The World as a Disease

What I’ve really come to take away from Quicksand, besides just how deeply our society has ingrained inescapable roles for people, is how infectious our society really is. Over the course of the story a lot of language is used to suggest that the structures we live within are like a disease. It’s a disease that you can catch and spread amongst the people you surround yourself with. Honestly, the book made me sad as hell. It was so sad watching Helga try to break from the roles the world was telling her to play and failing every time. It’s almost like she was getting more and more “sick” as the book went on, in the end resulting in her becoming fully infected.  Used for educational purposes only.
Used for educational purposes only.

For example, when Helga is persuaded to go to the church, the whole “infection” metaphor becomes really apparent. The narrator says, “And as Helga watched and listened, gradually a curious influence penetrated her…she felt herself possessed by the same madness” (113).

At this point, I made an immediate connection to The Narrative of Frederick Douglass. Douglass spends a lot of time explaining how the slave masters were infected by the institution of slavery and even goes on to describe them as being “possessed” by demons. This idea of possession really interests me. In both texts, the authors are suggesting that society and the structures we are in eventually turn us “sick”. We have all these corrupt institutions around us and generation by generation is being infected. After Helga becomes possessed by these exact structures, she goes on to live a jailed house-wife life.

Honestly, it’s just depressing. Larsen doesn’t give much of a redemption quality to society. It’s almost like once you catch it, you can’t be cured from it. I’m wondering what you guys think. Is society/structures
within society that bad? Do we live in a world that is so infectious that once you catch the disease, you can’t ever get rid of its influence?

– Christian R.


3 thoughts on “The World as a Disease

  1. I completely agree: this book was depressing! Especially because a lot of young adults can relate to Helga in that we’re trying to establish ourselves and find our place in the world, but we’ve been pushed into certain categories and roles. For instance, I came to school to be a writer, but now I’m looking into marketing jobs because I’ve been “infected” by all my friends getting corporate positions. I think there are a few people who defy the influence of society, like Frederick Douglass. He began as an “outsider” per se, he was a slave who learned to read and write, and he used what made him different for success and social awareness. I do think that the language suggesting an infection throughout the novel is accurate because society will always be making these judgments, and if you’re not being judged then the only other option is to judge.

  2. I think the concept of society as an infection is compelling, because infections shut down a person’s healthy processes. I’m not sure that society always works that way–without society, we would lack many of the structures, like the education system, that support our way of life–but I do think that often, the expectation of compliance to models of living, acting, and expressing oneself can be destructive or at least erosive of a person’s full inborn ability to change the world. This reminds of a Beatrix Potter quote I heard years ago, in which she says: “Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.” I think this quote can easily be applied to many of the structures within our society–not just school–which encourage us to conform to model people who probably did not behave the same way in their private lives as in their public lives. Building millions of people’s lives around a small set of fixed models of living is counterproductive to our search for bettering our society, I believe, since it limits the number of alternatives available to us and dulls a person’s individual voice.

    The one way in which I don’t think the book is depressing is Larsen’s attention to the ability to stay engaged with complexity, which is something Helga is often able to do until she mostly loses the ability at the end of the book. There are many situations in which Helga could have taken an easier path or told herself small lies, and in most situations, she stays engaged with the search for who she is called to be instead of doing what so many of those around her have unwittingly decided to do.

  3. I agree as well that society is presented as infectious and that the “catching” of its disease seems, especially in the case of Helga, inevitable. I also think the metaphor of disease can be pushed further. Much as we might fear or resist the common cold going when it comes around, once we contract it we may inadvertently pass it on to others, infecting them and keeping the disease alive. In the same way, though Helga resists and resents the oppressive systems she faces in society, once she is “infected” by them, she inadvertently perpetuates them.

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