The Power Of Puritan Providential Afflictions English Literature Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

"God seemed to leave his People to themselves, and order all things for His own holy ends. Shall there be evil in the City and the Lord hath not done it? They are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph, therefore shall they go captive, with the first that go captive. It is the Lord's doing, and it should be marvelous in our eyes" (Rowlandson 66-67)

Mary Rowlandson's A True History of the Captivity and Restoration offers the story of an English woman held captive by Native Americans in New England around 1675. As member of the Puritan community, Rowlandson saw the captivity among the Indians as the translation of the plight of all the "backslidden" people of New England. The Lord had shown her the "extreme vanity of this world" (78) and had thrown her upon the Puritan ideology that she could do nothing to save herself; she could only surrender to the will of God. In her efforts to survive the captivity, Rowlandson frequently struggled with her growing sense of individualism and self-reliant judgments against her Puritan self-identity. To overcome these clashes between her psychological and the Puritan interpretation of her captivity and stay consistent towards her Puritan beliefs, Rowlandson's narrative makes use of first-person narration as well as passages from the Bible to reflect upon her situation. Her story therefore contains a very clear split between a participant and a commentator voice. The colloquial style of narration defines Rowlandson's role as participant in the story, while the rhetorical narration - the use of biblical passages - identifies her as interpreter and commentator. The duality in the narrative arises not only from this contrast between observer and participant, but as well as from a clash of codes between Rowlandson's psychological and Puritan interpretations of her captivity. I argue that Rowlandson suffered from a psychological trauma during her captivity - similar to what we nowadays would call the "survivor syndrome" - but that she tried to minimize the symptoms to conform to the Puritan doctrine of providential affliction.

In order to understand both the psychological and the Puritan commentary in the narrative, I will first discuss a few facts about Rowlandson's captivity. The Native attack that led to her captivity was unexpected and vicious: Rowlandson writes that of the thirty-seven people in her house, only one person escaped either death or capture. Twelve persons died, including Rowlandson's eldest sister and her nephew, whose violent deaths she witnessed. Rowlandson herself and her six-year-old daughter, Sarah, were wounded, and Rowlandson was separated from her two other children, William and Mary. Sarah died after nine days and the Natives buried her in the wilderness. Emotionally and physically weakened, Rowlandson suffered twenty forced "removes" in the middle of the winter. As a prisoner, she was the victim of unwarranted aggression when, for example, a squaw threw hot ashes in her eyes and Weetamoo beat her with a cudgel. Because Rowlandson was the wife of a minister, she was more valuable to the Natives than many other prisoners as she could be sold for a large ransom. She therefore observed more physical abuse of other prisoners than that she experienced herself. Next to the physical hardship, she was set on an unfamiliar and irregular diet, including horse feet and liver, ground-nuts, entrails, and bear meat, which Rowlandson calls "filthy trash". (44) Despite her faith and her access to a Bible, Rowlandson comes close to total desolation and even suicide. Recalling her state of mind after Sarah's death, Rowlandson writes:

"I have thought since of the wonderful goodness of God to me in preserving me in the use of my reason and senses in that distressed time that I did not use wicked and violent means to end my own miserable life" (39)

From these few facts, it is clear Rowlandson underwent a deeply traumatic experience that wrought deep changes in her character. She starts to become alienated from her family and the Puritan ideals. The changes determine her religious and psychological interpretations in the narrative.

Rowlandson acknowledges that before her captivity, she had been negligent about her religious development. In the third remove, for example, she admits:

"I then remembered how careless I had been of God's holy time, how many Sabbaths I had lost and misspent and how evilly I had walked in God's sight, which lay so close unto my spirit that it was easy for me to see how righteous it was with God to cut the thread of my life and cast me out of His presence forever" (38)

Most of the biblical passages together with her religious commentary are therefore concerned with the significance of her captivity as the will of God. She has structured her captivity as a spiritual autobiography and thereby memorializes God's providence for herself. She also might have done because as a Puritan writer she has the responsibility of turning personal experience into public ideology. One of the ways she stresses the significance of her captivity is to refer to the Old Testament characters of Joseph, Samson, and Daniel and thereby identifies her story with the stories of captivity in the Bible.

