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The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson is arguably the most famous captivity account of the English-Indian era. Rowlandson’s vivid and graphic description of her eleven week captivity by the Indians has given rise to one of the finest literary genres of all times. Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson gives a first person perspective into the conditions of captivity, an insight to Rowlandson’s views of the Indians, both before and after her captivity and a Puritan’s view of religion. Rowlandson displays a change in her perception of “civilized” and “savage”, despite the fact that her overall world view does not change.
In Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Mary Rowlandson, a housewife and a mother of 3 from Lancaster, Massachusetts recounts the invasion of her town of Lancaster by Indians in 1676 during King Philip’s War. Over those weeks, Ronaldson deals with the death of her youngest child in her arms, the loss of her family and friends and her terrible living conditions all the while she struggle to keep her faith in God. She also learns how to cope with the Indians amongst whom she lives, which causes her attitude towards them to undergo several changes. Rowlandson is at first shocked at the lifestyle and actions of Indians, but time suppresses her dependence on them. By the end of her captivity, her admiration for the Indian ability to survive in the wilderness with limited resources significantly increases. Despite her growing admiration of the Indian daily life, her attitude towards them always maintains a view that they are the “enemy”. Furthermore, Rowlandson’s experiences in captivity and encounter with the new, or “Other” religion of the Indians causes her rethink, and question her past; her experiences do not however cause her to redirect her life or change her ideals in any way.
Throughout the narrative, Rowlandson exhibits a violent collision between “civilized” and “savage” in her frame of mind. In the opening of her narrative, she states that “It is a solemn night to see so many Christians lying in their blood, some here, and some there, like a company of sheep torn by wolves” (Rowlandson 8). At first sight, this text may seem to be a ghastly depiction of the sight at Lancaster on the night of February 10th, 1676, but a deeper analysis might show otherwise. Rowlandson used the idea of the bible the depicts Jesus as a shepherd, and his followers as an innocent flock of sheep to draw a parallel between the Puritans to be innocent and civilized and the Indians being wild and “savage” animals.
Food plays an important role as its constant scarcity in the narrative and gives us a glimpse of how it changes Rowlandson’s views of savages and civilized. “The first week of my being among them, I hardly eat anything; the second week, I found my stomach grow very faint for want of something; and yet it was very hard to get down their filthy trash; but the third week, though I could think how formerly my stomach would turn against this or that, and I could starve and die before I could eat such things, yet they were sweet and savory to my taste” (Rowlandson 24). In this passage we can see how her views about the food she previously describes as “filthy trash” is now appealing to her. Physically, three weeks of minimum food and exhausting travel have taken a toll on Rowlandson, and her need for food is strong enough to overcome any disgust she previously felt about eating the Indians’ food. On a mental level, this proves Rowlandson’s growing distance to civilized behavior and blending in with that of her captors.
The function of religion plays a significant role in the narrative, especially the dissimilarities between the narrator’s religious beliefs and the “Other” religion of her captors. Rowlandson constantly draws parallel between the stories of the bible and her own experiences. More specifically the Puritan ideology of the narrator reveals the differences between religions and cultures in this narrative. We have learned that although the Puritans fled to America for religious freedom, they brutalized those not of their religion and customs. After taken into captivity by the American Indians, or “ravenous bears” (Rowlandson 9) as Rowlandson describes them, she conveys her strong Puritan values, by criticizing and demeaning the Indian’s religion, or as illustrated by Rowlandson, their complete lack of values, morals and religious conviction. Rowlandson portrays the Indians as a horrific species; however what Rowlandson considers evil and frightening, may be the ideals of other human beings. For instance Rowlandson, in her first encounter with the Indians, is quick to remark, “Oh the roaring, and singing, and dancing, and yelling of those black creature in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell” (Rowlandson 10). It is obvious from this statement that Rowlandson, because of her strong principles, immediately judges those different from herself. This shows the narrators ignorance as well as her ideology. While Puritanism is a model or code of life for Rowlandson and other Puritans, it forces a strict way of life and belief system which can lead to ignorance in both behavior and attitude. The terms and images Rowlandson uses signify black, hellish, devilish peoples who have no sense of civility. Furthermore the Indians, or “Others”, who are not Christian, and practice their own spiritual customs, are viewed as barbaric and abnormal to Rowlandson.
Upholding the Puritan belief of Precedence, or God’s hand in all aspects of life, Rowlandson constantly writes about God’s will in her suffering. Rowlandson’s interaction with the “Other” and her Puritan principles reveal a larger importance to the narrator. Rowlandson feels that her captivity is directly related to God’s will, and therefore believes that God is punishing her for sins she committed in her past. As a result she is determined to repent her sins to God, and devotes much of her time reading the bible (which she received from an Indian as a spoil of war), reciting scripture, and while she learns to adapt to her difficult situation, she is careful to maintain her ideals and integrity throughout the time she is detained. For example on the first Sabbath during Rowlandson’s confinement she remarks, “I then remembered how careless I had been of Gods holy time: how many Sabbaths I had lost and misspent, and how evilly I had walked in Gods sight; which lay so close upon my Spirit, that it was easy for me to see how righteous it was with God to cut off the thread of my life, and cast me out if his presence forever” (Rowlandson 14). It is clear from this statement that the narrator attaches her encounter with the Indians, or the “Other” as a reprimand from God, and a sign that she had been sinful in the past. Had she not encountered the Indians, she may not have ever questioned her devotedness to God or her previous ways of life, like for example the way she spent her Sabbaths before captivity.
