The Similar Effects of Audience Reception in Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity-Narrative and Equiano’s Slave-Narrative.
Captivity and slave narratives allow insight into the trauma that the victim experiences; however, the victim’s narrative is often influenced and therefore, altered, to conform to the society’s pressures at that time. Focusing on the reception of the audience creates a struggle for the writer which is seen in Mary Rowlandson’s captivity-narrative as well as Olaudah Equiano’s slave-narrative. While it is clear that Rowlandson’s captors are quite generous, Rowlandson is forced to conform and portray the natives as the Puritan community views them: as inferior savages. There are many instances in Rowlandson’s narrative where her statements are extremely contradictory, showcasing the striking difference between what Rowlandson actually experiences and how she writes it to appeal to her audience. Equiano faces a similar struggle. He writes his slave-narrative to demonstrate the inhumane struggles that black slaves face and to address the notion of integration instead of segregation. Equiano understands that his narrative must appeal to white audiences and therefore embellishes his story by adding untrue facts and conforms to ‘white culture.’ Both Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” and Olaudah Equiano’s slave narrative, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, Written by Himself,” are similar in the way that they both aim to please the primary audience for whom they are written, resulting in contradictory statements, embellishments, and conformity to society’s expectations of that time.
Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is full of opposing statements, a clear indicator that her actual experience is altered to appeal to the readers to whom she is writing this for. Michelle Burnham states that “[the] curious split in the narrative tone of Rowlandson’s narrative makes it seem as though the… observations of her physical journey were recorded by one voice, and the spiritual quotations and conclusions drawn from her experience recorded by another” (Burnham 61). Burnham also declares that Rowlandson’s inconsistencies are a result of “the individual psychology of the captive and the demands of Puritan society” (Burnham 61). Rowlandson’s account of her captivity is greatly influenced by the society surrounding her, forcing her to alter the way in which she writes her experience.
The difference between Rowlandson’s ‘two voices’ within her narrative is extremely important in analyzing her purpose for writing this narrative. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian states that there are two types of narration: “empirical narration… defines the author’s role as a participant, while rhetorical narration… defines her role as an interpreter and commentator” (Derounian 82). Derounian also concludes that Rowlandson’s differing voices are a symptom of “[conforming] to the Puritan doctrine of providential affliction” (Derounian 83). Clearly, Rowlandson’s native captors are quite generous as they “[carry her] poor wounded babe upon a horse… then they set [Rowlandson] upon the horse’s back with [her] wounded child” after getting tired (Rowlandson 260). The natives understand that Rowlandson and her child are wounded and tired. Instead of allowing Rowlandson to suffer, her captors generously offer her rest and help her make the journey easier. She illustrates the generosity of her captives again in another encounter that she writes about, stating: “I was fain to go and look after something to satisfy my hunger, and going among the wigwams, I went into one and there found a squaw who showed herself very kind to me, and gave me a piece of bear… In the morning I went to the same squaw, who had a kettle of ground nuts boiling. I asked her to let me boil my piece of bear in her kettle, which she did, and gave me some ground nuts to eat with it: and I cannot but think how pleasant it was to me” (Rowlandson 269). Rowlandson is clearly being treated with humanity and, more importantly, recognizes it. The “squaw” gives Rowlandson a piece of bear to eat, despite the fact that there is seemingly not a substantial supply of food. The natives she travels with are constantly scavenging for food in order to sustain themselves and yet, this woman selflessly offers Rowlandson some of her own food – an act of pure generosity. Despite addressing these hospitable acts of kindness, Rowlandson is constantly telling her readers that her captives are “barbarous creatures” (Rowlandson 259) and “inhumane creatures” (260). Rowlandson goes so far as to compare the Natives’ way of living to “a lively resemblance of hell” which is completely contradictory to what she actually describes (259). Rowlandson writes about her real experiences with the Natives, showing that they are generous and kind to her, yet she continuously refers to them in derogatory ways in order to appeal to her Puritan readers. Rowlandson is so concerned with audience reception that she includes these contradictory statements, whether unconsciously or consciously, and even over compensates by continuously referring to her experience as a religious test to guarantee the approval of her Puritan audience.
