Critical Context

Cather’s last novel brings the author’s career full circle by dealing with her Virginia origins. While most of her work concerns life in the West, Sapphira and the Slave Girl deploys characters based on her earliest memories of family life to dramatize her lifelong opposition to the increasing materialism of American life. The epilogue suggests that the story of Sapphira and the slave girl, Nancy, may well represent Cather’s own fundamental psychological drama, that of the well-meaning but ineffectual father, the domineering mother, and the orphaned protagonist. Be that as it may, the work is Cather’s final statement in the novel form concerning the question of what America will finally become and her hope that the tide would finally turn against the forces of materialism—as represented by the abuses of private ownership. This novel of slavery and division argues in an elemental way against that tide and its attendant mentality with an authority that comes only with long experience.