Mary Rowlandson: Questioning Civilization

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).

Rowlandson’s Depiction of Native Americans in The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God recounts her experience of being captured by a group of Native Americans. Rowlandson’s description of this trek is highly subjective and reflects her personal beliefs as well as the values of the time period. This is especially clear to the reader in her descriptions of the Native Americans and their practices. Rowlandson portrays the Native Americans as an uncivilized people who have no claim to the land they occupy. She accomplishes this by dehumanizing them through her descriptions and by presenting them as a “savage” and “heathen” people. This is a clear reflection on her religious beliefs and from this one can infer that Rowlandson thought that the Puritan belief system was the only “true” way to live life and that Native Americans had no part in “civil” society. One of the foremost ways that Rowlandson shows her belief that Native Americans are not fit for civil society is by metaphorically casting them as wild animals and thereby dehumanizing them. An example of this comes early in the account (after the initial attack where she is captured) as Rowlandson describes seeing “…so many Christians lying in their blood, some here, and some there, like a company of Sheep torn by Wolves. All of them stript naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out; yet the Lord by his Almighty power preserved a number of us from death…” (70). This passage reflects both Rowlandson’s religious and societal beliefs. It can be inferred from this part of her narrative that she sees herself and other Christian people as a domestic flock of tranquil, peaceful animals or more precisely as God’s flock of chosen people, while the Native Americans are cast as the Wolf destroying these “innocent” sheep. Further on in the quotation she recasts the Native Americans as hell-hounds and presents a chaotic and gruesome picture of the destruction laid upon the village. What is striking about this particular passage is how it dehumanizes the Native Americans while also serving to portray them as ungodly people. It accomplishes this on two different levels; overtly by saying the Indians are like wolves, and more subtly through the use of biblical language emphasizing the fact that Rowlandson and her people are God’s creatures and the Natives are hell hounds. This reinforces the notion throughout the narrative that the Native Americans are not fit for civil society, but are a violent and savage people that would kill members of God’s chosen people. There are numerous examples of Rowlandson’s dehumanization, based in religious beliefs, of the Indians throughout her narrative. Another such example occurs in her description of her first night with the Indians and how the “…singing and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night…made the place a lively resemblance of hell” (71). This passage also illustrates Rowlandson’s ability to portray the natives as wild beasts. The language emphasizes the fact that these people are not practicing civil ceremonies, but rather are acting like savages. What is even more striking, however, is her comparison of the whole scene to hell. She is effectively saying that Native American ceremony is akin to her religions conception of hell. This illustrates Rowlandson’s inability to see beyond her own puritan values and see the tradition at work within the Indian ceremony. She is unable to accept other belief systems and cultures without making comparisons back to her own personal belief system, which affirms not only how important these beliefs were in her society, but also how un-accepting her society was of values different from its own. One might argue that the reason Rowlandson depicts the Natives as such terrible, “savage” people is because they have just destroyed her village and killed many of her friends. Admittedly this is justification for the outrage that she felt. From the description she gives, however, it would seem that there is more than simple anger towards the Indians – there is a belief that they are inherently a lesser people. This is evident in how she not only dehumanizes the Indians but also never fails to note that they are a heathen people. This once again reaffirms the fact that she sees herself on a higher moral platform than the Native Americans. This ingrained belief that her society is God’s chosen one, and therefore morally superior, becomes apparent as she notes “the strange providence of God in preserving the heathen…” (79). She is genuinely amazed that God would preserve a class of people that are in her view “savage,” which is a clear reflection of her beliefs that the Puritan people are the only people with a valid claim to this Earth because they are chosen by God. Rowlandson’s view becomes even more plain as she recounts a few “remarkable passages of providence…” in which she again betrays her disbelief in the fact that “God strengthened [the Indians] to be a scourge to His People” (104-105). Once again we are reminded of the fact that her puritan society is ordained by God, while the Natives are but an affliction to that civil culture. All this betrays the fact that Rowlandson and others in her society believed themselves to be a superior civilization and that those that differed from their beliefs were “heathen” and unfit for civilized society. Furthermore the belief that the Natives were a “scourge” to society emphasizes the point that the Puritans saw them as expendable people with no claim to the land that they lived on. The fact that Rowlandson never stops to examine the idea that perhaps all people are God’s people and have equal right to live on the land, but instead can only see the Indians in a “savage” light, further confirms this idea. One problematic aspect of this account is that it cannot provide any other viewpoint on the matter. Rowlandson is never able to step back and view the capture in the context of other events that were occurring at the time. All she is able to see is the fact that the Natives had committed an atrocity against her people, yet she never considers the atrocities committed by the Europeans against the Natives or even the fact that the Indians inhabited the land before the Puritan settlers did. This perhaps might be explained by the previous discussion of how she is unable to see the Indians on an equal societal platform which leads to her being unable to feel any remorse for their plight – all she is able to see is a “heathen,” “savage” people. Through her narrative we can see that the Native Americans are trying just as hard as her society to prosper and survive, but there is never an objective look at this fact. The only examination of this matter comes through Rowlandson’s religious lens which only suggests that the Indians are struggling because they are not a “civilized” people and furthermore that they are not a Godly people. Another fact that is never considered in the narrative is why the natives attacked her village in the first place. By her account one would think that the natives attacked unprovoked; however, that is not the case. Rowlandson’s goal, it appears, is to portray this as a battle between the “heathen” Native Americans and her religiously pure and civilized society. Ultimately she is able to frame this “battle” as a religious experience testing her and the other colonists’ faith, which is completely ignoring the root of the issue. This reflects again on her and her society’s Puritan beliefs that Europeans were predestined to colonize the land and that they were not at fault for expanding outward. They believed that they had a true right to the land and that the natives would have to move aside (or be forcibly removed) so that the Puritans could develop the land to which they had a God given right. What makes this narrative even more clearly a reflection of Puritan beliefs is in the way that Rowlandson cannot even recognize the native’s benevolence after capturing her. Though a captive, she is relatively well treated. Shortly after being captured she tells how as she cried about her predicament there were Natives who “gave [her] two spoon-fulls of Meal to comfort [her], and another gave [her] half a pint of Pease…” (82). While these are minor comforts to her, they are gestures of generosity and goodwill upon the part of the natives who are in hard times themselves. Unfortunately Rowlandson is never able to look upon these acts of kindness with any objectivity and still cannot see past her belief that the Indians are a lesser, uncivilized people. This is evident when, as she is back with her husband, she notes how glad she is to be no longer “hem’d in with the merciless and cruel Heathen…[but instead] with pitiful, tender-hearted and compassionate Christians” (108). The fact that she was actually relatively well treated is lost on her in her recollection of the account. All she is able to be grateful for is the fact that she is back with Christians. Rowlandson’s narrative is the kind of subjective history that does not always provide us with accurate information. An uncritical reading of this type of history could perpetuate fallacious notions about Native American culture. We must understand the context in which accounts such as Rowlandson’s took place to critically examine the facts presented and begin to appreciate the complexity of the historical moment.

