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women writers of the long eighteenth century

Being Thankful for the Pain: Affliction in Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity


(It was definitely very grim)

I’ve been holding out on discussing Mary Rowlandson for a number of reasons. It is something I’ve written about and discussed at length in the past and she is a writer that falls on the very early end of the long eighteenth century. The historical religious context of the text can also be hard to navigate academically in a brief blog. However, as this is the month to remember the bloody history of English settlers and Native Americans in what was the New World, it seems to be an appropriate time to think about one woman’s response to the affliction of captivity and her thankfulness for such an experience.

Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God was originally published in Boston, then in London, in 1682.  The text recounts Rowlandson’s eleven week captivity among a band of united Indian tribes from New England in 1675, during King Phillip’s War.  The book went through three editions in its first year alone, becoming the first bestselling work published in the British American colonies.  Since its fifth edition in 1720, the story of Rowlandson’s captivity has never been out of print in the United States.

A large portion of the text outlines Rowlandson’s relationship with God through the lens of her captivity, and affliction is a concept that runs throughout her writing. Affliction, as it is conceived within a religious context, deals mainly with the belief that God tests the chosen and the faithful in order to reinforce an individual’s reliance on religious conviction. Puritans like Rowlandson, who adhered to a Calvinistic model of Protestantism, considered affliction a blessing from God as it offered proof of God’s concern for a person.

In her last paragraph, Rowlandson explicitly connects her captive experience with the idea of affliction. She closes her text by writing:

Before I knew what affliction meant, I was ready to sometimes wish for it. When I lived in prosperity […] I should be sometimes jealous least I should have my portion in this life, and the Scripture would come to my mind, Heb, 12.6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every Son whom he receiveth. But now I see the Lord had his time to scourge and chasten me.  The portion of some is to have their afflictions by drops, now one drop then another; but the dregs of the Cup, the Wine of astonishment: like a sweeping rain that leaveth no food, did the Lord prepare for my portion.  Affliction I wanted, and affliction I had, full measure (I thought) pressed down and running over; yet I see, when God calls a Person to any thing, and through never so many difficulties, yet he is fully able to carry them through and make them see, and say they have been gainers thereby.  And I hope I can say in some measure, as David did, It is good for me that I have been afflicted. (112)

While she positions herself as thankful for her relationship with God throughout her captivity, this argues that she and her readers should view her past pain as a blessing. She wanted affliction at one point in her life and it was given to her in spades, which makes her feel more knowledgeable and superior for having suffered. The status of this text would suggest others felt the same. This Puritan religious idea promoted by Rowlandson highlights the way lived experience in the American colonies gave women a space to gain importance and consequence in their home communities, especially when her publication and popularity are taken into consideration.

Even less than 100 years after it's original publication, Rowlandson's text is presented as representing a very assertive and authoritative woman.

Even less than 100 years after it’s original publication, Rowlandson’s text is presented as representing a very assertive and authoritative woman.

Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is filled with interesting moments of religious, social, economic, and political reflection. Her text is a study in dichotomies. She works within a religious and social Puritan framework that has a particularly strict concept of God and a violent aversion for Native Americans; however, as a woman, the fact that she discussed and became an authority on such issues worked to undermine the prominence and privileging of men’s voices in her community. While I can in no means condone her representation of Native Americans in her text, I can appreciate her willingness to overturn certain social assumptions just by writing. And her thankfulness for painful experience, though hard to fully understand from a twenty-first century perspective, is something to reflect on during this time of year. Finding good and strength in pain, be it in a secular or spiritual context, is something for which to be thankful.

If you’d like to read Rowlandson’s work for yourself, you can find it in its entirety here:

Scholarship of Rowlandson:

These three works are a little older, but each is a great consideration of Rowlandson in specific and captivity studies in the Atlantic World/ U.S. in general.

Burnham, Michelle. Captivity & Sentiment: Cultural Exchange in American Literature, 1682-1861. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth UP, 1997.

Castiglia, Christopher. Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture-Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago P, 1996.

Faery, Rebecca Blevins. Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race, and Sex in the Shaping of an American Nation. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1999.

One comment on “Being Thankful for the Pain: Affliction in Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity

  1. kristinaciminillo
    January 10, 2014

    The line “Affliction I wanted, and affliction I had” was the second line in a Found Poem passed out to us in Survey of American Lit today. This blog was very interesting and now I shall add Mary’s book to my goodreads “books to read” shelf. Thank you.

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This entry was posted on November 26, 2013 by .

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