It is clear that Mary Rowlandson’s encounter with the “Other” causes her to doubt her past, specifically her devotion to God. At the end of the narrative Rowlandson confirms this claim with the remark:
“When I lived in prosperity; having the comforts of this World about me, my Relations by me, and my heart cheerful: and taking little care for anything; and yet seeing many (whom I preferred before myself) under many trials and afflictions, in sickness, weakness, poverty, losses, crosses, and cares of the Worlds, I should be sometimes jealous least I should have my portion in this life but now I see the Lord had his time to scourge and chasten me” (Rowlandson 78).
The evidence from the narrative in many ways could characterize this work as a text in which the narrator (Mary Rowlandson) realizes her mistakes in the past and redirects her life accordingly. This is not true in the case of Rowlandson, to be more specific her experiences and interaction with the Indians do not challenge her Puritan ideologies, but rather confirms and strengthens them. When the narrator returns to her former lifestyle she in no way demonstrates any new knowledge from her experience, but rather returns home with the same degree of ignorance that she had before her captivity. Rowlandson also contradicts herself in the narrative by admitting that the Indians did not harm her and then calling them “cruel heathens” a moment later (Rowlandson 72). For example she states “not one of them ever offered the least abuse of unchastity to me, in word or action” (Rowlandson 71). After gaining her liberty however, Rowlandson proves she has not altered her ideals or frame of mind in regards to the Indians by stating, “I was not before so much hemmed in with the merciless and cruel Heathen, but now as much with pitiful, tenderhearted, and compassionate Christians. In the poor and distressed and beggarly condition I was received in” (Rowlandson 72). Rowlandson supports with this statement that although she challenges the way she conducted her life in the past, she obviously does not feel the need to reconcile anything. Another interesting point about Rowlandson’s statement is that she refers to her friends, family members, acquaintances etc. as “Christians,” rather than an alternative noun, which further proves her strict Puritan ideals have not been altered.
A similar instance of Rowlandson’s continued ignorance even after her encounter with the “Other” is when she reflects how God preserved the enemy, or rather the Indians, in the wilderness throughout the time she was with them. The narrator remarks, “I cannot but stand in admiration to see the wonderful power of God, in providing for such a vast number of our enemies in the Wilderness, where there was nothing to be seen, but from hand to mouth” (Rowlandson 68). Rowlandson is in awe that God would let the Indians survive in the wilderness which shows her prejudice because it infers that non-Puritans should not be able to live and prosper solely on the basis of their religion. This is yet another example of Rowlandson’s unchanged opinion of the “Other” (American Indians).
It is clear that the Puritan religion plays a significant role in this narrative. Mary Rowlandson throughout the narrative conveys to the reader her strong religious beliefs and ideals. When encountered with the challenges and difficulties of captivity, Rowlandson questions her past, and believes that God is punishing her. Throughout the narrative the narrator is constantly judging the “Other,” or the Indians, painting a ghastly image of their ways and customs to the reader. Her viciousness towards the “Other” is due to her strong ideologies which cause her to be ignorant and prejudice to people different from her. Although Rowlandson questions her past, she does not then redirect her life after captivity, but rather goes back to the same way of life and same frame of mind as before.
Rowlandson’s mistrust of the “Praying Indians” is evident from every line directed towards them in the narrative. “There was another Praying Indian, who told me, that he had a brother that would not eat horse; his conscience was so tender and scrupulous (though as large as hell, for the destruction of poor Christians)” (Rowlandson 56). This passage shows how Rowlandson makes a clear distinction between the Christians and Indians, even though the praying Indians were Christians too, similar to how she portrayed English Christians as sheep and Indians as wolves. Despite the fact that Rowlandson portrayed somewhat racist views over the “praying Indians”, they were a product of her time and cannot be marked different from other Puritans. As King Phillip’s War broke out, some praying Indians joined their native tribes to redeem the unfair treatment they were subjected to, an act that caused the Puritans to view all Indians in the light of doubt. Rowlandson’s views can be justified within historical and situational context; although not deemed right. Rowlandson’s euro-centric view of the world also comes into play here when to her the word Christian applied to only a certain race and nationality and Christian and English are practically one and the same.
This narrative, as reflected upon through modern eyes, shows how difficult it is to alter a person’s ideals, especially if they are raised a strict Puritan during the 1600s. If Rowlandson had returned to her Puritan community a different person, then she would have been chastised by society, and most likely not welcomed back. The goal in writing this narrative therefore was not to show readers how her experiences changed her life, but rather the opposite. Rowlandson’s aim in writing this novel was to confirm her faith to her readers, and prove to the Puritan society that religion came first even throughout the difficulties she endured during captivity. It is for this specific reason that Rowlandson paints such a horrifying picture of the Indians in the narrative, and is constantly referring to God throughout the entire text. If she had shown any sympathy towards the Indian’s and their religious beliefs, then she probably would have been ridiculed by her peers. To conclude, in the context of present day times this narrative, through Rowlandson’s own words, demonstrates that religious ideologies can be incredibly steadfast, hypocritical, and prejudice. Mary Rowlandson is proof of how binding and influential the Puritan lifestyle was during the time period. Mary Rowlandson, did not change her views of Native Americans, although her definitions of savage and civilized change, her opinions about the Indians after her release were unchanged, rather solidified. She still portrayed mistrust towards the praying Indians.
Rowlandson, Mary White. The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Sandwich, MA: Chapman Billies, 1998. Print.
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