Mary Rowlandson Essay - Critical Essays

Rowlandson, Mary


Mary Rowlandson 1637?-1711

American autobiographer.

Rowlandson was the author of a single work, The Soveraignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), a chronicle of her eleven-week captivity by Algonquian Indians. This account—generally referred to simply as Rowlandson's Narrative— was one of the earliest autobiographical works published by an Anglo-American woman and was arguably the first Indian captivity narrative, marking the beginning of a new genre that would remain popular until the nineteenth century. Many critics consider it one of the best works of its type ever written and point to its influence on not only on subsequent captivity narratives, but on the development of the novel and on the formation of white attitudes towards Native Americans. Rowlandson's Narrative is also valued by scholars for what it reveals about Puritan and Native American cultures and societies.

Biographical Information

Rowlandson was born Mary White around 1637 in Somerset, England, one of ten children born to John and Joan White. While she was an infant she immigrated with her mother and siblings to the American colonies, joining her father, who had preceded them. The family lived in several communities in Massachusetts before settling in the new village of Lancaster in 1653. There, the Whites became prominent landowners. In 1656 Rowlandson married Joseph Rowlandson, the minister of the local Puritan church. The couple had four children, three of whom survived infancy. On February 10, 1676, during the so-called King Philip's War, which pitted the united Algonquian tribes against the English colonists, a Wampanoag war party attacked Lancaster, killing many of the residents and destroying the town. However, the Wampanoags took Rowlandson, her three children, Mary, Joseph, and Sarah, and several other colonists captive. Rowlandson was injured in the attack, but her wounds were not as severe as those of her youngest child, Sarah, who later died during captivity. Separated from her older children, Rowlandson was held for eleven weeks. She experienced starvation, physical abuse, and hardship from the many “removes,” or forced relocations; she saw acquaintances brutalized and killed. Rowlandson relied on her faith in God to survive, interpretating her experiences in religious terms. After being ransomed on May 2, 1676, Rowlandson was reunited with her husband; their surviving children were released shortly thereafter. The family spent the next year in Boston before moving to Wethersfield, Connecticut, in 1677. Rowlandson probably wrote the original draft of the Narrative in this period and circulated the work among friends. Within a year of her husband's death in 1678, Rowlandson was remarried, to Captain Samuel Talcott, a gentleman farmer and leader of the Connecticut colony. Her Narrative was published in 1682, probably at the urging of Increase Mather, who prized it as a work of moral instruction. Mather likely assisted in its publication and was probably the author of the preface featured in early editions of the book. Rowlandson herself was apparently involved in the publication of the first edition only. Little else is known about the rest of Rowlandson's life, save that she outlived her second husband as well. Rowlandson died in Wethersfield on January 5, 1711.

Major Works

Rowlandson's Narrative chronicles her experiences during the eleven weeks in 1676 that she was held captive by Native Americans after a raid on her community. The account is written in a simple, colloquial style, which at intervals gives way to a more elevated and rhetorical style employing biblical quotation and allusion. Throughout, Rowlandson casts her story as a spiritual autobiography, presenting her captivity and its tribulations as a test or punishment from God and using the occasion as an opportunity for a close examination of her soul. Divided into twenty sections corresponding to the “removes,” the Narrative begins with a description of the raid, progresses through the actual captivity experience with its enforced marches between locations, and ends with Rowlandson's release. In the process of telling her story, Rowlandson reveals much about Puritan culture and attitudes towards women and Native Americans; similarly, she provides information about Native American culture, though often without appreciating or even clearly understanding it. Rowlandson's autobiographical account of her internment established the model for subsequent captivity narratives, and her emphasis on her role as mother laid the groundwork for later women's writing, including some African American slave narratives.

Critical Reception

Immediately popular upon its release in 1682, Rowlandson's Narrative went through four editions in its first year alone and has been published in some forty editions since that time. Early on it was admired as a fervent expression of Puritan religious belief. Almost from the first, however, Rowlandson's account and subsequent captivity narratives were used to justify the removal of Native Americans from lands being settled by English colonists. By the eighteenth century the depictions in these works of white settlers—especially women—suffering at the hands of Indians were used to garner support for wars against Native Americans. In the nineteenth century aspects of captivity narratives were incorporated into popular novels by James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Brockden Brown, and others. By the twentieth century, as the popularity of Rowlandson's book waned, critical interest in it increased. Scholars such as Richard Slotkin and James K. Folsom, Margaret H. Davis, Deborah J. Dietrich, and many others have analyzed the Puritan culture represented in Rowlandson's Narrative, while others, including Laura Arnold, have examined the picture of Algonquian culture the text provides. Related studies by Deborah J. Dietrich, Christopher Castiglia, Teresa A. Toulouse, and Steven Neuwirth, have focused on gender roles and the process of identity-formation in the Puritan society Rowlandson depicts. Parley Ann Boswell has stressed Rowlandson's presentation of herself as a mother and has traced the influence of the Narrative on later women's writing. David Downing and Dawn Henwood have explored Rowlandson's use of biblical references, and Michelle Burnham has linked the author's use of such material to the presence of dual narrative voices in the work. Burnham has seen the use of separate “colloquial” and “biblical” voices as deriving from the contact between European and Native American cultures in the text. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian for her part has viewed this narrative split as resulting from “a clash of codes between Rowlandson's psychological and religious interpretations of her experience.” Critics have also examined the Narrative as an influential work of literature, comparing it to other captivity narratives and, by common consensus, judging it the founding work of a uniquely American genre. Many have characterized its influence in even broader terms, regarding Rowlandson's Narrative as a work that contributed to the creation of a national identity. Rebecca Blevins Faery has investigated how the account was employed in the process of formulating an American identity based on white male superiority. Slotkin and Folsom, summarizing the central role the Narrative played in the development of American culture, have declared: “Rowlandson's book is … to be taken not only as the creation of a Puritan myth, but as the starting point of a cultural myth affecting America as a whole. Gradually, ‘the captivity’ became part of the basic vocabulary of American writers and historians, offering a symbolic key to the drama of American history: a white woman, symbolizing the values of Christianity and American civilization, is captured and threatened by a racial enemy and must be rescued by the grace of God (or, after the Puritan times, by an American hero).”

