Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative describes her experience as a captive of the Native Americans during the King Philips War in 1676. Her diary accounts for her capture to her return, although written a few years post to her release. Her capture spanned around 11weeks and is recounted in twenty ‘removes’. Specifically, Rowlandson observes her experience in relation to God and the bible, her capture being expressed as a trail from God which she must endure with faith; only in doing so would she survive and remain a true Christian woman suitable for Puritan society. It is through this Christian perspective that she judges the Native Americans, creating an obvious bias against their culture. Mary Rowlandson wrote her story with the intention of having other’s read it, including those around her. Given this her narrative can be understood in terms of how she would wish to represent herself and her captivity to those readers, and so not wholly understood as a completely accurate account.
Rowlandson was a respected woman within Puritan society and as such would be expected to represent all that was customary of fine Christian women. Therefore, any account of her capture which seemed contrary to conventional beliefs could risk her status and respectability. Toulouse argues that Rowlandson would be competing for status in the new social setting as a result of the war(1992:667). The motivation for publishing her account seems to have been to promote the puritan belief that God is the active agent who punishes and saves Christian believers (Scarbrough 2011:124). Hence, her freedom to voice her own opinion was greatly restricted by both social expectations and for the sake of endorsing the good of Christianity. Her account would not have been published had it wavered from her faith, any suffering had to be understood to have come from God and to have been endurable to the point of justifiable. Continual references depict the good of God allowing for her capture; ‘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’(Rowlandson 2009). Even in the harsh conditions of capture, a puritan woman could not admit to any doubts about God’s benevolent will. Even when the Americans were close behind the Natives whom she was with, the Americans not crossing the river to follow them was viewed by Rowlandson as intentional and good by God‘s will; ‘God did not give them courage or activity to go over after us. We were not ready for so great a mercy as victory and deliverance’ (2009). Rowlandson would have had to assess all that she wrote closely to prevent letting any prohibited idea’s from finding it’s way into the public eye least she be judged for it. Rowlandson makes continual references to the bible throughout her narrative to support her actions, causing her captivity to resemble that of a religious pilgrimage. Similar writings were common at the time, particularly for women who usually lacked a public voice in other forms. Rowlandson’s references to Christianity begins even in the depiction of her capture, ‘several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven’ (2009).
The importance of religion in her society is evidenced throughout the text so much so that it seems patent that all social judgements by her and those around her would rely upon correct biblically prescribed behaviour. She also wrote how she tried to acknowledge the Sabbath day while captive; within the Fifth Remove she writes;‘when the Sabbath came they bade me go to work. I told them it was the Sabbath day, and desired them to let me rest, and told them I would do as much more tomorrow; to which they answered me they would break my face. And here I cannot but take notice of the strange providence of God in preserving the heathen’ (Rowlandson 2009). The Sabbath would be of great importance in Puritan society and acknowledging it would have allowed Rowlandson greater compassion, not only from God but also from her own society. In being understood to have acknowledged such Christian behaviours Rowlandson would garner sympathy from those around her and her status in society would be much better upheld in its freshly volatile state.
Rowlandson’s behaviour, as written in her narrative, also reflects the role of women. The feminine role of maternity is repeated throughout as Rowlandson meditates on her children. She is depicted as caring for her youngest, Sarah, until her death where upon her distress as a mother allows her to behave abnormally for her society; ‘at any other time I could not bear to be in the room where any dead person was, but now the case is changed; I must and could lie down by my dead babe’(2009). She also reflects that ‘I have thought since of the wonderful goodness of God to me in preserving me in the use of my reason and sense in that distressed time’ (2009). That she even briefly contemplated escape, most likely death, from what could be perceived God’s will brings home her distress at the time to the reader, but her overcoming such a trial is what allows for her continued status. This is in opposition to ‘Joslin’ another captured woman whom Rowlandson encounters, Joslin however succumbs to her distress and begged the ‘Indians to let her go home…and yet vexed with her importunity…they knocked her on the head, and the child in her arms’(Rowlandson 2009).
The comparison favours Rowlandson as she overcame the trial and martyred herself to suffering God’s will as opposed to fighting His will and suffering a worse fate as a consequence. In order to continue to survive Rowlandson began to trade, which was not a commonly accepted activity of Christian women at the time. However, her usual object of trade were knitted and sewn goods; products which were created by women within her own society thus ensuring the maintenance of her femininity despite bartering. This ability to survive without men was contrary to common beliefs and proving this strength, even if through the utilising of feminine skills, would seem to raise women’s perceived abilities. This is though the only deviation she seems to make from common puritan views of femininity, even her descriptions of the Native women fall to the scrutiny of puritan morals. Rowlandson is a slave of Weetamoo, a woman of high status within the Native community in her own right; she is not reliant on the position of men to uphold her social position.
Despite this, Rowlandson ‘recognizes Weetamoo’s social status by comparing her to a lady of the “gentry” but concurrently declines to recognize her political and military roles.’ (Potter 2003:161). It is understood that Weetamoo would have had a political role which most likely Rowlandson had been made aware of yet she refused to accept this as such a role is solely the occupation of men in her society. Race as a source of superiority was not fully formed in the 15th century, rather superiority lay in the belief of greater ‘civilization, culture, and political organization.’ (Potter pg.156). However, Rowlandson does equate appearance and status; “when they came near, there was a vast difference between the lovely Faces of Christians, and the foul looks of those Heathens” (Rowlandson, 2009). Clearly, abhorrence of the Native Americans was intrinsic to Rowlandson’s belief system. Rowlandson openly places little value in Native American people and their culture, for her anything non-Christian was of lesser value as she complains of distress at having ‘no Christian soul near me’ (2009). R
owlandson also repeatedly describes the Native Americans as ‘heathen’ as she evaluates their behaviours in comparison to Christian ideals.This total distrust though does slightly waver within the text and perhaps would more so had Rowlandson not been trying to meet social expectations. Some Natives were described as helping her, if only briefly. Many more opportunities though were taken to criticise of the Natives behaviour. This is in comparison to the situation after her release as, although still in an unstable condition, all kindness shown to her is greater appreciated by Rowlandson. In conclusion, Rowlandson’s account offers a particularly puritan, European, female perspective on the Native Americans.
It is clear that, as a captor, understanding was not going to be forthcoming from Rowlandson yet this has allowed for a greater observation of the cultural differences and expectations. However, this evident prejudice make the narrative unreliable in it’s detail. Being written after the event and for other’s to read has meant that Rowlandson has been free to alter events in her favour. The narrative though still remains factually useful as Rowlandson often recounts where she and her Captors, which included Metacomet/King Phillip, were and roughly when. This has enabled historians to gain a better insight into the Native American tactics during the war. Primarily Rowlandson’s narrative is able to convey a greater understanding of her society at the time, and their social relations to and perceptions of the Native American’s.