Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Captivity” is a poem about identity and culture. The history of the relationships between “Americans” (as the indigenous peoples were called by the early immigrants) and “Europeans” is a long and complicated one, and Erdrich is re-viewing that history. Erdrich, a twentieth century German-Chippewa woman, creates as her speaker a seventeenth century Puritan woman who travels and lives with a group that she would normally see as her family’s and culture’s enemies. If the narrator shares Mary Rowlandson’s views, shaped by the preaching of Puritan ministers, she would also see her captor and the others as allies of Satan, placed in the “New World” to tempt the Puritans from their religion and culture. Any understanding of or intimacy with a man from this group who are “not human” would be seen as endangering her soul. At the beginning of the narrative, the speaker fears learning to understand her captor, fears accepting food from him, because any intimacy with him will bring down God’s wrath on her.
By the end of the poem, the narrator has moved beyond her culture’s attitudes about the “Other,” and the experience changes her irretrievably. Rescued, she has lost any sense of her own culture’s “truth” and longs to join what she formerly rejected. The poem does not explicitly state that physical intimacy occurred, but a woman writing in the seventeenth century would probably not be able to say so explicitly, at least not in any published work. The intimacy has to be understood through images, through what is not said, and through changes in her. Even if no sexual act occurred, her vision at the end of the poem shows that she wishes to join in the circle, to join with them, in a chant which is probably of a religious nature. Even if she remained physically faithful to her husband, she has been spiritually changed. The poem’s theme subverts the expectations and attitudes of an earlier time and asks contemporary readers to think about those attitudes and about what has changed, or not changed, in the centuries following the events of this poem.