Willa Cather, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)
Willa Cather’s quiet, elegaic final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, is the only one of her novels set in her birthplace of rural Northern Virginia. Taking up events and characters from the author’s own family history, it gives us a window into a time and place where, not long before the Civil War, slaveowners and those with abolitionist sympathies co-existed uneasily.
The title characters are Sapphira Colbert, wife of a prosperous miller and daughter of a longtime slaveowning family; and Nancy, the mulatto daughter of the slave Sapphira has brought up and trained to be her personal maid. Sapphira has taken a dislike to Nancy because she unjustly suspects that she is dallying with her husband, and eventually an escalating sequence of events causes Nancy to leave for freedom in Canada. The final scene, one taken from Cather’s own memories and so the seed of the whole narrative, is of her return 25 years later.
This makes the plot sound much stronger and more unified than it is; in fact, it moves in a meandering fashion, with many detours, and nearly loses momentum altogether toward the end. What would seem to be the most interesting portion of all — how Nancy makes the huge transition from South to North and becomes a free woman — is skipped entirely, and the ending is rather anticlimactic. With a lesser writer, this unsatisfying trajectory would no doubt have bothered me much more. But I was so caught up in the scenes and characters that Cather portrayed with such compassion and insight that I didn’t mind much at all.
Many different viewpoints on the central issue of slavery are represented, even within a single character, creating a complex and multi-faceted picture of this moral dilemma. Henry Colbert, perhaps the novel’s moral center, is deeply conflicted: he personally does not wish to have slaves, yet accepts them as part of his wife’s heritage and tries to treat them as honorably as he can. He searches for answers in Scripture:
Nowhere in his Bible had he ever been able to find a clear condemnation of slavery. There were injunctions of kindness to slaves, mercy and tolerance. Remember them in bonds as bound with them. Yes, but nowhere did his Bible say that there should be no one in bonds, no one at all. — And Henry had often asked himself, were we not all in bonds? If Lizzie, the cook, was in bonds to Sapphira, was she not almost equally in bonds to Lizzie?
Sapphira’s attitude toward Nancy is hard to understand or forgive, and yet even she cannot be seen as wholly evil, but as one who has not managed to escape the limitations of her upbringing and culture. At the end, though, she does break through to an act of reconciliation that suggests change is possible. If we are all in bonds, Cather suggests, we are all working our own way to freedom. Wrong as it is to think that we can “own” another human being, it is equally wrong to imagine that this outer form of slavery is the only kind. Is our task perhaps to transform our bonds of intolerance and distrust into bonds of love?
The language of the book will be somewhat startling to a modern reader, as it freely uses terms that have become derogatory when applied to black people — not only in the mouths of the characters, which makes sense for historical accuracy, but also in the narration, which does not seem so necessary. Certain remarks are also made that apply stereotypical judgments to people of color, and it’s not clear whether these embody the prejudices of the author or only of her characters. Certainly, they are mild in comparison to the opinions held by most people during the time of the novel’s setting and even during the time of its writing, yet they still strike a discordant note that I regretted.
In spite of this, once again Cather has impressed me with her rich portrayal of character and setting, and her thought-provoking approach to questions of the heart and spirit. Sapphira and the Slave Girl is perhaps not the strongest of her works, but it is still a rewarding read. Thanks to Heavenali and the Willa Cather Reading Week for inspiring me to pick it up.