Puritan Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (hereafter referred to as "History") provides an intriguing combination of adventure story and didactic story. What is particularly interesting about the story is how Mrs. Rowlandson’s religious views clash with the reality of what she experienced.While Mrs. Rowlandson fails to acknowledge that there is more at play than Divine Providence, a close examination of her writing reveals that her own personal efforts played an important role in her survival.
In order to understand the narrative, one must understand Puritanical thinking. Divine Providence held that God’s Hand was at play in everyday events. If something good happened, it was a sign that God was happy. If something bad happened, it meant that God was displeased. The Puritans believed that God predestined who would go to Heaven. However the Puritans did not know who was predestined thus they made every effort to do good deeds. Many Puritans also believed that they were God’s “Chosen People” (much like the Israelites were). Part of this belief was that they were colonizing America for the Lord and that Satan wanted to impede their progress. The Puritans believed that Satan used the Indians to hamper them and that the Indians were demon possessed.
History is a captivity narrative, an early form of American writing. A captivity narrative is story that tells of a colonist’s captivity by indigenous peoples and their struggle to survive. It seems almost inevitable that in a land where colonists encountered indigenous peoples and hostilities arose, that people would be taken captive. The captivity narrative offered readers a look at a foreign culture along with the drama of how a white person lived amongst strangers. Mrs. Rowlandson’s work was wildly popular and is considered to be America’s first best-seller.
History appealed to readers on two levels. First, it had the attraction of a good adventure story and exploration of Indian culture. Mary Rowlandson went deeper into the interior than any other white person before her.Her account of her three months with the Indians and its often graphic description of Indian brutality undoubtedly had a sensational aspect that appealed to readers.
In History, Mrs. Rowlandson talks of her many harrowing experiences amongst the Indians. She describes the Indians’ initial attack on her town and the brutal slaying of her neighbors and family. Her ordeal includes watching one of her children die, seeing a white woman thrown into a fire, her own battles with Indian women, and struggles over basic things such as food and shelter. History also plays out as an adventure story due to the ongoing hunt by the English army for Mrs. Rowlandson and the Indians’ efforts to stay ahead.
The second level of History was that of a religious confessional and reaffirmation of Christian life. During her captivity, Mrs. Rowlandson examines her pre-captivity life to find an answer to why God has chosen her to be taken captive. She relies on Puritan beliefs to explore these questions and ultimately comes to believe that the experience is a reaffirmation of her spiritual life.
Like everything in Puritan life, religion was a significant component of Mrs. Rowlandson’s story.At the very beginning, Mrs. Rowlandson comments, “…yet the Lord by his Almighty power, preserved a number of us from death” (187). Mrs. Rowlandson makes extensive use of Bible passages to compare her ordeal to that of other Christians. When she is given a Bible to read, she opens the Bible and finds Deuteronomy 28 which deals with God’s blessings for obedience and God’s curses for disobedience. Dismayed at first, she reads on and notes, “But the Lord helped me still to go on reading, till I came to Chap. 30, the seven first verses; where I found that there was mercy promised again, if we would return to him by repentance” (192).
Time after time, Mrs. Rowlandson links her personal experiences with Bible passages. When she is hungry and has nothing to eat but horse-liver, she tries it and finds it tasty. She recalls a passage from the Book of Proverbs, “For to the hungry Soul every bitter thing is sweet” (198). When an angry Indian woman throws ashes in her face and nearly blinds her, Mrs. Rowlandson hopes she is not being sacrilegious when she compares herself to the long-suffering Old Testament character Job who lamented “Have pity upon me, have pity upon me” (201).
In the end Mrs. Rowlandson believes that she was taken captive by the Indians in order that God might transform her spiritually into a better Christian. She talks of how, “Before I knew what affliction meant, I was ready sometimes to wish for it.” (220)
Mrs. Rowlandson recalls the Scripture passage “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth”. She says “Affliction I wanted, and Affliction I had” (221). Her captivity has given her a greater appreciation for the Lord and a desire to grow closer to Him.