Rowlandson, on a number of occasions, refers to her experience as a religious journey or test. Derounian states that “as a Puritan writer, [Rowlandson] possessed the added responsibility of turning personal experience into public ideology” (Derounian 85). This part of Rowlandson’s narrative, in Derounian’s terms, is her rhetorical narrative. Rowlandson attempts to find meaning in her experiences and ultimately uses the Bible to do so. She writes with the purpose of appealing to the Puritan community and to do so, she must conform to the ideals imposed by the Puritan community. Rowlandson repeatedly quotes the bible and refers to her experience as a test from God. In the end, Rowlandson thanks God for “carrying [her] through so many difficulties, in returning [her] to safety” (Rowlandson 288). Rowlandson also turns to scripture countless times and makes a point to write about this fact. Rowlandson understands who her audience is and she knows that the only way they will accept her captivity-narrative is if she compliments her and her society’s religious beliefs. Rowlandson’s narrative is morphed into a spiritual journey in order to appeal to the public, the same way Equiano morphs his experience into more of a heart-wrenching slave-narrative.
Equiano adds false statements to his slave-narrative in order to appeal more towards his audience. Equiano’s aim is to show the Americans that enslaving black people is unjust. One way Equiano does this is by dramatizing his own personal experience in order to showcase just how terrible and gruesome so many other’s experiences are. Equiano’s journey from Africa to America is the most important dramatization. Ronald Paul writes: “Equiano was not in fact from Africa but born and raised in South Carolina, albeit as a slave” (Paul 848). Equiano could have written his slave narrative from his own real experiences of being born in America; however, he decides to incorporate this fabricated information. This is important in analyzing how Equiano gets his point across to his readers. Equiano writes with the same focus in mind as Rowlandson: audience reception. The suffering of the slaves who actually are forced to take the trip from Africa to America is a gruesome one. Equiano describes ‘his’ experience on the ship, stating that: “The stench of the hold… was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time… The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us… the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died… The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable” (Equiano 697). Despite this being a fictional experience to Equiano, it is something very real that happens to many slaves during this time. By incorporating this detail, Equiano is able to resonate with the readers. When reading this section of his slave-narrative, Equiano’s audience is able to fully understand the horrors that the slaves undergo and therefore feel more inclined to join the abolitionist movement. By stating that these horrors the slaves withstand in their travel from Africa to America are “almost inconceivable,” he makes sure that his readers know that he is not exaggerating – that these horrors which people believe to be unimaginable actually happen. To add on to this, Equiano opens his slave narrative by introducing his family and culture – his fictional life in Africa – in order to humanize black people to his white readers.
Equiano’s entire life in Africa is completely fictionalized; however, he incorporates what many slaves would have experienced before their capture for a very important reason. As Marc Hewson explains: it is difficult to ignore a person’s humanity when their life runs parallel to yours. This is exactly why Equiano incorporates the segment revealing many of the African slaves’ experiences in their homeland. Although the culture that Equiano describes is quite different from the white American culture, for example, “cutting the skin across at the top of the forehead” as a type of tradition, there are many similarities amongst the two cultures (Equiano 689). Equiano acknowledges the differences between the black slaves and the white people while simultaneously drawing similarities and running parallels between them. Equiano emphasizes the fact that the slaves who are kidnapped from Africa have families, traditions, dances, music and poets, just like the white Americans do (689). In this way, Equiano forces his readers to see him and the people of his culture as humans and makes it impossible for them to justify the treatment and oppression that Equiano and all black slaves face. Equiano knows that he must show his readers that black culture is just as legitimate as white culture; however, he also knows that he must appeal even more so to his white readers by actually being them.