Responding to God’s Will: Individualism (or Its Absence) in Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative

People distinguish themselves through their individuality, their uniqueness, the ways in which they are their own self and no one else. However, a remarkable woman of the late 1600s did not herself fit the typical construct of an individual; in A Narrative of the Captivity, Sufferings, and Removes of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, author Mary Rowlandson reveals how she found herself combined with God, rather than on her own. This paper will prove that Rowlandson did not view herself as an individual that also happened to worship God, but rather as the inferior half of one entity made up of herself and the Divine: she subsisted as a physical counterpart to God’s incorporeal presence, the duo entangled throughout the unpredictable progressions of her mortal life.

Rather than finding her own path in life, as the common individual would, Rowlandson found herself continuously guided by the compass of God’s will. In her narrative, she recognizes that this indication of direction pointed her towards fulfilling a personal covenant with God when she writes “The Lord hereby would make us the more to acknowledge his hand, and to see that our help is always in him” (6). She understood that God was looking to protect her, should she persist in abiding by His values and wishes. By quoting Micah 6:8; she reveals just what she believed her agreement with God entailed: “…to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God” (74). Thus, her actions were motivated by her need to always do the right thing, provide compassion and forgiveness, and keep Him by her side. This idea of forever acting in terms of God’s will proves she believed that she survived only by reason of Him, and therefore must act only to fulfill their pact. In this way, Rowlandson and God are essentially one being; He exists within her, she serves Him, He aids her.

