The novel opens on a dinner quarrel. Sapphira Colbert has announced to her husband, Henry, her intention of selling a slave girl, Nancy, to neighbors. Henry refuses to countersign the necessary documents, although the slaves belong legally to Sapphira. “We don’t sell our slaves!” is Henry’s blunt reply. Sapphira, portrayed as a particularly strong-minded woman, begins to devise other means to rid herself of Nancy, who has lost favor (and an easy job as light maid) because of a perceived favoritism paid to the lovely girl by Sapphira’s husband, a favoritism that Sapphira feels (wrongly) is sexual. Her determination to sell Nancy does not sit well with her daughter, Rachel Blake.
Determined to have her way, Sapphira comes up with a plan to force Henry to agree to let Nancy go. Inviting Henry’s lecherous nephew, Martin Colbert, to come stay with them, Sapphira hopes to compromise Nancy’s morals, a situation that would make Nancy’s continued place at the Colberts’ unthinkable, according to the slaveholding ethos. When Martin arrives, it looks as though the ploy will work. Sapphira is charmed by the younger man’s flatteries and bonhomie. The hardworking Henry, however, is not, and he questions Sapphira when Martin’s stay becomes obviously prolonged.
Meanwhile, Nancy has indeed caught Martin’s eye, but she knows of no way to deflect his—a white man’s—flirtatious suggestions. His persistence and boldness begin to terrify...
(The entire section is 506 words.)