Equiano conforms to the white culture that he is immersed in for the same reason that Mary Rowlandson adopts a cruel outlook towards the natives: to appeal to their intended audience. Susan M. Marren states that: “By referring to the enslaved Africans as his countrymen and suggesting that his own life has been violently disrupted by the slave trade, Equiano impresses the members of Parliament with the devastating impact their inattention to the abolitionist cause would have on countless individuals much like himself. At the same time, he flatters the Englishmen’s notion of the inherent superiority of their culture. This is a shrewd rhetorical gesture: recognizing that he must please the cause of abolition on and in the dominant culture’s terms, Equiano argues that the slave trade merits abolition because he… can appreciate the superiority of white, Western culture” (Marren 96). This is especially important when examining Equiano’s purpose in writing his slave-narrative. As previously stated, Equiano’s main goal is to abolish slavery and in order to do that, he knows that he must attract white readers by flattering them and reinforcing the idea that they are the “dominant culture.” Equiano even writes that he believes the white men to be “superior to [the black race]; and therefore [he] had the stronger desire to resemble them, to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners” (Equiano 703). Ronald Paul addresses the fact that Equiano is attempting to “not only… ‘imitate’ his former White masters but even ‘resemble’ them in every way” (Paul 848). The quote above from Equiano’s slave-narrative proves that his aim it to reach out “toward a White readership” (Paul 848). Examining this segment deeper, it is clear that Equiano is attempting to compliment white society. This may seem strange considering the fact that Equiano writes about so much suffering that he and many others endure at the hands of the white slave-owners; however, Equiano does this because he knows that if he attacks his white readers, he will lose his fight against slavery. Equiano is smart: he understands that, in order to achieve his goal of ending slavery, he must pick the right audience and alter his writing to appeal to them, the same way Mary Rowlandson does. Equiano continuously reminds his readers that he believes white people are superior, not because he believes it but because it is the only way to effectively achieve what he sets out to do in writing this narrative.
At first glance, Mary Rowlandson’s and Olaudah Equiano’s narratives appear to be completely opposite. Rowlandson’s aim in writing “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson” disguises itself as a rationalization for the oppression of Natives as well as a spiritual journey focusing on the positive aspects of Puritanism. On the other hand, Equiano’s narrative, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, Written by Himself,” appears to have the sole intention of abolishing slavery. Upon closer reading and analysis, both of these seemingly different narratives have one important aspect in common: they aim to appeal to a specific audience and are therefore altered to adhere to that. In a world dominated by Puritanism and rejection of Native culture, Mary Rowlandson must petition to her Puritan readers. This results in contradictory statements, making it unclear how Rowlandson actually feels towards her captors. She illustrates multiple instances in which she exposes the kindness and the generosity of the group of Natives with whom she is travelling with while simultaneously bashes them. Equiano, on the contrary, incorporates false stories into his narrative as well as compliments the white, Western society in order to ensure his likability amongst this ‘dominant’ race. Both of these narratives are forever altered in order to meet the needs of the society at the time of publication, proving that these narratives are actually quite similar in terms of their intentions.
1. Burnham, Michelle. “The Journey between: Liminality and Dialogism in Mary White Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative.” Early American Literature, vol. 28, no. 1, 1993, pp. 60–75. www.jstor.org/stable/25056920.
2. Derounian, Kathryn Zabelle. “Puritan Orthodoxy and the ‘Survivor Syndrome’ in Mary Rowlandson’s Indian Captivity Narrative.” Early American Literature, vol. 22, no. 1,1987, pp. 82–93. www.jstor.org/stable/25056648.
3. Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, Written by Himself.” The Norton Anthology American Literature, Edited by Nina Baym. 8th ed., vol. A. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012, pp. 688-721.
4. Hewson, Marc. American Literature, 11 October 2016, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON. Lecture.
5. Marren, Susan M. “Between Slavery and Freedom: The Transgressive Self in Olaudah Equiano’s Autobiography.” PMLA, vol. 108, no. 1, 1993, pp. 94–105. www.jstor.org/stable/462855.
6. Paul, Ronald. “‘I Whitened My Face, That They Might Not Know Me’: Race and Identity in Olaudah Equiano’s Slave Narrative.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 39, no. 6, 2009, pp. 848–864. www.jstor.org/stable/40282603
7. Rowlandson, Mary. “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” The Norton Anthology American Literature, Edited by Nina Baym. 8th ed., vol. A. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012, pp. 256-288.
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