In my last post, I pointed out that Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Willa Cather’s last (and most uniformly labeled a failure) novel, is aptly titled in that this really, really, is not the “slave girl’s” story at all. Or, as Toni Morrison puts it in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination”:
Sapphira’s plotting, like Cather’s plot, is without reference to the characters and exists solely for the ego-gratification of the slave mistress.
Morrison’s focus is on the “Africanist” presence in the novel, as part of her larger analysis on how white authors use black characters in American literature. I think she’s on to something. Specifically, I think she’s on to something she never actually gets into: that if this book makes anydamnsense whatsoever, it is only through Sapphira’s eyes (or ego).
More specifically: while Sapphira’s driving need to “other” the crap out of Nancy is patently obvious from the racial angle, it also arises from the sex/gender angle and the (dis)ability angle. In fact, this isn’t a book that makes any sense unless one considers all three of those things.
Consider: Sapphira is a white slaveowner; Nancy is one of her many black slaves. Yet in the book’s very first chapter, we learn that despite the fact that Sapphira is the unquestioned “Mistress” of the Mill House, she can’t even dispose of her own property – by which I mean “sell Nancy” – without her husband’s consent. Which he won’t give.
Sapphira literally runs the place, literally is the sole source of all the “fine things” to be had there including the servants (we learn that Henry Colbert was actually pretty poor when he met her), yet she can’t do what she likes with any of them. On account of being a woman. In 1857 or thereabouts.
Well, damn. What the hell good *is* being the white slaveowner, then?
But it gets worse (for Sapphira). Only a few paragraphs after we learn that Unquestioned-Lady-and-Mistress Sapphira is helpless in business matters without her husband’s John Hancock, we learn that she’s also disabled: she has dropsy (edema) and cannot walk. She goes everywhere on a dining chair set on casters, which is maneuvered around by – you’ve probably already seen this coming – one or another of her slaves.
So. Sapphira’s sex is a disability. Her disability is a disability. And her slaves – who are black and therefore supposed to be utterly inferior, animalistic objects in comparison to her whiteness – are her sole means of physical movement in the world. She literally relies on them to be her legs, if not other parts of her body.
Suddenly, Sapphira’s ego-maniacal need to “other” the crap out of Nancy makes sense. So too does her need to do this primarily by applying rape-culture narratives to objectify and victim-blame Nancy. In Sapphira’s mind, after all, Nancy is being the one body part Sapphira doesn’t want anyone standing in for her with; Sapphira is convinced Nancy is sleeping with Henry Colbert.
And Sapphira’s decision to bring in her “rake” (read: rapist) nephew Martin to “sort out” Nancy makes sense too, in an “I’ll show you what it’s like to not actually have control of your own body” sort of way. Certainly in a “hey, ain’t it great to be a woman?” lolsob sort of way. Rape culture, after all, exists to deprive rape victims – overwhelmingly, women – of their agency.
Here’s an Idea: Nancy’s response to the constant need to avoid Martin is to have an emotional breakdown – fair – but specifically to announce her intent to drown herself in the millpond. Drowning, when it doesn’t result in death, frequently results in partial or total paralysis – a genuine loss of bodily control. Thoughts?