Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather

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Sapphira and the Slave Girl Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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 girl, so Sapphira, feigning concern, arranges for her to sleep in the hallway outside Sapphira’s bedchamber (and within easy reach of Martin). One day, Martin finds her while she is picking fruit. Although she attempts to climb the tree, Martin sees her and pulls her down, causing Nancy to scream and alerting nearby field hands who take note, but keep working. Nancy has, by this time, begun to be talked about around the slave quarters.

Rachel Blake, who has opposed her mother’s slave owning, devises a plan of her own when it becomes clear that Nancy is being terrorized because of Sapphira’s vindictiveness. With the help of local Quakers, who have connections with the Underground Railroad, and with the tacit approval of Henry, she convinces Nancy of the necessity for escape. At first Nancy resists the suggestion, but Martin’s pursuit of her forces her to realize that escape is her only solution. At length, Nancy flees to Canada. Meanwhile, Rachel, who has been banned from Sapphira’s house, loses a daughter, Betty, to diphtheria, and the two women are finally reconciled through mutual grief.

An epilogue, “Nancy’s Return,” takes place twenty-five years later. Nancy’s return to Virginia is witnessed through the eyes of a child who is identified as Cather. Although Nancy has grown into an agreeable, handsome woman, there is a poignancy to her character that comes from exile. That this is perceived through a child’s eyes—as much of this dream has been seen through Nancy’s—concludes the novel on a note of unexpected continuity.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Willa Cather’s Gift of Sympathy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. Considered a classic on criticism of Cather’s works. The Blooms look at this author’s gift of sympathy and skillfully relate it to her thematic interests and technical proficiency. Deals with not only Cather’s fiction but also her poetry and essays, which in themselves form an important commentary on her ideas.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Willa Cather. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Bloom says of this volume that it gathers “the best literary criticism on Cather over the last half-century.” The criticism selected emphasizes Cather’s novels Sapphira and the Slave Girl, My Ántonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and A Lost Lady. The volume concludes with a study by Marilyn Arnold on what are considered Cather’s two finest short stories, “A Wagner Matinee ” and “Paul’s Case.” Contains a...

(The entire section is 993 words.)