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Mary Rowlandson: Questioning Civilization

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Mary Rowlandson faced what would be many people’s worst nightmare, when she witnessed the slaughtering of her family and neighbors as described in her autobiography, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Rowlandson. As if that horror were not enough, Rowlandson was kidnapped and held hostage by hostile Native Americans. Within her captivity, Rowlandson endured a complete culture shock and was both victim and witness to a series of events that understandably changed her life. The chaos and uncertainty Rowlandson faced in captivity led her to re-evaluate her perception of civilization and ultimately inspired her to have a deeper union with God and a greater appreciation for her life.

All of the ways in which Rowlandson perception of the world changes are a product her state of uncertainty in the face of the chaos of captivity. One could only imagine the chaos and horror in witnessing the sights Rowlandson speaks of during the attack on the colonists: “Some in our house were fighting for our lives, others wallowing in their blood, the house on fire over our heads” (258). The ransacking of her village was only the first of many chaotic experiences Rowlandson faces. In fact, throughout her story there is never a stable environment mentioned, for Rowlandson is consistently in a state of fear or confusion and never knows what to expect next. The unknown itself is the only undeviating element. Experiencing a state of culture shock Rowlandson observes, “If one looked before one there was nothing but Indians, and behind one, nothing but Indians, and so on either hand, I myself in the midst, and no Christian soul near me” (266). The Native Americans are unfamiliar people to Rowlandson and live very different lives in a very different environment. After being taken into captivity, she is soon separated from her children and becomes uncertain of their whereabouts and condition for the majority of the time. As Rowlandson expresses, “my children gone, my relations and friends gone, our house and home and all our comforts…all was gone…and I knew not but the next moment that might go too” (259). If her life being flipped upside down did not create enough confusion, then surely she was faced with disarray when her youngest child’s life was taken. Rowlandson recalls her state of despair: “There I left that child in the wilderness, and must commit it, and myself also in this wilderness condition, to him who is above all” (262). It is not only the death of her child that causes her to be distraught, but the fact her child was not properly buried at home in civilization. The tragic events and culture shock lead her to question civilization as she knows it and search for ways she can better understand her situation.

In the beginning, Rowlandson is under the impression that the Native Americans are completely different then the settlers. Rowlandson describes the Native Americans as “wretches”, “merciless heathens”, and “barbarious creatures”. She describes her initial impression living among them, “Oh the roaring, and singing and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell” (259). Her expressions have the connotation that she believes the way they live is uncivilized to the point of being animalistic, and that she feels that her accustomed lifestyle is the proper, more virtuous way to live. It is for this reason that when Rowlandson begins to immerse herself in the lifestyle of the Native Americans she feels uncertain and begins to seek ways to rationalize her actions. Rowlandson recalls her change in eating habits, “the third week, though I could think how formerly my stomach would turn against this or that, and I could starve and die bore I could eat such things, yet they were sweet and savory to my taste” (265). Rowlandson finds herself converting her appetite to those of the Native Americans despite how much she originally despised and looked down upon their cuisine. Later, Rowlandon herself even acts in seemingly “barbaric” ways comparable to those of the Native Americans. She physically adapts to their lifestyle making her bedding and scavenging for food. Emotionally, she is callous to her mistress papoose dying, as it allows more room for her in the wigwam, and even begins to stand up for herself such as when she speaks up against Phillips maid, “I told her I would tear her coat then” (273). Most interestingly she is also forced to re-evaluate her perspectives as she is treated with kindness by many of the Native Americans. She notes the generosity she receives such as, “ a squaw who showed herself very kind to me and gave me a piece of bear” (269,) and those that treated he with compassion, “yet [they] were strangers to [her] that [she] never saw before” (269). Her experience living among the Native Americans begins to blur her perception on civilization. As she notes the hospitality of those she encounters, and especially when she herself begins to act in uncivilized ways she becomes desperate for answers to explain the sudden ambiguity.

Rowlandson attempt to understand her uncertainty and unfamiliar experiences result in a dependence on God. She turns to faith in every moment of despair or uncertainty. For example, as Rowland faces conflicting beliefs about eating barbaric food she rationalizes, “Thus the lord made that pleasant refreshing, which another time would have been an abomination” (277). Rowlandson is able to reconcile the confusion of her conflicting beliefs by turning to the comfort of the word of god. In doing so, she also experience a greater understanding of scriptures that she would never otherwise had the opportunity to personally relate to had she not been in such a position in captivity. She says, “before I knew what affliction meant, I was ready sometimes to wish of it” (288). Her reliance on faith ends up giving her a greater sense of peace and satisfaction upon returning home as if she had undergone a right of passage in God’s eyes. She further explains, “Now that I have seen that scripture also fulfilled, ‘If any of thine be driven out to the out most parts of heaven, from thence will the Lord thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee” (287). Rowlandson also feels like she must now live a life worthy of the compassion she has received from God.

In the end, Rowlandson has a greater appreciation for her life and has a new perspective on humanity. She expresses, “The lord hath shoed me the vanity of these outward things” (288). She no longer takes for granted, “the finest of the wheat” (288) and all other luxuries. Her experience with a polar opposite culture and extreme opposite living conditions in captivity forced her to reevaluate her perspectives and find a way to understand the uncertainty around her. Through her experiences and finding certainty and stability in a strong faith in God She was able to come to the realization that perhaps things are not always so black and white. That she can still live a “civil” life without vanity, and that those who are “uncivil” are still human. Most of all she is humbled from her experience. She ends her narrative by sharing the insight that “I have learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles, and to be quieted under them” (288).

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