peter’s home to surprise him. Helga is greeted rudely by an unfamiliar maid and told that Uncle Peter (Mr. Nilssen) is out, but Mrs. Nilssen is available. Helga did not know that her uncle had married. Mrs. Nilssen invites her in, but then tells her that Peter Nilssen is not really her uncle, because Helga’s mother and father were not married. Mrs. Nilssen tells Helga to leave Peter alone and never to return. Helga runs away and becomes distraught. After Helga calms down, she wonders if she could find work at a library. When she walks into a racially mixed crowd, she feels “that she had come home.”
Helga goes to the library the next day and asks for work, but she is told that she does not have the required training. She then remembers that the YWCA has an employment agency. They tell Helga that she would not want the work that they offer, and also that she will need references. Helga tries several other agencies, with the same result. She tries attending church on Sunday, hoping that someone will ask if she is new in town. No one does. Her distrust of religion increases.
After weeks of trying to find employment, she receives a note that she should return to the YWCA employment office. The clerks there tell her that she has an appointment to meet a traveling lecturer who needs an assistant. Helga meets Mrs. Hayes-Rore the same day. The woman asks Helga a series of questions, including her “opinions on the race problem,” but is so talkative that Helga does not get to answer. Mrs. Hayes-Rore likes Helga and tells her that they are leaving the next day. The travel schedule will eventually take them to New York, where Helga believes that she could find work. When Helga returns to the YWCA employment office to thank them, she asks if they know anything about Mrs. Hayes-Rore, since Helga did not get to ask her any questions. The clerks invite her to have supper with them, where they will tell Helga about her new employer.
Helga is told that Mrs. Hayes-Rore’s husband, now dead, was involved in the crooked politics of Chicago’s South Side. His widow was left money and some prestige in “Negro circles.” Helga organizes and condenses Mrs. Hayes-Rore’s speeches on the train ride, noticing that most of the speeches are just borrowed passages from Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass. Mrs. Hayes-Rore asks how Helga is able to leave for New York on short notice, and Helga explains that she doesn’t have family or friends. Hearing Helga’s story, Mrs. Hayes-Rore does not pry further, because it dealt with interracial relationships and adultery. Mrs. Hayes-Rore tells Helga that she knows people in New York and will help Helga find work, possibly at a “new Negro insurance company.” She warns Helga not to mention that she is of mixed race, as “colored people won’t understand it.” Mrs. Hayes-Rore tells Helga that she will stay with her friend, Anne Grey, in Harlem. Helga is to be introduced as Mrs. Hayes-Rore’s friend whose mother has died.
Over the course of a year, Helga settles into work at the insurance company. She finds Anne Grey to be nearly perfect. Anne has fine clothes and a large house with expensive furnishings. Anne asks Helga to live with her permanently, which is a relief to Helga, who was having trouble finding a place of her own. Helga feels happy to finally belong somewhere. She enjoys parties, the theater and art galleries. Helga thinks about marrying someone in Harlem who could provide her with Anne’s lifestyle. Maybe Helga will have children. Helga avoids the white portion of New York, except for its shops and restaurants. She vows to keep her mixed heritage “hidden away from brown folk in a locked closet.”
Helga’s happiness does not last. She becomes restless and starts to dislike her friends, even Anne. Helga finds that her friends, especially Anne. Helga notes that Anne fight for social justice and equality while hating white people, but that Anne also copies the clothes and manners of white people. Helga attends a health meeting for her employer, Mr. Darling, and sees that Dr. Anderson is also in the audience. He approaches Helga, and the two share a cab, talking about everyday life. Helga feels a yearning to spend more time with him, but when they part, he says that she is “still seeking something.” This makes her angry. When he comes to visit her, three days later, Helga decides to meet some friends, leaving Dr. Anderson with Anne. Helga later asks Anne what she thought of Dr. Anderson. Anne tells her that he has left Naxos and is working permanently in New York.
Helga is increasingly irritated by her friends and by black society when she receives a letter from her Uncle Peter. In the letter, he apologizes for having to end his relationship with Helga, but he has included a check for five thousand dollars: what he would have left her in his will. He mentions that Helga should contact her Aunt Katrina, in Copenhagen, who will gladly take her in. Helga is conflicted. She wonders, “should she be yoked to these despised black folk?” However, she knows that they are her own people. Helga believes that she doesn’t belong to black society. She will use Uncle Peter’s money to travel to Copenhagen and visit her Aunt Katrina. Helga spends time preparing the house for a party for Anne. Helga is still grateful for all of Anne’s kindness. Helga dreams of living in a place “among approving and admiring people, where she would be appreciated, and understood.”
