Sapphira and the Slave Girl Characters

Willa Cather

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sapphira Colbert

Sapphira Colbert, a slave owner and mistress of Mill House, Back Creek, Virginia. An invalid now confined to a wheelchair, Sapphira is still the mistress of her home. Her cultivated and seemingly placid outward self-esteem masks cruelty and selfishness. Although she holds great affection for some of the slaves, she maintains the right to control their lives regardless of the consequences. Suspicious of the growing but innocent affection between her husband and Nancy, she tries to sell Nancy. When Henry blocks that attempt, she seeks another way to rid herself of Nancy. She invites Henry’s nephew, Martin, a known rake, for a visit. Martin’s blatant attempts to seduce Nancy, combined with Sapphira’s obvious displeasure with the slave girl, compromise Nancy’s position in the household and her relationship with the other slaves. Sapphira’s long-strained relationship with her daughter, Rachel, is further damaged when Rachel aids Nancy in fleeing to Canada. Although Sapphira often displays uncompromising cruelty, she is also capable of unexpected, solicitous concern for others. When Rachel’s daughter dies of diphtheria, Sapphira’s love for her daughter and grief over the child’s death overcome her feelings of betrayal, and she welcomes Rachel back to Mill House.

Henry Colbert

Henry Colbert, the miller of Back Creek, Virginia, and Sapphira’s husband. Henry is a solid, powerful man whose quiet yet unquestionably fair nature allows him to be trusted, but not liked, by the community. Troubled by slavery, he cannot find a way to resolve his own feelings with his wife’s ownership and treatment of slaves. Honest affection for Nancy, which is misinterpreted by Sapphira, is tested by Martin’s lecherous pursuit of the girl. Warned by the slave Sampson...

(The entire section is 746 words.)