Certainly the most striking character in the novel is Sapphira Colbert. Cather presents Sapphira as “entirely self-centered” and stubborn, feeling that she has a right to do with her slaves as she pleases. She is also, unfortunately, capable of vindictiveness and cruelty. Her determination to rid herself of Nancy sends profound reverberations throughout the household and the larger social environment. At the same time, Sapphira is also capable of isolated acts of magnanimity, as in her tender solicitousness toward Tansy Dave, a youth deranged after an unhappy love affair.
By contrast, Henry Colbert is a gentle soul troubled by the immorality of slavery, against which he can find no explicit condemnation in the Bible, which he reads feverishly each night. He is genuinely fond of Nancy but does little to protect her from Martin’s designs. His assistance in Nancy’s escape takes the form of a feeble gesture: He leaves some money for her in an overcoat. Tellingly, he keeps his bed at the mill and ventures forth to meet Sapphira only at mealtime.
Nancy’s affection for Henry Colbert is entirely innocent, and yet the punishments to which she is submitted begin to make even her fellow slaves cast a doubtful look at her. As Nancy believes (at first) that she is unable to escape, her fear of Mrs. Colbert—and later of Martin Colbert—reaches the level of hysteria, giving her plight a nightmarish quality. Despite the degree and nature of her...
(The entire section is 429 words.)