After the party, Helga, Anne, and some of their friends, head out to a jazz club. Helga does not want to go. When she goes out on the dance floor, she does enjoy dancing to the loud jazz music. She tells herself that she is not a “jungle creature,” and tries not to like any of it, despite the variety of ethnicities in the small club. Across the room, Helga sees Dr. Anderson sitting with beautiful, light-skinned woman. Helga learns that her name is Audrey Denney. Anne hates Audrey, because Audrey has white friends (that “know she’s colored”), goes to white parties, and hosts parties where white and black people mix. Helga tries to figure out why Anne hates Audrey so much. Anne describes Audrey as a race traitor. Helga admires Audrey’s ability to mingle with different groups. When Helga sees Dr. Anderson and Audrey dancing together, Helga becomes upset and takes a cab home, feeling “cold, unhappy, misunderstood, and forlorn.”
Helga travels to Denmark by ocean liner. On the nine-day voyage, the ship’s account officer recognizes Helga from when she visited Denmark as a child. He insists that she dine at his table, which makes her feel important. Everyone else treats her well, and she remembers some Danish that she learned as a child. She thinks about Dr. Anderson and wonders, conflicted, if she is actually in love with him. Aunt Katrina has been married since Helga last saw her, and Helga becomes worried that the new husband might treat her as poorly as Uncle Peter’s new wife did. However, Katrina’s husband, Herr Dahl, turns out to be very nice. They meet another couple, the Fishers, who have spent time in England and can help Helga with her Danish.
Helga enjoys her new life of luxury, admiration and attention in Denmark. Helga’s aunt comes to her room to inspect her available wardrobe for an afternoon tea and an evening party. She tells Helga that her clothes are not bright enough, since Helga is young, a foreigner, and different. Helga’s clothes are altered, and she also receives new clothes, and even new jewelry. While she travels around town, she is embarrassed by how people look at her and whisper. She feels like “some new and strange species of pet dog being proudly exhibited.” She enjoys the evening party and meets Herr Axel Olsen, who is an artist. Another guest at the party tells Helga that Herr Olsen is going to paint Helga’s portrait, and Olsen came to the party just to meet Helga. Helga goes to bed wondering exactly what her aunt meant by “different.”
Herr Olsen accompanies Helga and Aunt Katrina shopping. At the instruction of Herr Olsen, they buy expensive things for Helga to wear. Helga enjoys Denmark. Her remote personality makes her seem mysterious to others. The attention that Helga gets when she walks around town fuels her feelings of self-importance. When Helga thinks of America, it is with dislike. She has no desire to return and is happy that she did not have children there.
Helga likes Herr Olsen, but she is not sure if he feels the same. She wonders if race is a problem. Aunt Katrina tells Helga that she should think about marrying soon, since she is twenty-five, and provides the names of several successful men who would marry her. Helga replies that she doesn’t believe in interracial marriages, as it is too difficult for the children. Aunt Katrina says that Denmark is different and asks if Helga is interested in Herr Olsen. When Helga states that she isn’t sure that Herr Olsen is interested her, Aunt Katrina reassures Helga that he is. Helga and Aunt Katrina meet Fru Fischer for lunch. Fru Fischer also mentions Herr Olsen’s interest in Helga. This makes Helga dislike her.
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.”
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.”
Once Anne and Dr. Anderson return from their wedding, Helga chooses to stay at a hotel, instead of in Anne’s home. Anne agrees, knowing that there are unresolved feelings between Dr. Anderson and Helga. By October, Helga is still in Harlem and has not made plans to return to Denmark. She develops a spiritual connection with the black community. She feels that she will end up splitting her life between the two places: spiritual freedom in America and physical freedom in Denmark. The thought of returning to Copenhagen does not make her happy, and this she blames on Herr Olsen even though she feels that Herr Olsen is not at fault. Helga thinks about how Anne would react if Helga married a white man. Helga knows that she won’t ever marry a white man, because she is “a fool.”
Helga goes to a party in Harlem hosted by Helen Tavenor. The clothing and attitude that Helga has acquired in Denmark has made her very popular. She regrets that her friendship with Anne is fading. Helga knows that Dr. Anderson will always be between her and Anne, but she reflects that anyone could have married Dr. Anderson, whereas only someone special could have received Herr Olsen’s proposal.
