Use of Biblical Imagery in Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl

Use of Biblical Imagery in Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl

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Use of Biblical Imagery in Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl

Throughout "Sapphira and the Slave Girl", Cather uses Biblical imagery to depict critical events. Specifically, Nancy's flight to freedom, and Mary's overcoming a potentially fatal illness. Cather continually uses Biblical imagery when describing Nancy's journey out of slavery and into freedom. For example, Mr. Colbert sees Nancy as going "up out of Egypt to a better land", clearly connecting her with flight of Hebrew slaves out of Egypt in the Bible. Connecting Nancy's escape to the Biblical pilgrimage of Moses to the "promised land" serves to reinforce the underlying righteousness of her actions-- as well as the inherent evil of slavery.

In depicting her actual journey, the reader once again encounters Biblical allusions. This occurs in Cather's description of the black preacher who will protect Nancy on her way to Canada. Cather portrays this man almost as a disciple, his voice being described as "solemn yet comforting" sounding "like the voice of prophecy" (239). Ascribing such a sage-like persona to this man solidifies the righteousness of both Nancy's, and Mrs. Blake's, efforts to defy slavery's bonds.

Mary's "communion" strikes me as another important event whereby Cather uses Biblical imagery. In this particular incident-- which invariably saves Mary's life-- she "walking in her sleep" drinks the bowl of broth intended for Mr. Fairhead (259). Cather depicts Mary as preternatual, being "a white figure" which "drifted"--rather than walked-- "across the indoor duskiness of the room" (259). Mary, seemingly in an altered state, in guided by what one can interpret as instinct, or "divine forces", which lead her to the soup. Similar to the black preacher's voice, Mr. Fairhead sees Mary's actions as "something solemn. . . like a communion service" (259). From a Catholic perspective, the purpose of communion is receiving the "body" and "blood" of Christ, thereby receiving "new life". One can see, in this instance, why Cather would deliberately paint this scene in Biblical terms, because Mary-- wuote literally-- receives a new chance at life from the soup she drinks.

Similar to Nancy's flight from slavery, Mary's drinking of the soup is an instance of an individual defying detrimental societal conventions. While taken as correct, the remedy for Mary and Betty's illness is not only wrong, but fatal. Cather thereby uses Biblical imagery to reinforce the righteousness of Mary's actions, even though they go against what society--specifically medicine-- sees as the "correct" course of treatment.

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The Bibical imagery employed by Cather serves to highlight societal practices which are inherently wrong or harmful to individuals. Many people during that time would view Nancy's escape as an atrocity, and yet slavery in and of itself is wrong. Cather here uses Biblical imagery to underscore Nancy's righteousness in seeking freedom. Like Nancy's freedom, Mary's defiance of medicine's treatment--depicted via Biblical imagery-- serves to illustrate the falsity of societal beliefs taken as correct and accurate.

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