Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sapphira and the Slave Girl is a novel about the evils of private ownership, in this case, the ultimate crime of owning other human beings. Individual ownership and the right of the owner to do with his property exactly as he saw fit, regardless of how low his tastes and motivation might be, were forms of anarchy that Cather saw as inimical to ordered, civilized life—the basis of peaceful human existence.

Although the Civil War plays no part in the novel, the sundering of relationships that were to take place within a decade are prefigured in the Colbert family, which is broken by the fact of slavery itself. The desire to possess and control determines both character and plot. Sapphira’s determination to sell Nancy brings her husband’s opposition. Faced with a dilemma, she hatches a wicked plan of sexual harassment to force the issue. Martin’s obsessive desire to possess Nancy results in the desperate and dangerous plan to escape. The very fact of slavery produces rifts that can only be healed over time. In the reader’s last glimpse of Sapphira and Henry, Sapphira remarks forgivingly: “We would all do better if we had our lives to live over again.”

Yet the spirit of reconciliation is more metaphorical than real. Nancy’s return in the epilogue, after Sapphira and Henry are long dead, has a dreamlike aura around it. One suspects that Sapphira and Henry have survived in the child’s mother and father. The narrator’s mother dominates the household just as Sapphira did, and the father, like the passive Henry, is not present when Nancy returns.

Moreover, part of the drama of this novel derives from the fact that Sapphira and Henry do not let their differences show explicitly (except in the opening scene). Bitter feelings are hidden by manners and an atmosphere of domestic tranquillity. Nancy’s dilemma is thus set in relief against these mores, which provide the Colberts a defense which the slave girl cannot possess.