"Although Mary Rowlandson's deliverance from her 'heathen' captors was celebrated by Puritans and later Americans as evidence of God's favourable disposition toward their 'errand into the wilderness', on reading her captivity narrative today one is struck by her ambivalence toward her captors, her own society, and the God who so sorely tested her faith." In the light of this comment, discuss A Narrative of the Captivity and restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.
Immediately upon having concluded reading her captivity narrative, one is convinced more-so than any other single fact that Mary Rowlandson wants, or rather, needs to believe in the religious significance of the ordeal she has undergone, as a baptism of fire and as a lesson from which to grow. There is distinct feeling that the utmost has been done to "squeeze the last bit of meaning out of the experience". Much of the time, though, she comes across as trying harder to convince herself of God's plan for her and the settlers than she does the reader. As the captivity goes on, her perceptions of the Indians, initially "merciless enemies" and "inhumane creatures" become blurred by their sometime acts of generosity, and her mental confusion leads to the presentation of a much more ambivalent and balanced state of affairs than would otherwise be imagined.
Although Rowlandson notes the Indians' acts of charity towards her, she does not appear to bestow any obvious thanks or kind thoughts upon her captors—in her still essentially one-sided mind, when life is bad, it is attributable to the deeds of the inhumane natives; when it is good (or better), it is without fail the beneficient work of the Almighty.
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 off the thread of my life and cast me out of His presence forever. Yet the Lord still showed mercy to me, and upheld me; and as He wounded me with one hand, so he healed me with the other.
Yet there are moments in which the Lord seems to temporarily desert Rowlandson; in her own mind, at least, she is forsaken—the closest curiously being when she first receives a Bible from an Indian looter's basket:
"I took the Bible, and in that melancholy time, it came into my mind to read first the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy, which I did, and when I had read it, my dark heart wrought on this manner: that there was no mercy for me, that the blessings were gone, and the curses come in their room, and that I had lost my opportunity."
It is as if the sudden reappearance of a solidity of faith in her life in such dire circumstances drives her to question her own worth; simply so that she has a crisis of faith from which to recover. Deuteronomy is particularly graphic in its imagery; it also includes a passage which could almost have been written to mirror Rowlandson's situation:
28:47 Because thou servedst not the LORD thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; 28:48 Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the LORD shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee. 28:49 The LORD shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand;
It then goes on to say that the disobedient will descend to cannibalism, their whole peoples be wiped out, and so forth. In light of this, and knowing that the Puritans as a group were heavily biblically influenced (and usually had a great personal knowledge of the tome), we can perhaps begin to seriously question Mary's immediate identification with this book and chapter—it is likely that she knew exactly what was written in form if not detail, and makes the case for self-imposed self-recrimination all the stronger. Already scared, is it possible that she chooses to reinforce her feelings of self-loathing in order to achieve a final redemption which is greater in the eyes of God and of her own people?
But the Lord helped me still to go on reading till I came to Chap. 30, the seven first verses, where I found, there was mercy promised again, if we would return to Him by repentance; and though we were scattered from one end of the earth to the other, yet the Lord would gather us together, and turn all those curses upon our enemies. I do not desire to live to forget this Scripture, and what comfort it was to me.
This is more evident when it is explicitly remembered that Rowlandson's narrative is a retrospective one, published some time after the incidents; her captivity was over a period of many weeks, it was to be published and therefore she has had to be selective of the incidents she included in it... subconscious editing may well have been compounded by wholesale omission of chunks of text by other authorities before publication, since women were not generally respected as authors and were entering a male-dominated profession—Rowlandson was also publishing for a religious group which did not see it as the role of women to preach.
In the fifth remove Mary is shown a little consideration by her captors, but at this stage she is not yet ready to more than peripherally recognise this fact: "In this travel, because of my wound, I was somewhat favored in my load; I carried only my knitting work and two quarts of parched meal." Later, though, she is more willing to testify to the charity of the Indians: "one of them asked me why I wept. I could hardly tell what to say: Yet I answered, they would kill me. "No," said he, "none will hurt you." Then came one of them and gave me two spoonfuls of meal to comfort me, and another gave me half a pint of peas; which was more worth than many bushels at another time." If she were dedicatedly giving a one-sided view of the native 'devils', she would omit such a statement from her record, and its very presence shows us that her feelings towards her captors are of mixed mind, as its inclusion is retrospective (as is the narrative in its entirety.) Mary learns enough during her captivity that she can recognise more extravagant displays of friendship ("I went to a wigwam, and they bade me come in, and gave me a skin to lie upon, and a mess of venison and ground nuts, which was a choice dish among them.")
A later incident actually heroicises Rowlandson's master, as well as speaking extremely highly of the Indians in general:
My son being now about a mile from me, I asked liberty to go and see him; they bade me go, and away I went; but quickly lost myself, traveling over hills and through swamps, and could not find the way to him. And I cannot but admire at the wonderful power and goodness of God to me, in that, though I was gone from home, and met with all sorts of Indians, and those I had no knowledge of, and there being no Christian soul near me; yet not one of them offered the least imaginable miscarriage to me. I turned homeward again, and met with my master. He showed me the way to my son.
Also, the language and imagery she uses may be likened to scripture. The last two sentences are simple, reverent, calm and implicitly trusting. Since they are written looking back on events, we can be more sure that Rowlandson means to use the tone she has adopted than if the same words were dashed off peremptorily in loco.