Principal Works

The Soveraignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Commended by her to all that Desire to Know the Lord's Doings to, and Dealings with Her. Especially to her Dear Children and Relations. [republished as A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister's Wife in New-England: Wherein is set forth, The Cruel and Inhumane Usage she underwent amongst the Heathens for Eleven Weeks time: And her Deliverance from them. Written by her own Hand, for her Private Use: and now made public at the earnest Desire of some Friends, for the Benefit of the Afflicted, 1682] (autobiography) 1682


Richard Slotkin and James K. Folsom (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Mary Rowlandson: Captive Witness,” in So Dreadfull a Judgement: Puritan Responses to King Philip's War, 1676-1677, edited by Richard Slotkin and James K. Folsom, Wesleyan University Press, 1978, pp. 301-12.

[In the following essay, Slotkin and Folsom examine Rowlandson's work as both a captivity narrative and part of Puritan mythology and culture.]

“On the tenth of February 1675, came the Indians with great numbers upon Lancaster: Their first coming was about sun-rising; hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out; several houses were burning and the smoke ascending to heaven.” So Mrs. Mary Rowlandson begins the first and probably the finest example...

(The entire section is 4465 words.)

David Downing (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “‘Streams of Scripture Comfort’: Mary Rowlandson's Typographical Use of the Bible,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 15, No. 3, Winter, 1980, pp. 252-59.

[In the essay that follows, Downing analyzes how Rowlandson uses the Bible and biblical phrases in her Narrative.]

Mary Rowlandson's Indian captivity narrative is saturated with references to the Bible. In her account of the ordeal (about twenty thousand words), Rowlandson draws on Scripture more than eighty times in the form of direct quotations, allusions to biblical characters, or echoes of biblical phrases.1 These frequent references to the Bible are used to interpret her experience...

(The entire section is 3345 words.)

Kathryn Zabelle Derounian (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Puritan Orthodoxy and the ‘Survivor Syndrome’ in Mary Rowlandson's Indian Captivity Narrative,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 82-93.

[In the following essay, Derounian argues that the narrative duality in Rowlandson's work is the result of a tension between her religion and the psychological trauma she endured during her captivity..]

“Deut. 32.29, See now that I, even I am he, and there is no God with me: I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal neither is there any can deliver out of my hand.

(From the title page to the Cambridge “second...

(The entire section is 5017 words.)

Kathryn Zabelle Derounian (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Publication, Promotion, and Distribution of Mary Rowlandson's Indian Captivity Narrative in the Seventeenth Century,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3, 1988, p. 239-61.

[In the essay that follows, Derounian discusses the dissemination and reception of Rowlandson's work from the first printing to the early 1800s, investigating various editions and how they served the book's different audiences.]

One of the first American best sellers with an estimated minimum sale of 1,000 in 1682 (Mott 303), Mary Rowlandson's only work—her dramatic first-person account of three months' captivity among the Indians in New England—was published in four...

(The entire section is 8732 words.)

Margaret H. Davis (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Mary White Rowlandson's Self-Fashioning as Puritan Goodwife,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1, 1992, pp. 49-60.

[In following essay, Davis explores how Rowlandson's acceptance of her role in the Puritan social order affects her point of view in her Narrative and how this acceptance allowed the work to be published.]

While hierarchical and logocentric prescriptions for seventeenth-century American Puritan society would appear to allow no room for assertive female activity outside the domestic sphere, the publication of The Soveraignty and Goodness of God … ; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs Mary...

(The entire section is 4944 words.)

Teresa A. Toulouse (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “‘My Own Credit’: Strategies of (E)Valuation in Mary Rowlandson's Captivity Narrative,” in American Literature, Vol. 64, No. 4, December, 1992, pp. 655-76.

[In following essay, Toulouse argues that an important function of Rowlandson's Narrative is to ensure the author's reintegration into the society from which she had been abducted, and she examines several strategies that Rowlandson employed to achieve this end.]

After detailing God's “strange” providences to her Indian captors in the twentieth remove of her Narrative, Mary Rowlandson pauses to acknowledge a special providence to herself:

O the...

