LECTURE NOTES FOR MARY ROWLANDSON

Although Mary Rowlandson cannot be credited with single handedly creating the American genre known as the "Indian captivity narrative" it is safe to say that her account of her eleven week captivity was one of the earliest and most popular narratives of its type.  Not much is known about her life either before or after her captivity, but her re-telling of her trials with the "heathens" gives us a fairly clear picture of Mary Rowlandson as a product of her time. 

 

Rowlandson reflects contemporary attitudes toward the natives
Rowlandson obviously has no reason to like the Indians who burn her home, kill her friends and family, and take her into captivity, and it's hard to determine how much of her bitterness is the result of her experience and how much is simply cultural conditioning.  

HER CHARACTERIZATION OF THE INDIANS:  Rowlandson tells us that the initial attack is brutal.  The Indians come at sunrise and immediately begin burning houses and knocking people in the head.  People who try to escape are tortured before being murdered ("he begged of them his life, promising them money . . . but they would not hearken to him, but knocked him in the head, and stripped him naked, and split open his bowels").  Women and children are injured and killed along with the male defenders.  The Indians are merciless , butchering the settlers "with the blood running down to our heels."  The Indians don't allow Rowlandson the opportunity to tend to her injured child; instead they force her to keep their pace without rest or nourishment, and the six year old dies.  They torture a pregnant woman before killing her in a fire as a lesson to other people who might try to escape.  Her mistress is cruel and starves her or denies her shelter on a whim.  Rowlandson stereotypes all Indians as liars ("not one of them that makes the least conscience of speaking the truth") and compares them to Satan "who was a liar from the beginning."  She compares "the lovely faces of Christians" with the "foul looks of those heathens."

HER LANGUAGE IN DESCRIBING THE INDIANS:  Pay close attention to the words she uses to refer to the Indians:  

"bloody heathen"

"barbarous creatures"

"enemy"

"infidels"

"pagans"

"merciless heathens"

 

An atypical captivity?

Although most of us are not incredibly familiar with the Indian captivity genre, it's not hard to see that Mary Rowlandson is not treated with the same brutality that her fellow prisoners receive.  The first Indians who speak with her assure her that she won't be hurt if she comes with them without trouble; this is quite different from Rowlandson's description of people being knocked on the head and carried away.  She faces the cruelty of her mistress, but it is tempered by the kindness of her master who promises to sell her back to her husband, by the other squaws who feed her, and by the various Indians who pay her with food and other tradable goods for her sewing.  She is not tortured. She is not sorely  beaten.  She is not raped.  Ask yourself, is her treatment what we'd expect from savages?

Rowlandson's Puritanism
Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative provides an excellent example of many aspects of Puritan theology.                                           
GOD'S PROTECTIVE POWERS:  "yet the Lord by His almighty power preserved a number of us from death . . . "  Throughout her narrative, Rowlandson credits God with every positive thing that happens.  When her wound is healed after an oak leaf poultice is applied, she recognizes her fortune as "the blessing of God."  God keeps her from despair and suicide "in preserving [her] in the use of [her] reason and senses in that distressed time, that [she] did not use wicked and violent means to end [her] own miserable life."    God protects her from the elements by providing her with "comfortable lodging" in the night and keeps her safe from sexual abuse, and "[t}hus the Lord dealt mercifully with me many times. "
GOD  PUNISHES BACKSLIDERS:  According to Rowlandson once she returns to her family, God demonstrates his providence by preserving the Indians in the face of adversity for the sole purpose of acting as a means of punishment for a lack of spirituality in His chosen people.  " . . . God strengthened them to be a scourge to His people" because " . . . 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."   
GOD'S REDEMPTIVE POWER:  Rowlandson asserts that God's power to save remains as strong and "as great now . . . as when He preserved Daniel in the lion's den."  He is omnipotent and "can do whatsoever seemeth Him good."  And the clearest evidence of His power is shown in what Rowlandson claims is the radical change in her spiritual life.  She remembers a time when she harbored vain thoughts and thanks God for the trials that have brought her to the realization that "they are the vanity of vanities, and vexation of spirit, that they are but a shadow, a blast, a bubble, and things of no continuance.  That we must rely on God Himself, and our whole dependence must be upon Him."  
GOD WORKS DIRECTLY THROUGH SCRIPTURE:  Throughout her captivity, Rowlandson turns to the Bible for comfort and support.  The stories of Job and David provide her with continual  source of hope that keeps her going from day to day.  Rowlandson credits God with showing her the specific Bible verses that she needs over and over:   

" . . . the Lord helped me still to go on reading till I came to Chap.39, the seven first verses . . . "   

" . . . and the Lord brought that precious Scripture to me."

" . . . that Scripture came to my hand . . . " (a variation of this is repeated on numerous occasions)

" . . . and the Lord brought to me some Scriptures . . . "

IS ROWLANDSON A GOOD CHRISTIAN?

Rowlandson knows the Bible.  She obviously believes in God and His saving power.  She also believes that her race is superior to the native race.  how do we look at her as a representative of a "good Christian" when she evidences some decidedly "un-Christian" sentiments.  She recalls that a benefit of her mistress losing a child was that "there was more room," and it is clear that she doesn't empathize with the woman  because she "could not much condole."  Rowlandson also briefly mentions when she took food from a child because it had trouble chewing the tough meat.  These two episodes show another side of Rowlandson, but it's not a side that is unexplainable or not compatible with Mary, the Christian.  She is a product of her society and thus even more human than the "perfect Christian."

 

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