Tough Love

Posted by Adam.

Mary Rowlandson, an innocent preacher’s wife, is swept up into the captivity of the ever-savage Indians and is taken off into the wilderness, ready to kill herself before she has to live in that condition.  Rowlandson, a devout Christian, couldn’t stand the “roaring, and singing, and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell” (Rowlandson, 14).  But, she complains much more than she actually explains the customs.  Was this a ritual practice after a successful raid, or simply heathens worshipping the devil? Rowlandson doesn’t care to say.  However, she makes it very apparent that she is following the scripture, and is the one favored by God, as in Daniel and the lions.  These Indians seem purely evil, raiding towns and snatching away women and children.  Apparently they even did this without much reason for doing so, because of course, those perfect Christians never did anything wrong to warrant such atrocious, uncivilized behavior, right?

Well versd in the Bible, she also finds a reason in any event for it to have been God’s intervention that caused such an outcome.  Even when she is able to cross the river without her feet becoming wet in the cold, it’s certainly not that the Indians built a raft and were kind enough to let her sit on it to travel across, keeping her feet dry. The only reasonable explanation is that God willed them to do this so that she may be protected, not that they’re not quite as heathen as she thought.  She even quotes, “When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee, and through the rivers they shall overflow thee. Isai. 43. 2” (Rowlandson 21).  With every event, she tries to compare herself to scripture or a biblical character, but what is the purpose for this?  Is Rowlandson implying a sense of holiness, as one of the chosen of God, or is she trying to maintain contrast between herself and the Indians, showing that even during times where they exhibit kindness, she is still in fact their prisoner?

Often times, these Pagans make out to be a lot more kind than Rowlandson would like to admit, as in when the Indians caught a Deer, she was given “a piece of the Fawn, and it was so young and tender, that one might eat the bones as well as the flesh, and yet I thought it very good” (Rowlandson, 33).  It wasn’t required that she be given any of the meat, yet she is given a choice selection, a sign of compassion.  Why would heathens show this kindness to one who doesn’t do so in return?  The Indians give her bits of food often, sometimes as a stipend for sewing work, and other times out of pure generosity, however she rarely reciprocates such deeds.  Throughout her travels, her only sense of gifting is when she gives the knife to her master, and is actually proud to have given him something that he found worth accepting.  So, a question comes to mind: why doesn’t she, as she considers herself more religious, show generosity to her captors, or at least accept that they have shown kindness, and if she really sees herself as so much better, why does she care for her master’s approval?  Finally, is religion really the deciding factor in one’s ability to be a good person?

Even with her poor view of the Indians, with “a vast difference between the lovely Faces of Christians, and the foul looks of those heathens: which much damped [her] spirit again,” Rowlandson seems to secretly grow to appreciate the Indians, though she won’t ever admit it (Rowlandson 35).  Her descriptions of the Indians go from as noted before, black and hellish, to still heathen, but described with more detail, as she somewhat accepts their dress and customs as not quite as terrible.  She later describes one custom as they begin “humming or muttering with their Mouths, and striking upon the Ground with their Hands” (Rowlandson 39).  Is she merely trying to show customs more vividly, so as to provide a historical account of the situation, or is this Rowlandson trying to make the reader believe that the Indians aren’t quite as vile as she once depicted?  Yet, even loosening up on the description of their actions, she still makes sure to make comments like, “I have been in the midst of those roaring Lions, and Salvage Bears, that feared neither God, nor Man, nor the Devil, by night and day” (Rowlandson, 46).  Yes, at times the Indians kicked her, or threw ashes in her face, but more times than not they were being kind in their actions, giving the hungry woman more food to eat, sometimes for a sewing job.  She, a prisoner, didn’t have to be given anything above the bare minimum, but was given certain respects which she would not reflect back, possibly because of her view as being their better, as a civilized Christian.