(The entire section is 9282 words.)

Michelle Burnham (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Journey Between: Liminality and Dialogism in Mary White Rowlandson's Captivity Narrative,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1993, pp. 60-75.

[In the essay that follows, Burnham examines the significance of Rowlandson's two narrative voices, the “colloquial” and the “biblical,” arguing that this dialogism arises from her Puritan, European culture coming into contact with the Native American culture of her captors.]

In the introductory segment of her captivity narrative, before the story becomes structured into a series of “removes,” Mary Rowlandson succinctly states her purpose: “that I may the better declare what happened to...

(The entire section is 6946 words.)

Deborah J. Dietrich (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Mary Rowlandson's Great Declension,” in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 24, No. 5, 1995, pp. 427-39.

[In the following essay, Dietrich argues that by being allowed to write her story, Rowlandson moved beyond the traditional Puritan expectations for women and that the experience changed her into a self-reliant person in some ways.]

Mary Rowlandson spent eleven weeks and five days in captivity among the Wampanoag, Nipmuck, and Narragansett Indians; during this time she traveled over 150 miles. Her captivity narrative, A True History of the Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, was published in 1682...

(The entire section is 5504 words.)

Christopher Castiglia (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Her Tortures Were Turned into Frolick: Captivity and Liminal Critique, 1682-1862,” in Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture-Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst, The University of Chicago Press, 1996, pp. 41-86.

[In the excerpt that follows, Castiglia argues that Rowlandson's book reveals that her experiences as a captive challenged her Puritan beliefs, changed her identity, and forced her to find the means to act on her own.]

Anglo-America's first captivity narrative, published in 1682, commences a long tradition of exploration by white female captives of the relationships between racial and gender identities and...

(The entire section is 3518 words.)

Laura Arnold (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “‘Now … Didn't Our People Laugh?’ Female Misbehavior and Algonquian Culture in Mary Rowlandson's Captivity and Restauration,” in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1997, pp. 1-28.

[In following essay, Arnold discusses how Rowlandson lacks understanding of the culture of her Algonquian captors and what her work reveals about their society, especially its humor.]

Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open...

(The entire section is 10241 words.)

Dawn Henwood (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Mary Rowlandson and the Psalms: The Textuality of Survival,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2, 1997, pp. 169-86.

[In the following essay, Henwood explores how Rowlandson uses the Psalms in her text and the importance of them in Puritan religion.]

[God] gave [David] the “shield of his salvation,” and girded him with strength to battel; and gave him the necks of his enemies, that he destroyed those that hated him. Therefore he gave thanks unto the Lord among the nations, and sang praises unto his name, awaking up his glorie, awaking up his Psalterie and Harp, awaking himself early, to praise the Lord among the peoples, and...

(The entire section is 8304 words.)

Parley Ann Boswell (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Mary White Rowlandson Remembers Captivity: A Mother's Anguish, a Woman's Voice,” in Women's Life-Writing: Finding Voice/Building Community, edited by Linda S. Coleman, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997, pp. 109-18.

[In the following essay, Boswell focuses on how Rowlandson defined herself by her sex and how her Narrative shows special concern for mothers and children.]

With troubled heart and trembling hand I write,
The heavens have changed to sorrow my delight

—Anne Bradstreet

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace,...

(The entire section is 3908 words.)

Steven Neuwirth (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Her Master's Voice: Gender, Speech, and Gendered Speech in the Narrative of the Captivity of Mary White Rowlandson,” in Sex and Sexuality in Early America, edited by Merril D. Smith, New York University Press, 1998, pp. 55-86.

[In the essay that follows, Neuwirth looks at Rowlandson's work in terms of gender politics, arguing that the text features multiple narrators who favor a Puritan male ideology and its construction of femininity; he notes, however, that a female voice eventually does emerge.]

The captivity narrative of Mary White Rowlandson, long a staple of American literature anthologies, has come under new scrutiny of late.1 More than a...

(The entire section is 13541 words.)

Rebecca Blevins Faery (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Mary Rowlandson Maps New Worlds: Reading Rowlandson,” in Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race, and Sex in the Shaping of an American Nation, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999, pp. 52-77.

[In the following excerpt, Faery examines how Rowlandson's text was used in the formation of an American national character and identity founded on white male supremacy.]


So much has been made for so long of Rowlandson's interpretive biblical voice, of her structuring use of the Bible and conventional Puritan theology to comprehend her experience, one is tempted to believe that the preface writer's directive to read the...

(The entire section is 9971 words.)

Further Reading


Greene, David L. “New Light on Mary Rowlandson.” Early American Literature, 20, No. 1 (Spring 1985): 24-38.

Offers information on Rowlandson's life after her captivity.


Breitwieser, Mitchell Robert. American Puritanism and the Defense of Mourning: Religion, Grief, and Ethnology in Mary White Rowlandson's Captivity Narrative, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, 234 p.

Book-length interdisciplinary critique of Rowlandson's work and the culture in which it was written.

Diebold, Robert K. “Mary Rowlandson.” In American Writers...

(The entire section is 293 words.)