Mary White Rowlandson (1637?-1711)
Contributing Editor: Paula Uruburu
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The narrative is best approached from several perspectives, including literary (what makes it a work of literature?); historical (where does fact mix with fiction?); and psychological (what factors may be affecting Rowlandson's interpretation of her experience?).
Students respond well to the personal diary-like quality of the narrative and the trials Rowlandson undergoes. Although most side with her, some also recognize the hardships the Indians have experienced at the hands of the colonists.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
It is important for the students to get the straight historical facts about King Phillip's War during which Rowlandson was taken captive. This allows them to see both sides of the issues that caused the "war" and to better understand the Indians' plight as well as Rowlandson's reaction to her eleven-week captivity.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Discussion of the Indian captivity narrative as a genre is essential. Also, a background on Puritan sermons and their reliance upon the Word in the Bible is important since the movement/structure of the narrative juxtaposes real events with biblical comparisons or equivalents.
We discuss how the Puritans would have responded to the narrative and why Rowlandson wrote it. I ask students for their own reaction (with whom does their sympathy lie--the settlers or the Indians?). We then look at Franklin's essay "Some Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America" for an ironic comparison/contrast and then discuss the changes in perception from his time until now.
Feminist perspective: In what ways does this narrative lend itself to a greater understanding of the woman's place in Puritan history? How does being a woman affect Rowlandson's point of view?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Using Bradstreet's poetry (especially "Some Verses Upon the Burning of our House") and Winthrop's sermon, give two different views of the details and effects of covenant theology on ordinary people's lives and how they were expected to respond to traumatic or trying events and circumstances.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. How does the Narrative demonstrate Puritan theology and thinking at work?
2. In what ways does Rowlandson use her experience to reaffirm Puritan beliefs? How does she view herself and her fellow Christians? How does she see the Indians? What do her dehumanizing descriptions of the Indians accomplish?
3. Are there any instances where she seems to waver in her faith?
4. Why does Rowlandson distrust the "praying Indians"?
5. How does she use the Bible and varied scriptural allusions in her analysis of her captivity and restoration?
6. Does her world view change at all during her eleven weeks of captivity? Why or why not?
7. How does the Narrative combine/demonstrate/refute what Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation and John Winthrop in A Modell of Christian Charity had to say about the Puritan's mission in the New World?
After addressing any number of the above questions, aimed at a basic analysis of the Narrative, an instructor can then continue with a discussion of the possible motives Rowlandson had for writing it. This aspect appeals to students who are most interested in trying to understand the human being behind the prose.
1. Compare and contrast the Indian captivity narrative with the slave narrative genre. What elements and conventions do they share? How do they differ?
2. Explain how Rowlandson's narrative reinforces her world view. Where (if at all) does her covenant theology fail her or seem insufficient to explain actions and events?
Van Der Beets, Richard. Held Captive By the Indians: Selected Narratives 1642-1836. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973.
Burke, Charles. Puritans at Bay. New York: Exposition Press, 1967.
Drimmer, Frederick, ed. Captured By the Indians. New York: Dover, 1961. A collection of fifteen firsthand accounts from 1750-1870.
Slotkin, Richard, and James Folsom. So Dreadful a Judgment. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1978. Puritan responses to King Phillip's War.