Sapphira and the Slave Girl Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1940

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: 1856 to c. 1881

Locale: Southwestern Virginia

Characters DiscussedSapphira Colbert

Sapphira Sapphira and the Slave GirlColbert, 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 that Nancy is in grave danger, Henry does little to dissuade Martin. Not until Rachel forces the issue and asks for money does he actually take any stand; then his help is only a feeble gesture. Although he agrees to leave the money in an overcoat, he refuses to have anything more to do with the situation. His guilt at betraying his wife is his greatest concern.


Nancy, a mulatto slave owned by the Colberts. Good manners and pleasing ways instilled by her mother once garnered her much favor with Sapphira. Nancy’s honest affection for Henry, which he returns, and her eagerness to please him raise Sapphira’s suspicions, which are confirmed in her mind when Henry refuses to allow her to sell Nancy. Sapphira’s mistreatment of Nancy and Martin’s lecherous and relentless pursuit make Nancy’s position in the household precarious. With Rachel’s help, Nancy flees for Canada with the assistance of the Underground Railroad. She returns twenty-five years later as a handsome, successful, and free woman.

Rachel Blake

Rachel Blake, the daughter of the Colberts and an abolitionist. Her views against slavery, formed at an early age, serve to make her reserved and introverted in the wake of her mother’s ownership of slaves. At the age of sixteen, she marries Michael Blake, whose election to Congress rescues her from her family and life in Back Creek. The happiest time of her life is spent in Washington making a home for her husband. The deaths of Michael and their son Robert leave her with little money and force her to move back to Virginia. Taking up a new life in Back Creek, she provides what healing and support she can for the poor people of the area. Her opposition to slavery comes to a head with Martin Colbert’s attempted seduction of Nancy. When Nancy appeals for her assistance, Rachel helps Nancy flee to Canada, thus incurring her mother’s wrath. Rachel is secure with the righteousness of her conviction and her subsequent action to save Nancy.

Martin Colbert

Martin Colbert, Henry’s nephew, a miscreant seeking to hide from his creditors. He accepts Sapphira’s invitation for a long visit. His air of impudence and insolence amuses Sapphira and livens up the Colbert household but leaves his uncle speechless. Nancy’s fresh prettiness catches his eye, and he unknowingly falls into Sapphira’s plan to ruin Nancy. His lecherous attempts to compromise her catch the eye of Sampson, another slave, who appeals to Henry for help. Although he helps Nancy to leave, the master does nothing to discourage Martin. Twenty-five years later, at Nancy’s return, it is revealed that Martin was killed in the army during the Civil War.

BibliographyBloom, 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 chronology and a bibliography. A must for serious Cather scholars.Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Although there are many full-length studies on Cather’s writing, this volume is particularly noteworthy for its examination of Cather using current feminist thinking. Fryer explores Cather’s fiction in terms of the “interconnectedness between space and the female imagination” and cites her as a transformer of social and cultural structures. A thorough and interesting study, recommended for its contribution to women’s studies in literature. Includes extensive notes.Gerber, Philip. Willa Cather: Revised Edition. New York: Twayne, 1995. Incorporates discussion of new materials and criticism that have appeared since 1975 edition. Rather than calling Cather a “disconnected” writer, as have some critics, Gerber takes the view in this study that there is unity in her writing. Gerber demonstrates the development of her artistry from one novel to the next. Includes a chronology and a selected bibliography.Meyering, Sheryl. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Willa Cather. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Chapters on each short story, discussing publication history, the circumstances of composition, biographical details, significant literary and cultural sources, connections to Cather’s novels, and an overview of how each story has been interpreted.Murphy, John. Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. A compilation of criticism on Cather’s work, including general essays from a variety of contributors as well as reviews and literary criticism of specific titles. The introduction emphasizes her creativity, and the volume concludes with reviews of her last four books. Most useful for its breadth of criticism on Cather. Contains a selected bibliography.Shaw, Patrick W. Willa Cather and the Art of Conflict: Re-visioning Her Creative Imagination. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1992. Separate chapters on all of Cather’s major novels. Reexamines Cather’s fiction in terms of her conflicts over her lesbian sexuality. The introduction provides a helpful overview of Cather criticism on the topic.
Categories: Characters