Occasionally, Rowlandson's opinions of religion drift into the vaguely subversive: The first two sentences of the next quote, despite the negating effect of those that go after it, boil down to a fundamental crisis of faith:
I took my Bible to read, but I found no comfort here neither, which many times I was wont to find. So easy a thing it is with God to dry up the streams of Scripture comfort from us. Yet I can say, that in all my sorrows and afflictions, God did not leave me to have my impatience work towards Himself, as if His ways were unrighteous. But I knew that He laid upon me less than I deserved.
They are a starkly confessional couple of sentences, being both an admission of personal insecurity and an accusing shot at the difficulties which God would present his flock with. Christian readers at the time would, I am sure, be more ready to gloss over them; but a modern humanist generation with a wider frame of post-religious reference are more likely to focus on the start of the extract than the conclusion. Always, though, there is something to be found in the Bible to support Rowlandson's stressed state-of-mind:
"I cannot express to man the sorrow that lay upon my spirit; the Lord knows it. Yet that comfortable Scripture would often come to mind, "For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee."
A later incident brings Rowlandson to the realisation that some Indians, at least, are quite intelligent people; intelligent enough to take on board settler culture and religion—specifically, they are capable of debating with scripture on Christians' own terms:
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). Then he said, he read that Scripture to him, "There was a famine in Samaria, and behold they besieged it, until an ass's head was sold for four-score pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a cab of dove's dung for five pieces of silver" (2 Kings 6.25). He expounded this place to his brother, and showed him that it was lawful to eat that in a famine which is not at another time. And now, says he, he will eat horse with any Indian of them all.
The sheer number of times Rowlandson cites Indian generosity suggests greatly that she has looked back upon and come to appreciate the disposition of her captors during many instances. In the following instance, she makes the point indirectly that their people do not harbour grudges; and in fact show a large amount of 'Christian' tolerance and generosity:
"there came an Indian to me and bid me come to his wigwam at night, and he would give me some pork and ground nuts. Which I did, and as I was eating, another Indian said to me, he seems to be your good friend, but he killed two Englishmen at Sudbury, and there lie their clothes behind you: I looked behind me, and there I saw bloody clothes, with bullet-holes in them. Yet the Lord suffered not this wretch to do me any hurt. Yea, instead of that, he many times refreshed me; five or six times did he and his squaw refresh my feeble carcass. If I went to their wigwam at any time, they would always give me something, and yet they were strangers that I never saw before. Another squaw gave me a piece of fresh pork, and a little salt with it, and lent me her pan to fry it in; and I cannot but remember what a sweet, pleasant and delightful relish that bit had to me, to this day. So little do we prize common mercies when we have them to the full."
The variable treatment at the hands of her captors ("Sometimes I met with favor, and sometimes with nothing but frowns") leads Rowlandson to begin to see the Indians as a society as balanced as any other: It has members who subscribe to morality, and those whose ill-deeds reflect badly upon its more conscientious subscribers:
"we may see the wonderful power of God, in that one passage, in that when there was such a great number of the Indians together, and so greedy of a little good food, and no English there but Mr. Hoar and myself, that there they did not knock us in the head, and take what we had, there being not only some provision, but also trading-cloth, a part of the twenty pounds agreed upon. But instead of doing us any mischief, they seemed to be ashamed of the fact, and said, it were some matchit Indian that did it."
Rowlandson's rationalisation of her captivity almost never touches upon the Lord directly as a questionable influence: In her mind, either she is deservedly being tested or she has already proven inadequate and so unworthy of succour. It is only towards the culmination of the narrative that she begins to question her God's protective care of the 'heathens'. There is a great deal of evidence for this... Rowlandson's mind conceives of the Indians almost as a Biblical plague—but does not initially have any answers as to why the Lord should wish to punish his followers so.
I can but admire to see the wonderful providence of God in preserving the heathen for further affliction to our poor country ... It was thought, if their corn were cut down, they would starve and die with hunger, and all their corn that could be found, was destroyed, and they driven from that little they had in store, into the woods in the midst of winter; and yet how to admiration did the Lord preserve them for His holy ends, and the destruction of many still amongst the English! strangely did the Lord provide for them; that I did not see (all the time I was among them) one man, woman, or child, die with hunger ... Though many times they would eat that, that a hog or a dog would hardly touch; yet by that God strengthened them to be a scourge to His people.
She finds her answer in her cherished rescued Bible. Once again, the slant with which she views events is that it is the people who have failed God. Her doubts are transformed into self-loathing, and deprecation of her own people and culture:
"It is said, "Oh, that my People had hearkened to me, and Israel had walked in my ways, I should soon have subdued their Enemies, and turned my hand against their Adversaries" (Psalm 81.13-14). But now our perverse and evil carriages in the sight of the Lord, have so offended Him, that instead of turning His hand against them, the Lord feeds and nourishes them up to be a scourge to the whole land."
It is perhaps also important to note that this is Rowlandson's second quoting of this Psalm within the narrative—it is evidence of her strong conviction in God's displeasure with his people (and in keeping with her demonstrated character) that, following her earlier insecurities, once she finds a solution to her dichotomy, she seizes it with both hands.
Mary's difficulties in coming to terms with her ordeal persist, however, right up until and including her summation:
I can remember the time when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together, but now it is other ways with me. ... 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.
She is by no means comfortable in her own mind, and the rest of the narrative illustrates to what extent, of the rightness of her society's demonisation of the Indian, its innate superiority, or in the power of God as she saw it when she began writing ("as He wounded me with one hand, so he healed me with the other") During the times when she is not ambivalent, she is at least unsure.
General source texts for quotations:
Rowlandson, A Narrative of the Captivity and restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, (Project Gutenberg E-text, no upload date given)
The King James Bible (Collins, pre-ISBN copy, no print date)
1. Roy Harvey Pearce, "The Significances of the Captivity Narrative", American Literature (March, 1947)