Friday, February 12, 2010

Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

In a previous post (see The Danish Girl), the captivity narrative was cited as one example of the American story of redemption. Mary Rowlandson's bestselling personal narrative of this popular genre could also be studied as a spiritual autobiography. The wife of a minister, Mary Rowlandson and three of her children, were captured by Narragansett Indians on February 10, 1676, during King Philip's War. The youngest child, six-year-old Sarah, died within a week. Separated from her other two children, Rowlandson was finally ransomed on May 2, 1676; several weeks later Joseph, 14, and Mary, 10, were also released.

In her account, Rowalandson attributes her captivity to punishment from God for such sins as smoking and to a test of her faith. She holds fast to her Bible (which one of the Narragansetts had restored to her) and sprinkles her account liberally throughout with scriptural quotations. The narrative takes her from captivity, through suffering (especially the death of her child), remorse, faithfulness, and finally restoration to freedom, which she interprets as proof of God's forgiveness and blessing.

During her nearly three months of captivity, she complains bitterly of the food she is given to eat and other physical conditions of her ordeal. Every event is interpreted through a Biblical lens and the doctrine of Providence, that is, God controls history and all events are the result of His will. Though He puts His faithful to the test, ultimately He rewards His followers and punishes ungodly heathens. With this world view, she has a tough time explaining why the "heathens" manage to escape their English pursuers time after time. And when the "heathens" behave kindly toward her, it is not because of their own inherent capacity for goodness but because God was protecting her and made them do it. It is never quite clear why God gets the credit for their good behavior, but their bad behavior is their own fault, the result of their "heathenism."

The captivity narrative is a uniquely American genre and enjoyed considerable popularity both in North American and in Europe into the nineteenth century. It became secularized in such frontier novels as The Last of the Mohicans and other Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper, not to mention Hope Leslie by Catharine Maria Sedgwick. Though Cooper and Sedgwick reinforced many negative stereotypes of native people, they were much more sympathetic than Rowlandson. The ultimate irony though was the use of the genre by African American authors of the slave narrative (see previous post on Frederick Douglass), in which white Christians like Mary Rowlandson replace the ungodly "heathens" as the cruel captors.

Mary Rowlandson can be viewed as a heroic, Christian survivor of a horrific captivity during a brutal war, or as an ethnocentric white, Christian supremecist during early colonial America, or both. Her narrative helped raise the profile of white women in an oppressively patriarchal culture AND it helped reinforce Eurocentric oppression of native people--one example of many in the long history of American contradictions.