When I was constructing my “Introduction to Modernism” course this semester, I decided to use Ernest J. Gaines’ work as the focal point, moving outwards from his work back into the past and towards he present, not limiting modernist thought to one particular temporal period. I did this, mainly, because Gaines, time and time again, has spoken about the influence of Modernists and Russian realists on his work. He has talked about entering the library in Vallejo, CA, in the 1940’s and finding works that focus on peasant life. He found works by Ivan Turgenev, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Willa Cather. Because of this, I added Cather’s final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), to my syllabus.

Cather’s final novel is problematic, for a myriad of reasons, and I want to look at one of those specific reasons today. Toni Morrison, in Playing in the Dark, argues that Sapphira and the Slave Girl is a novel that exists as its own fugitive, trying to escape itself. For a narrative that focuses on a enslaved girl, Nancy, and her escape from bondage, it does not provide any voice or agency really to any of the enslaved characters. Even the relationship between Nancy and her mother Till takes a backseat to the medical and psychological conditions of Sapphira, the mistress in the novel.

The novel focuses on Sapphira and Nancy. Sapphira has become an invalid, basically, relying on others to even help her get around. As such, she lives vicariously through those she enslaves. She becomes jealous of Nancy because she thinks that her husband wants to sleep with her, so Sapphira has her nephew come to the plantation in hopes that he will rape Nancy, thus causing Henry to reject her. Rachel, Sapphira and Henry’s daughter, helps Nancy escape, with the reluctant help of Henry, and the novel concludes some twenty five years after this fact with the final chapter.

The second chapter in “Nancy’s Return,”unlike the rest of the novel, is in first person, seemingly from Cather’s point of view. Even though we do not know who the narrator of this section is, we do know that she is a young child, and she is excited about Nancy coming home because she has heard so much about her. Till, Nancy’s mother, waits with the young narrator in a second floor room as they look out the windows for any sign of Nancy.

“Serviceable to the last, this Africanist presence is permitted speech only to reinforce the slaveholder’s ideology, in spite of the fact that it subverts the entire premise of the novel. Till’s voluntary genuflection is as ecstatic as it is suspicious.” -Toni Morrison

Sitting in the room, the narrator describes Till in a stereotypical manner: “Aunt Till was sitting beside [Mrs. Blake]; a spare, neat little old darky, bent at the shoulders but still holding herself straight from the hips.” Here, Till becomes the mammy figure through the use of “Aunt” and the words that the narrator uses to describe her. When those gathered in he room see the stage, the narrator’s mother grabs her, and the father, mother, and child stand a the window looking out. Behind them are Mrs. Blake and Till.

Being Nancy’s mother, Till should be the one racing down the stairs to meet the coach. However, that does not occur. Instead, she remains with the narrator on the second floor while the narrator’s mother goes to meet Nancy. The narrator states,

The actual scene of the meeting had been arranged for my benefit. When I cried because I was not allowed to go downstairs and see Nancy enter the house, Aunt Till had said: “Never mind, honey. You stay right here, and I’ll stay right here. Nacy’ll come up, and you’ll see her as soon as I do.”

Instead of hurrying to greet her daughter, whom she has been separated from for twenty-five years, Till chooses to stay and comfort the narrator, placing the white child’s feelings above her own. Along with this, the narrator claims, “The actual scene of the meeting had been arranged for my benefit.” This statement erases Till’s desires to see her daughter, negating her humanity and maternal instinct in favor of the narrator’s pleasure.

When Nancy and Till do see each other, they sit down and talk while the narrator’s listens to their conversation. The narrator, as Morrison points out, “accompanies the black mother and daughter into their narrative, listening to their dialogue but intervening in it at every turn.” In this manner, the stories that the mother and daughter tell do not become theirs; they become the narrator’s. Thus, the narrator usurps the reunion, intruding upon the space that should be reserved for Nancy and Till.

Cather’s novel sees her struggling with how to approach the historical institution of slavery and race. The novel, in some ways, reads like a slave narrative, specifically with a cruel mistress and Nancy’s escape. However, it falls short in challenging constructions of race because it continually falls back into stereotypical imagery and denies readers any engagement with the Black characters beyond the two dimensional images that the characters become. Ann Romines’ “Losing and Finding ‘Race’: Old Jezebel’s African Story,” argues that Cather achieves more that Morrison gives her credit for, specifically in relating Old Jezebel’s story. However, I would argue that even here Cather falls short because she refers to Jezebel as a “monkey” and deploys other stereotypical language.

Till gets the last words in the novel, but even then she does not do anything to condemn the institution or people that separated her from her own daughter for twenty-five years. Till says,

“She oughtn’t never to a’ come out here,” Till often said to me. “She wasn’t raised that way. Mrs. Matchem, down at the old place, never got over it that Miss Sapphy didn’t buy in Chestnut Hill an’ live like a lady, ‘stead a’ leavin’ it to run down under the Bushwells, an’ herself comin’ out here where nobody was anybody much.”

The novel concludes with Till’s recollections not on her own situation but on Sapphira’s move from town to a rural environment. She comments on how her former owner, Mrs. Matchem, “never got over it that Miss Sappy” left, not buying in Chestnut Hill. Earlier in the novel, we learn that “Back Creek had never been home to Till” because she wanted to live among civilized folks, “not among poor farmers and backwoods people.” She relished the “finer accomplishments she had learned from Mrs. Matchem” and felt that moving to Back Creek meant she had become something less.

Till’s concluding comments are very problematic because she plays into the stereotype of the contented slave who did not find any problem with the slave system and his or her position within it. She becomes a caricature, not a believable character. Her relationship with Nancy seems nonexistent, and she takes forever to even ask about Nancy’s safety after her daughter escapes.

Commenting on these lines, Morrison notes, “Serviceable to the last, this Africanist presence is permitted speech only to reinforce the slaveholder’s ideology, in spite of the fact that it subverts the entire premise of the novel. Till’s voluntary genuflection is as ecstatic as it is suspicious.” With all of this in mind, why even assign Cather’s novel? What purpose does it serve? For me, it serves as a way to further highlight the importance of narrative and voice. It serves as a way to show what Gaines and other authors did to respond to texts such as Sapphira and the Slave Girl and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.  

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1 Comment on “The Problematic Nature of Willa Cather’s Final Novel

  1. Pingback: Book note: Sapphira and the Slave Girl | Phil Ebersole's Blog

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