Rowlandson had an adept understanding of the Bible, believing that she had the hand of God on her side.  Quoting scripture with the Indians as the antagonists, was her purpose to make them seem all the more vile, or was she trying to hide her growing understanding of the people, as she spent over eleven weeks with them?  As details of their actions grew over time, her derogatory comments counteracted her descriptions of their customs, which had lost the negative connotations. Was Rowlandson ashamed that she could be turned to see the Indians as decent humans so she had to counteract herself, or was her description merely to help readers gain a greater understanding of the Indians customs?  In a broader sense, what was Rowlandson’s goal in including so much negative imagery in her writings?  Was it loathing and hatred for her captivity, or a clash between customs?

5 responses to “Tough Love

  1. In light of the entire narrative, Rowlandson does use an alarming amount of negative imagery, but as the story progresses, we see less and less of the Indians as “Enemies” but as people (Rowlandson 15). The beginning is riddled with offensive comments toward the Indians, ranging from “heathens” to “black creatures,” mirroring hell (Rowlandson 14). However, near the end of the narrative, Rowlandson focuses more on the actual life and society of the Indians, detailing the inner workings of Indian life. Another interesting idea is that while the Indians appear to be becoming more civilized, Rowlandson seems to be delving lower and lower. The extent to which Rowlandson falls is depicted in her hunger, such as when she accepts “Horse-liver” and fails to cook it thoroughly, causing the “blood about [her] mouth” (Rowlandson 23). Without knowing it, Rowlandson is writing a narrative about her fall from “civilized” behavior and about how the supposed “heathens” are truly more civilized than previously thought.

  2. Today in class we raised the question about whether or not a geographical aid of Mary Rowlandson’s journey is useful. I would argue that while it is useful it is dangerous. Looking at the text, Rowlandson gives little spatial indication, but rather speaks with respect to time (a similar style seen in the Odyssey). Now simply logistically and comprehensively, an aid of such sort would be helpful, as it would increase one’s understanding of what is happening. I find such an aid to be dangerous however because spatial Journey is not the point of this Narrative. The more significant ideas within this narrative are interpersonal and greatly relate to her growth – something explained by Rob in his comment.

  3. Yesterday in class we also spoke about Rowlandson’s growth throughout her captivity, and whether she showed any change in attitude. The passage I find most interesting and telling on this subject is where she says, “Before I knew what affliction meant, I was ready sometimes to wish for it… I should sometimes be jealous least I should have my portion in this life… but now I see the Lord had his time to scourge and chasten me… Affliction I wanted, and Affliction I had.” (50) Here we see a sort of before and after image of Rowlandson: “Before” being the preacher’s wife and desiring a trying religious experience to have her faith tested, an experience that others may cite her like she cites the bible. But, her “after” seems to have gained some perspective. She realizes that affliction isn’t the experience worthy of gloating that she thought it would be. Still, though, what is her narrative but a testament to the strength of her faith? And that makes me think, can a captivity narrative or diary ever be humble? Because, after all even if the text shows the character in a negative light, it still shows the character. Bad press is still press, right?

  4. I believe Rowlandson’s treatment of the Native Americans and the language she uses to describe them is a reflection of the times and her situation. She is a wealthy New Englander with no knowledge of anything outside of her own bubble, which would have been normal for a woman of her time. It is important to remember that she watches her child die in captivity. This would shock any woman, especially one who has been recently forced out of her home and her world, and into another. While her behavior is by no means justified, we cannot presume to judge her because there is no way of knowing what she is coping with mentally and emotionally. Her world has been ripped away and her family is falling apart. God seems to be the only constant in her life, so perhaps this is why she clings to the Bible and attempts to relate her life to its teachings.

  5. I think most of her negative comments were due to the clash of customs. She was a well-brought up woman who had never experienced Indian culture except for the negative attributes heard from the men. She was prim and proper, always knew her place, and never had anything bad happen to her. She was treated like a queen and then is thrown into a situation where no one cares who she is, who her husband is, or what she wants. She has to start from the beginning and relearn how to live. The problem is, she still retains all her memories so she knows what is “right” and knows that the Indians are doing “wrong”. She has trouble letting her old self go and beginning anew, which is not her fault at all. Customs and habits die hard, especially those that have been cultivated into adulthood. She clings to these habits because she knows that they are “right” and that God loved her with these habits. She is afraid of the unknown and doesn’t want to risk her future.

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