I’ve opined before that Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl isn’t actually about either of its title characters, especially the latter. To test this theory, and because I like shiny objects, I recently made Wordle images of each of the novel’s nine sections (“books”), as well as a Wordle of the novel as a whole.
Here’s Book 1:
In Book 1, “Sapphira and Her Household,” Cather introduces most of the main characters. We learn that Sapphira and Henry Colbert own a pretty nice place in Back Creek, West Virginia (then Back Creek, Virginia) known as the “Mill House,” that Sapphira is the one who brought the slaves into the household, and that Sapphira married beneath her even though she never overtly tries to rub this in Henry’s face. We also meet the Colberts’ daughter, Rachel “Mrs.” Blake.
Briefly, Cather also provides some glimpse of the novel’s central conflict, in an early-morning breakfast conversation between Sapphira and Henry in which Sapphira wants to sell Nancy to the neighbors and Henry does not. Even though Sapphira is the original owner of the slaves and the only one whose commands they all actually obey, she can’t sell her own property without her husband’s consent. (1857 was awesome in so many ways. /sarcasm)
There’s a long history of the Mill Farm, and then Sapphira mails a letter.
The highest points in the Wordle cloud are pretty logical: every white woman in the book is a “Mrs.” something, and since most of the first book is about the Mill Farm and its owners, “Colbert” comes up nearly as much as “Mrs.” (especially since the narrator refers to Sapphira almost exclusively as “Mrs. Colbert”). Nancy, Henry (Colbert) and Till, Sapphira’s lady’s maid and Nancy’s mother, stand out as the most oft-named characters; “Sapphira” is some distance behind them. Structurally, the first book is most definitely about Sapphira; Wordle-y, it’s not.
The prominent adjectives are, in some ways, more interesting than the proper nouns. Wordle likes “mill,” “never,” “old,” “back,” “like,” “came,” and “good.” Nearly all of these are tied up in the narrative in Sapphira’s move from her well-off childhood to backwater Back Creek and her marrying down. “Mill” and “back” tend to refer primarily to location (the Mill House, Back Creek), while “old” invariably describes things and people from Sapphira’s life pre-Back Creek – especially the older slaves.
“Good” tends to refer more often to objects than to people; even when various slave characters are described as “good,” it’s usually in the context of what they are good for relative to the white Colberts, not in the sense of being virtuous individuals in their own rights. In fact, even Nancy, whose “purity” becomes a source of serious obsession later in the book, isn’t portrayed as being “pure” or “innocent” because she’s made a conscious choice to comport herself that way, but because she’s just plain too ignorant and skittish to be anything else.
From the start, the black characters in this novel aren’t meant to be people; they’re meant to be structural objects, things the white protagonists (and, as we learn in Book 9, narrator) work out their own neuroses and conflicts on, through, or against. Toni Morrison points this out in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, in her discussion of the “Africanist presence” through which white writers like Cather and others work out their own issues via African-American characters.
Ironically, while “good” is among the most prominent adjectives, “right” is among the least. Certainly there’s very little sense of anyone getting their “rights,” whether realistic or normative, in this book. In fact, the book in a way reads like one giant profound injustice. (But if nothing in it offended our sense of justice, it wouldn’t be much of a novel.)