Counteracting the religious commentary in Rowlandson's work however, is the psychological commentary of herself as a deeply troubled person. This psychological commentary exists throughout the narrative, but it is especially apparent at the end, where Rowlandson includes a long interpretive section reviewing her past and present emotional and religious state. She clearly shows symptoms of the survivor syndrome, as she suffers from survivor guilt and unresolved grief. The narrative reveals her depression and emotional isolation, but Rowlandson frequently masks these signs with spiritual interpretations. For example, in the narrative's concluding section, she claims to weep for joy at God's goodness in preserving her and her family:

Oh, the wonderful power of God that mine eyes have seen, affording matter enough for my thoughts to run in that when others are sleeping mine eyes are weeping! I have seen the extreme vanity of this world. One hour I have been in health and wealth, wanting nothing, but the next hour in sickness and wounds and death, having nothing but sorrow and affliction. Before I knew what affliction meant, I was ready sometimes to wish for it. When I lived in prosperity, having the comforts of the world about me, my relations by me, 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 world, I should be sometimes jealous lest I should have my portion in this life, and that scripture would come to mind, Heb. 12:6, "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth." (74-75)

However, this passage and similar extracts indicate that the traumatized Rowlandson uses a spiritual cause for a physical effect. She interpreters her weeping and sleeplessness as signs of spiritual development, not emotional weakness. When Rowlandson was captured, she first fell into a state of shock that helped to numb her against the physical, emotional, and spiritual dislocation. In her narrative, she refers to her psychological denial of her experience as she actually underwent it:

"And here I cannot but remember how many times sitting in their wigwams and musing on things past I should suddenly leap up and run out as if I had been at home, forgetting where I was and what my condition was" (52)

This state continues for approximately one month in her narrative, but after that she recalls the moment when emotional anesthesia gave way to tears:

"Then my heart began to fail and I fell a-weeping, which was the first time to my remembrance that I wept before them. Although I had met with so much affliction and my heart was many times ready to break, yet could I not shed one tear in their sight but rather had been all this while in a maze and like one astonished" (46)

Survivor syndrome victims often experience psychic numbing. However, Rowlandson seems to maintain some sensitivity through her faith and her ability to verbalize what has happened to her. She continues to feel depressed but does not regress to psychic numbing.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that Rowlandson underwent severe trauma during her captivity is that she personally changed as a result of the experience. She illustrates her psychological symptoms as spiritual growth, and she therefore presents her change in positive terms, rationalizing the captivity as a God-given test of her faith. In the thirteenth remove, Rowlandson claims that the most abrupt change was an awareness of previous spiritual carelessness and a corresponding growth in religious sensibility:

"Now had I time to examine all my ways. My conscience did not accuse me of unrighteousness toward one or other, yet I saw how in my walk with God I had been a careless creature" (56)

Her increased spirituality also encourages her to discipline herself and resist some undesirable behavior, like smoking a pipe:

For though I had formerly used tobacco, yet I had left it ever since I was first taken. It seems to be a bait the devil lays to make men lose their precious time. I remember with shame how formerly when I had taken two or three pipes I was presently ready for another, such a be witching thing it is. But I thank God He has now given me power over it; surely there are many who may be better employed than to lie sucking a stinking tobacco pipe. (47)

Further, Rowlandson's spiritual development eventually helps her to "look beyond present and smaller troubles and to be quieted under them" (75).

As I have shown, Rowlandson clearly suffered from the Survivors Syndrome in her narrative. Yet, physically and emotionally weakened, she sees her captivity and personal developments as Puritan providential affliction. Given the presence of both religious and psychological commentary in the narrative, it is important to review the extent to which the Puritan providential interpretation of affliction trounces her human physiological response to her pain and loss. My arguments show that the clash between the Puritan ideology and Rowlandson's growing individualism are exemplified by the ideology of providential affliction set against her personal suffering. In more general terms, a similar tension between head and heart, intellect and emotion, spirituality and secularism is fundamental to Puritan literature, and the orthodox position always prevails. In Rowlandson's narrative, too, the tension between religious and psychological commentary enriches and deepens the narrative texture to show the two sides of Puritanism. The dual commentary is most evident in the final section of the narrative where she paraphrases from the Ecclesiastes, which combines spiritual and emotional truths. Although Rowlandson considers her orthodoxy to be genuine, the survivor syndrome keeps breaking into the narrative's otherwise consistent tone to suggest the emotional strain of maintaining a Puritan ideologically required position.