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Literary Analysis of The Captivity Narrative of Mary Rowlandson

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Words: 1542 |

Pages: 3|

8 min read

Published: Dec 16, 2021

Words: 1542|Pages: 3|8 min read

Published: Dec 16, 2021

Tradition promulgates the deepest spaces and the smallest cracks of the human life, filling in and influencing as it lingers above and below the surface. It can be used to express, share, remember, stabilize. Traditions can remind us of our identity and our place in the world, establishing boundaries and creating rules for existence. Viewing tradition in this light, the narrative of Mary Rowlandson is one to be studied not as a single text, but as a product of the Puritan tradition of her time. Her piece, while penned by Rowlandson, is not her own. Rather, it is a result of the community she lived in – its historical influences, Puritan doctrine, and the forces of power that shaped her story.

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Rowlandson’s story, described as a captivity narrative, details her capture and travels with natives over the span of 11 weeks. After people in her town are killed by Wampanoags, she is taken hostage along with her injured baby and journeys throughout the region, experiencing various removes as she notes how God saves, condemns, and controls the actions of those around her. Eventually, Rowlandson is released based on the work of Mr. Hoar and James the Printer. She concludes her narrative by reflecting on the ways the Puritan community rallied around her afterwards and her own growth throughout the trial.

As a minister’s wife, Rowlandson’s story falls in line with what is to be expected from a respectable Puritan woman in a patriarchal society. God, as the focal point of her life, deserves adoration, reverence, and attention. All glory and honor belong to Him, and Rowlandson develops her narrative in a respectful, faith-filled manner expected of a woman of her status. However, this sense of religious duty may go beyond her role as pastor’s wife in her writing. The church placed severe restrictions on publication for female authors, allowing only works that would be “confined to pious or otherwise traditional subjects” (Davis 49). For Rowlandson to get a chance to share her story, she had to adhere to Puritan rules developed by powerful men. She was directed to express her story in a way that turned everything back to God, showing how God is present in every situation and all activities tie back to Him. Tradition dictated that she should be submissive, and Rowlandson fell into this category without seeming to bat an eye (Davis 52). God, just like the patriarchal system she lives in, is authoritative, and she follows the will of this great puppeteer, explaining away actions as the will of God and to fulfill a higher purpose. Fitting into the traditional role of a demure, pious woman, Rowlandson describes herself many times as passively receiving and interpreting God-controlled events. He gives and takes away, and Rowlandson accepts this in her writing.

Diving headfirst, Rowlandson fills this role in her narrative with the Puritan emphasis on spiritual development. She frames her story around growing in faith, showing how she moves from fear of death to a martyrdom mindset. Initially, the natives’ “glittering weapons so daunted my spirit,” that she chose to be taken captive rather than die (Rowlandson 129). Later, however, she completes her spiritual journey, noting that she has “learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles, and to be quieted under them” (Rowlandson 143). As a Christian and as a Puritan, her time of trial and testing has made her stronger, and while she is not willing to suffer at the beginning, Rowlandson steps into this willingness during the narrative, fostering a greater appreciation for ordinary life and trust in the LORD.

Her dedication for embedding Puritan doctrine is also revealed through extensive use of scriptural references. To build credibility and verify that the material is publishable, Rowlandson includes tie-ins to scripture, even during the most arbitrary moments. For Rowlandson, it seems, anything and everything can be related back to God, from God “sending” her a Bible to her son happening to visit (Rowlandson 133). Many times, this relation to the Bible is laid out explicitly through textual citations, such as when she writes of Deuteronomy 28 and subsequent revelations (Rowlandson 133). The Bible is to be fulfilled, and she portrays herself as a testimony to the workings of God in her life. Other times, however, Rowlandson falls back on her identity as a Puritan writing to other Puritans and makes unidentified references to the Biblical text. Rowlandson writes, for example, that she travels “through the valley of the shadow of death,” but makes no point of declaring that this phrase can be found in Psalms 23 (King James Version, Psalms 23.4). A few sentences later, she says that “we were between them, the one on the east, and the other on the west” (Rowlandson 141). This is likely in reference to a scriptural passage in Psalm 103:12 which states, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (King James Version). Using these psalms, readers have a deeper understanding that God has pulled her from her time of suffering and the “evil” natives cannot win. Truly, Rowlandson knew her audience well. She knew her place in religious tradition, she knew what would resonate with listeners, and she knew the hoops she needed to jump through to get her message out.

