How does A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson maintain its literary and cultural importance in American Literature?
A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) upholds its cultural relevance by revealing what it means to be a female subject within a hegemonic, patriarchal system. Female authors of seventeenth-century Puritan America face an inexorable code that upholds dominant, patriarchal values. While it was not uncommon for Puritan women to write, indeed most early American women kept diaries, women’s writing was contained to domestic subjects, such as piety and virtue. However, the publication and reception of Rowlandson’s text,which presents a personal account of an Englishwoman’s capture and subsequent captivity by Algonquian Native Americans in New England, offers an example of approved female writing in public discourse.
Rowlandson’s work navigates the conflict between being a female subject in American Puritan society and engaging in speech acts, specifically those speech acts that enter the public sphere. Nowhere is this clearer than near the end of the captivity narrative, after Rowlandson returns to Puritan society. Here, Rowlandson recalls an instance where a Native man and woman offered to help her escape captivity. Rowlandson rejects the proposal on the grounds that she will wait for God’s time. Later, after being liberated, Rowlandson celebrates God’s influence.
"O the wonderful power of God that I have seen…I have been in the midst of those roaring Lions, and Salvage Bears, that feared neither God nor Man, nor the Devil…and yet not one of them ever offered the least abuse of unchastity to me, in word or action. Though some are ready to say, I speak it for my own credit; but I speak it in the presence of God, and to his Glory… that I should come away in the midst of so many hundreds of Enemies, quietly and peaceably."
Taken out of context, exclamations such as “I have been in the midst of those roaring Lions [and] come away…quietly and peaceably” appear to suggest the speaker independently conquered an indomitable enemy. In a discourse that forbade public expression of female agency, a woman’s utterance of this magnitude, which attributes the woman as the acting subject, might border on social obscenity. However, Rowlandson couches her expression in Christian rhetoric and successfully retracts her agency. Rowlandson attributes all agency to God, stating that God “granted” her freedom. In redirecting agency to God, Rowlandson displaces herself as the acting subject. It seems, then, that in the act of retraction, Rowlandson limits the power of her own authorial voice and conforms to patriarchal values. Nevertheless, Rowlandson’s self-retraction forces readers to examine Rowlandson’s restrained, gendered position, an act which brings attention to American Puritan censorship and questions dominant Puritan value systems.
The most interesting moments in Rowlandson’s work are the slippages where she attempts to revoke female agency, but it ultimately remains to subtly provoke the boundaries of speakability. The present moments of female agency in the text effectively question regimes of censorship and power. For this reason, Rowlandson’s narrative remains applicable into the 21st century.
Quite simply, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary White Rowlandson maintains its literary and cultural importance by remaining of the few perfect examples of an American captivity narrative (my very favorite one, by the way).
Rowlandson recounts nearly twelve weeks of being captured and kept by the Wompanoag, a prominent Native American tribe known to aggravate settlers. (Supposedly there were other tribes involved in the capture as well, but Rowlandson always refers to them as "Indians," so the exact number of tribes involved has always been debated.) Much of the memorable scenes from Rowlandson's narrative are of the many journeys she endures while imprisoned, often being slapped rather roughly on the back of a horse. Others involve her children (who were also captured), and her sadness at the death of one of them (Sarah). The focus is often on the dual nature of the Wompanoag. One moment they are "bloody heathen ready to knock us on the head" while another they are showing both her and her children compassion providing blankets and wound dressing. This first-hand experience of Native American life (from a colonist's point of view) is yet another point of vast cultural significance.
A further reason why this captivity narrative has such literary significance is that it was written by a woman, ... something very unusual for the time. Perhaps even more unusual was the fact that Rowlandson's narrative was considered a "best seller," one of this nation's first.
Finally, a last bit of cultural significance would involve this narrative being both a Puritan and Christian account. Rowlandson often finds herself asking the universal question: Why? Why did God "strengthen" this tribe? Why were they provided as a "scourge" to the Puritans?