Moving Targets: The Travel Text in 'A Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.'

By Wesley, Marilyn C. | Essays in Literature, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Moving Targets: The Travel Text in 'A Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.'


Wesley, Marilyn C., Essays in Literature


On February 20, 1676, Mary White Rowlandson and three of her children were taken captive at her Lancaster, Massachusetts home during one of the raids of the Native American uprising known as King Philip's War. Her account of that experience, published in Boston in 1682, was the first full-length work of what has come to be known as the Indian captivity narrative, but it is also by nature of its content the first travel book by a woman published in North America. For eighty-two days Rowlandson accompanied her captors - a small band of Wampanoag braves and all of their dependents - on a forced march that traversed and doubled back over a fifty-mile radius of New England between the Connecticut River and Wachusett Mountain. Rowlandson's narrative is really two accounts: the first, the story of spiritual progress signaled by her own title - The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson; the second, a woman's travel narrative, a peripatetic record which, like the course of her journey, crosses and double-crosses the straight path of her story of salvation, demonstrating that the contradictory trope of the woman traveler may express that which is suppressed in the dominant culture.

Rowlandson directly presents the objective of her religious account:

And here I may take occasion to mention one principal ground of my setting forth these lines: even as the Psalmist sayes, To declare the Works of the Lord, preserving us in the Wilderness, while under the Enemies hand, and returning of us in safety again, And His goodness in bringing to my hand so many suitable Scriptures in my distress. (57)(1)

It is this Puritan parable of God's providence and salvation, rather than the female travel narrative, that has been read by most critics and scholars. Richard VanDerBeets describes Rowlandson's narrative as "an intense and satisfying expression of profoundly felt religious experience" (Held 42) and makes Rowlandson's religion the basis for generic classification of all seventeenth-century captivity narratives as spiritual instruction (Indian 1-9).(2) Even Annette Kolodny, who astutely observes that Rowlandson's popular work presents the first publication of "a white woman's journey" through the wilderness, by concentrating on the typology of spiritual captivity, concludes that Rowlandson represents the captive heroine's anguish in a forbidding landscape rather than the adaptation to new surroundings paramount in the travel narrative.(3) And yet Rowlandson's pious instruction is always grafted on to the main text. For example, after Rowlandson sets forth her "principall ground" above, she again takes up her primary account: "But to Return, We travelled on till night; and in the morning, we must go over the River to Philip's Crew ..." (57).

This pattern of travel text and religious digression is especially striking in the initial paragraphs which describe the raid. Just before Rowlandson's captivity, her sister was "struck with a Bullett, and fell down dead over the threshold." Rather than continue her dramatic description of the life-threatening events, Rowlandson pauses to comment on her sister's regeneration, the Puritan realization of personal salvation through the emotional experience of the truth of God's word as revealed in the Bible that served as evidence of election:

In her younger years she lay under much trouble upon spiritual accounts, till it pleased God to make that precious scripture take hold of her heart, 2 Cor. 12.9. And he said unto me, my Grace is sufficient for thee. More than twenty years I have heard her tell how sweet and comfortable that place was to her. But to return: The Indians laid hold of us, pulling me one way, and the Children another.... (44)

There is no disputing that Rowlandson's interposition at such a juncture signals the extreme significance and genuine reassurance of her religious faith. …

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