The Narrative Of The Captivity And Restoration Of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson by Mary Rowlandson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I think I am on my fourth or fifth reading of this short book, and they have all been in an academic context, either as student of the text or teacher of it, and always, for that matter, from the Norton Anthology. Rowlandson’s narrative stands up to that many readings. Her style is lively, even verging on the epic, as at the in medias res beginning. She has a very observant eye, on the one hand, but also a powerfully allegorizing imagination; these often conflict with each other, which is the chief interest of the narrative in my view. Her account of her captivity among Native Americans during King Philip’s War is both a story about reading and rereading the Bible so as to understand and justify her harrowing experience (including the murder of her child and her sister) in terms of God’s rightful providence and also a story about that experience itself, shorn of higher meaning, expressed as a series of hard-to-interpret cultural encounters usually centered on food. As I told my students, this is a book about two things: reading and eating. Those two things occupy two distinct aesthetic planes: allegory and mimesis. Rowlandson the Bible-reader transforms experience into spiritual meaning so that her sufferings can be explained as the result of her religious failures while the “demonic” Indians become mere scourges of the Lord, instruments of His punitive will. Rowlandson the hungerer and eater keeps a humbly watchful and curious eye on how things work and how people act, even to the point of giving us recipes for Native American cooking. For her, no matter how hard she sometimes tries, food is not really a spiritual message but a physical necessity and even, eventually, a pleasure. In its tense demonstration of the Puritan problem—how to value the individual above all and still attribute every action and meaning to God—as a problem of cultural difference and enmity, Rowlandson’s narrative reminds me of Robinson Crusoe. But she got there before Defoe and, according to recent scholarship, was not less influential than he was on the development of the English and American novel. She wrote the first story of female virtue imperiled and female power and capacity in the face of threat. This is an ambiguous legacy, of course, at once feminist and imperialist, but it is the legacy to which Pamela and Jane Eyre and even, by attenuation, Mrs. Dalloway are heir. However we may judge the politics of this narrative, then, we must credit its profound intelligence in charting so vividly the literary and religious and cultural crises at the heart of modernity. It deserves for that reason its relatively new eminence in the canon of American and even Anglophone literature.