At the party, Helga sees James Vayle. She talks to him about his life in Naxos—a town that she considers remote and unimportant—and life in Europe. James tells Helga that he couldn’t imagine living away from black society for too long. He also states that he does not approve of the white people at the party mingling with the black people. They talk of marriage, and Helga states that she can’t imagine bringing more black children into a racist world. James says he is going to ask her to marry him, but Helga feels sorry for him and shrugs it off as a joke. Helga goes upstairs to fix a snag in her dress. When she walks into the hallway, she runs into Dr. Anderson, who embraces and kisses her. She struggles at first, but ends up embracing and kissing him back. She becomes angry and pushes him away, returning to the party.
Helga cannot forget the kiss with Dr. Anderson and how it made her feel. She acknowledges that she still respects and cares about Anne but cannot convince herself that the kiss did not matter. Eventually, Helga approaches Dr. Anderson, who tells her that he wants to see her alone. She agrees to see him the next day at eight o’clock. Helga is extremely excited and spends the entire day preparing herself. Dr. Anderson meets her in the hotel lobby and sincerely apologizes for how he acted. Helga replies that it was just a kiss “between friends.” Helga realizes that Dr. Anderson will not give her what she wants. She slaps him and retreats to her hotel room. She feels regret that she may have forfeited something special with Dr. Anderson.
Helga feels alone and humiliated. She is most hurt by the fact that she “made a fool of herself.” She decides to go out, wearing her usual evening attire. It is windy and raining, soaking Helga, who has not brought an umbrella or proper shoes. A gust of wind knocks her into a rain-filled gutter. She stumbles into the nearest business, trying to escape the cold. She realizes that it is a religious meeting. The gathered people are singing spiritual songs. She is helped up and brought to the front. She removes her wet coat, and the gathered worshippers see her revealing dress. They call her a “scarlet woman” and “Jezebel,” but start praying for her forgiveness. She wants to leave but is fascinated by the energetic worshippers’ attempt to save her soul. She tries to get up, but not having eaten all day, she collapses. Eventually, she yells out “God have mercy on me!” The people around her are joyous. Helga is motivated to regain “a simple happiness unburdened by the complexities of the lives she had known.”
Helga is escorted back to her hotel by Reverend Pleasant Green. He is described as a “fattish yellow man.” She is still dizzy and exhausted and uses his arm for support on the walk back. She notices that, when she grabs his arm, he sways slightly, affected by her touch. She thinks of the religious experience that she had, and how in contrast to the rest of her life, she has only had possessions. She considers how Dr. Anderson will be shocked and hurt if she pursues Reverend Green. She suddenly becomes obsessed with the need to be married, and she knows that Reverend Green will be easy to convince.
In the “confusion of seductive repentance,” Helga marries Reverend Green. They live in a small town in Alabama, where Reverend Green is the pastor. Helga is pleased that she has a place of importance as the preacher’s wife. Helga works hard, trying to help the women in the church, but when she is not around, they refer to her as an “uppity, meddling northerner.” Helga accepts that the women in the congregation pay a large amount of attention to her husband. For a while, she is truly fulfilled. She considers how Reverend Green eats loudly and doesn’t bathe or wash his clothes as much as she would like. She is proud that he belongs to her.
Within twenty months Helga, has twin sons and a daughter. She is pregnant with another child and is constantly tired and sick. Her house becomes cluttered and dirty. Her children are untidy. Reverend Green eats at the houses of members of the congregation who take pity on him. Helga wonders how she can endure. After talking to a woman in town (Sary Jones) who has six children, she resigns herself to hunger, pain, and limited sleep, taking shelter in her religious conviction. She is successful in accepting her spiritual submission, no longer worrying “about herself or anything.”
Helga has her fourth child, but when they present the child to her, she ignores the people at her bedside, closing her eyes. She becomes distant and unresponsive. Prayer vigils are held. A white doctor is brought in. The children are moved to a neighbor’s care. Miss Hartley, a nurse, is hired. In her dream-state, Helga recalls all of the people throughout her life. She realizes that she now despises Reverend Green. As Helga recovers, she begins to despise religion and no longer believes that God exists. She feels that the suffering of black people is proof that the “white man’s God” does not exist. Her newborn dies within a week. Helga feels relief.
Helga is determined to leave Reverend Green and her life. She despises her husband and the people in town. She feels that one of the greatest failings is that black society suffers with the belief that they will be rewarded in “the next world” promised by Christianity. She thinks about what it will mean to leave her children, and it is too difficult for her to consider. She rests, thinking that she will grow strong enough to leave eventually. As soon as she is able to walk again and her children return from the neighbor’s care, Helga “began to have her fifth child.”