During her narrative, however, Rowlandson doesn’t only rely on sporadic scriptural citations to convince readers of her dedication to the Puritan cause. The Puritans strongly identified with Hebrews in the Old Testament and their exodus, and Rowlandson applies an extended allusion to this through her work in light of historical events (Downing 255). Rowlandson’s capture, spurred on by King Philip’s War, draws parallels to the Israelites leaving Egypt and wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, and Rowlandson doesn’t run short of comparisons to create. Her time in the wilderness is representative of the Israelites walking through their own wilderness many years prior. The natives that captured her were pagans – heathens – just like the Egyptians. One native was even “hard-hearted” like the Pharaoh during the plagues (Rowlandson 135). Historically, the Wampanoags attacked in a final attempt to stop English expansion into their land (Baym & Levine 126). To Rowlandson, however, labeling native territory as the “wilderness” meant it was a place the Puritans could go just as the Israelites did. The land would be a place where her religious tradition could draw closer to God, and the community should embrace it.

Despite positive descriptions of the wilderness, Rowlandson continues to further Puritan beliefs by describing the current occupants of the wilderness, the natives, as the antithesis to the Puritan way of life. They are portrayed as heathens and pagans, the epitome of “immorality and sin outside of the Puritan community” (O’Hara 44). During the first remove, Rowlandson clearly lays out this imagery, describing their festive atmosphere of dancing and singing as “a lively resemblance of hell” (Rowlandson 130). These “savages” are the opposite of Godliness, and she is present to bear witness to the pagans acts and narrate it for the sheltered Puritan community.

While the actions of natives after Rowlandson’s capture surely must have been appalling, as stated earlier, there was more at play than her personal experience. During class lecture, a portion of discussion mentioned that Puritan women were defecting from the faith and starting new lives and new families within native communities. Rowlandson, to counter this, uses her full arsenal of literary techniques to discredit and dehumanize the native populace. Not only do natives act in a devilish manner, but through use of vivid imagery, readers see the savagery of their actions. When natives eat, for instance, they “pick up old bones, and cut them to pieces at the joints, and if they were full of worms and maggots, they would scald them over the fire” (Rowlandson 138). Do civilized Puritan women wish to dine on worms and maggots? Certainly not. Beyond that, dialogue between natives and Rowlandson is limited at best. Very few times do readers get the voice of the Wampanoag or any other non-Puritan group, thus skewing the perspective of the piece in Rowlandson’s favor. In the few instances where they do speak, it is to further their savageness, such as when one tells her “your master will knock your child in the head” (Rowlandson 132). The natives are not a community to be desired according to Rowlandson, for they are brutish and inhumane.

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Looking at Rowlandson’s narrative techniques and writing, readers can plainly see where her allegiance lies. Natives are written off and Puritans are elevated in her theological writing. However, it’s important to remember that Mary Rowlandson’s writing, while a product of her experience, is not her own. Historical and religious doctrine dictated the course of her writing, and she allowed societal expectations and Puritan religious beliefs to shape the direction of her narrative. The time and place greatly influenced Rowlandson’s writing, and her work shows how her environment directly impacted her captivity and view of her experience during and after release. Rowlandson’s narrative is a valuable piece that contributes to the greater study of English literature, reminding readers that there’s more than one way to view history, and power and tradition have a way of influencing people and texts both in the past and today. 

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Literary Analysis Of The Captivity Narrative Of Mary Rowlandson. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/literary-analysis-of-the-captivity-narrative-of-mary-rowlandson/
“Literary Analysis Of The Captivity Narrative Of Mary Rowlandson.” GradesFixer, 16 Dec. 2021, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/literary-analysis-of-the-captivity-narrative-of-mary-rowlandson/
Literary Analysis Of The Captivity Narrative Of Mary Rowlandson. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/literary-analysis-of-the-captivity-narrative-of-mary-rowlandson/> [Accessed 21 Jun. 2024].
Literary Analysis Of The Captivity Narrative Of Mary Rowlandson [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Dec 16 [cited 2024 Jun 21]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/literary-analysis-of-the-captivity-narrative-of-mary-rowlandson/
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