Sapphira and the Slave Girl

Sapphira and the Slave Girl

First edition
Author Willa Cather
Country United States
Language English
Genre historical fiction
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf (New York)
Publication date
7 Dec 1940
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 295

Sapphira and the Slave Girl is Willa Cather's last novel, published in 1940.[1] It is the story of Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert, a bitter but privileged white woman, who becomes irrationally jealous of Nancy, a beautiful young slave. The book balances an atmospheric portrait of antebellum Virginia against an unblinking view of the lives of Sapphira's slaves.

Plot summary

Except for the epilogue, the book takes place entirely in 1856.

Sapphira is an unhappy middle-aged woman, crippled by dropsy, who came to marriage late and married beneath her station. Her husband, Henry, a miller, lives an entirely separate life, residing at his mill and visiting the estate house only for occasional meals. Sapphira is comfortable with slavery; Henry is not.

Having overheard a conversation between two of her slaves, Sapphira develops a paranoid fear that Henry is having an affair with an attractive young mulatto girl named Nancy. Sapphira responds by mistreating Nancy. Eventually Sapphira invites a dissolute nephew to the estate, who threatens to rape Nancy on several occasions.

With the help of the Colbert's daughter, Rachel Colbert Blake, and two abolitionist neighbors, Nancy is helped to make connections with the Underground Railroad and taken to Canada.

The epilogue takes place 25 years later. Nancy, now in her 40s, returns to Virginia to visit her mother, and Mrs. Blake. The narrator (Cather)[2] is revealed to be a child who has heard stories of Nancy's escape all of her life.


Allusions to other works

The Baptist church scene in Book II contains a long reference to William Billings' hymn, "There is a Land of Pure Delight".


  1. NYU School of Medicine, Literature Annotations, Jack Coulehan, 12 Jul 2006,
  2. plot summary,
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