In this work, Rowlandson identifies herself as a vessel of God in that there is no way to distinguish between her secular and spiritual actions: everything she did, she either did for Him or attributed to Him. In numerous instances in the text, Rowlandson contributes many of her own abilities and actions to “the Providence of God.” For example, when she used oak leaves to heal a wound, she wrote “… with the blessing of God, it cured me…” (18), thus attributing the healing to Him rather than to her own handiwork. She considered the way in which every action was going to be viewed by God, thus He was not dictating the way she conducted herself, but more simply His values were hers as well, melded into Rowlandson’s character. In this way, she did not see herself as a distinctive servant of God, but rather understood that he was a fundamental part of her.

Furthermore, there is never a moment in time that Rowlandson believed that God was not with her. This lack of “aloneness” demonstrates that she did not believe in Him as just a concept, but instead believed that He was worked into her. During her time in captivity, she wrote about how she needed to find a occasion to be by herself so that she could “pour [her] heart out unto the Lord” (60). For Rowlandson, to be alone was to be closer God, as she could better focus on the bodiless spirit within herself when less chaos besieged her. In contrast, when surrounded by more people and disorder, her connection with God became more clouded. There was a point early during her captivity, immediately after her youngest child had died and she was surrounded by unfamiliar Indians, in which she could not bear to live any longer. After reaching solitude, she reflected on “the wonderful goodness of God to [her], in preserving [her] so in the use of [her] reason and senses, in that distressed time, that [she] did not use wicket and violent means to end [her] own miserable life” (20). Once Rowlandson rediscovered that “aloneness,” she was able to realign herself with His plan for her and identify the appropriate course of action. Succinctly put, once Rowlandson reached solitude, she was more intimate than ever with the Lord, because they were one entity, the tangible body and the sacred metaphysical being, not two separate pieces that fit together, but one piece comprised of the two essences.

Despite the fact that Rowlandson and God made up this single unit, the prisoner did acknowledge that she was the subordinate of the pair. When good things happened to her, she credited Him for the occurrence. For example, when ashes were thrown in her eyes and she was blinded, but woke up again with her sight regained, she wrote, “… have pity upon me, O ye my friends, for the hand of the LORD has touched me” (59). This idea of God’s metaphorical touch having the power to fully restore her, but only when and if he chose to do so, demonstrates His superiority over her. Even when she supposed that He was being overly harsh towards her, Rowlandson believed that it was due a higher reason that she could not know because, for what whatever intention, He did not need for her to know. In one of her darker moments during captivity, she wrote, “…God did not leave me to have any impatient work towards himself, as if his ways were unrighteous; but I knew that he laid upon me less than I deserve” (60). Ultimately, this shows that Rowlandson recognizes that God had complete power over her, as well as that she accepted that He would initiate things that she could not necessarily comprehend or want. Although inferior, she still made up a critical component of the relationship as she was the one that was physically able to carry out God’s wishes.

Even when writing her personal narrative, Rowlandson centered it around Bible verses, as if telling her life story would be incomplete without holy references; this is true, because scripture and Rowlandson’s relationship with God make up more than a significant portion of her existence. She spends so much of her time in the text just trying to make sense of God’s will, as well as relaying allegories to better augment and reinforce her adventure. Rowlandson wrote, “O the wonderful power of God that I have seen, and the experiences that I have had” (108), which wonderfully exhibits the magnitude of the Lord’s role in her life in just a few words. This exemplifies the great extent to which Rowlandson centers her life around God and his sacred works, just as she centers her own story around His.

In summation, Mary Rowlandson cannot not identify as an individual, but as the concrete manifestation of God’s will. She consisted of two presences intertwined within the physical body, one divine and one mortal. Instead of finding her own way in life, she was guided by the desires of her Lord and lived to fulfill her personal covenant with Him, to do good and carry out his wishes as the inferior but nevertheless integral half of the duo. Additionally, it is impossible to distinguish between Rowlandson’s secular and sacred work because everything she did was in God’s name, always acting for Him and never individualistically. Rowlandson found that she could best connect with the spirit within her when she could find solitude, for He was worked into her, not watching from the outside, but residing within, able to explore her deepest thoughts and most intrinsic desires.