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The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

Mary Rowlandson

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Important Quotations Explained

Themes

The Blurred Line Between Civilization and Savagery

Even though Rowlandson’s forced journey from civilization into the wilderness culminates in a triumphant return to civilization, her once-clear conception of what is and is not “civilized” undergoes a radical and permanent shift. Initially, Rowlandson views civilization as that which is not savage or not wilderness, and at times she implies that the Indians’ savagery is actually connected to the natural world around them. The Indians eat coarse food such as horse meat and bear, they live in wigwams, and they spend their days traveling through forests and swamps. As a result, she speculates, they are violent savages. Later, however, similarities between the Indians and the settlers become more apparent. Wettimore is as vain as a rich white woman, “praying Indians” claim to have converted to Christianity, and Indians sometimes wear the colonists’ clothing. Rowlandson also recognizes her own capacity for uncivilized behavior. She finds herself eating and enjoying the Indians’ food, and at times she behaves with a callousness comparable to that of her captors. No longer are civilization and savagery so distinct. Rowlandson’s initial vision of the world as a place defined by opposites (good and evil, civilization and savagery, Puritans and Indians) eventually gives way to a worldview that contains more ambiguity.

Life Is Uncertain

The attack on Lancaster and Rowlandson’s subsequent captivity teach Rowlandson that life is short and nothing is certain. All of the seeming stability of life, including material possessions, can disappear without warning, even during a single day. Rowlandson’s descriptions of her time with the Indians reinforce this lesson: nothing, during her captivity, is consistent. One day, her captors treat her well, while the next day they give her no food or reprimand her without reason. One day, they tell her she’ll soon be sold to her husband; the next day, she is forced to travel farther into the wilderness. In her captive state, Rowlandson can take nothing for granted. She does not even know for sure if she’ll survive the experience.

The Centrality of God’s Will

As a Puritan, Rowlandson believes that God’s grace and providence shape the events of the world. She and other Puritans also believe that God arranges things for a purpose. Throughout her narrative, Rowlandson argues that humans have no choice but to accept God’s will and attempt to make sense of it. Rowlandson’s attempt to understand involves drawing parallels between her own situation and biblical verses. She compares herself to Job, to the Israelites, and to Daniel in the lion’s den, among others. Like these biblical figures, she is at the mercy of God’s will and grace. Everything in her narrative, she believes, happens for a reason, and the reason British troops do not defeat the Indians sooner is that the Puritans have not yet learned their lesson. They are not humble and pious enough for the reward of victory.

The Fear of the New World

In her narrative, Rowlandson explores the fearful hesitation white settlers feel in the face of new environments and experiences. Rowlandson, like other Puritans, is unsure how far the colonists should forge into the wilds. Lancaster is a frontier settlement, and the attack serves as a sign that perhaps the settlers are pushing too far west, too far from their established towns. However, Rowlandson goes still farther inland when she is taken captive, and her experience brings her even further from what she knows. She and other captives, such as Robert Pepper, are able to amass practical knowledge about the natural world during their time with the Indians. Rowlandson learns to gather food for herself and to tolerate meats that would formerly have repulsed her. Though this practical knowledge is positive, it also brings anxiety and guilt because Rowlandson fears leaving “civilization” behind.

Motifs

The Threatening Landscape

The threatening wilderness through which Rowlandson moves characterizes the dangers and threats of the New World as a whole. Rowlandson’s journey begins with an uphill trek, which suggests the difficulties to come. From the summit, Rowlandson gets the last glimpse of civilization she’ll have for some time. The next day, the travelers set off down a steep hill, and Rowlandson and her daughter tumble off their horse: their descent into the hell of the wilderness has begun. The landscape grows increasingly bleak, and Rowlandson crosses desolate swamps, dark thickets, and icy streams. As she travels, Rowlandson sees farmlands gone to waste and slaughtered farm animals, and she fears the triumph of the Indians and the dark, unknown wilderness over the order and reason of civilization.

Christian Imagery and the Bible

Rowlandson frequently quotes the Bible and alludes to biblical tales, which emphasizes her own faith, her own knowledge of the scriptures, and their centrality in her life. She also uses the Bible to reinforce her descriptions of a world of dichotomies: punishment and retribution, darkness and light, and evil and good. By casting the Indians as children of the devil, Rowlandson depicts them as a large, permanent enemy. That is, the Indians are not just the enemy of the colonists in this war, in a specific time and a place, but rather represent the enemies of Christianity, goodness, and light throughout all time. By alluding to the Bible so frequently, Rowlandson turns her own story into an epic and allegorical tale that is broader than the story of one woman’s captivity.

Symbols

The Attack on Lancaster

The attack on Lancaster, described as a fiery inferno, represents God’s wrath and the strife and chaos of King Philip’s War as a whole. When Rowlandson describes the start of the attack, she writes that “several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven.” This image of smoke rising to heaven suggests ritual sacrifice and emphasizes that this attack has religious meaning and is more than just a random or political attack.

Robert Pepper’s Oak Leaves

The oak leaves, which Robert Pepper helps Rowlandson use to heal her wound, suggest the positive potential of nature. In addition to being a dangerous temptation, the natural world can also be a means of curing a person’s ills. One must be taught, however, how to use nature’s bounty, and God must be willing to provide assistance as well. That the natural world proves to be a source of healing is also a threat to Rowlandson, since she has always linked the wilderness with savagery, not civilization. These healing leaves help Rowlandson develop a different, more ambiguous perspective on the world.

The Indians’ Clothing

The Indians Rowlandson encounters often dress in the colonists’ clothes. Sometimes this is a sign that the Indians are converts to Christianity, but at other times it signifies their savagery, since the clothes are from enemies they have killed and towns they have ransacked. The Indian in British clothes, then, suggests the unreliability of outward appearances. Though the Indians may look civilized, Rowlandson suspects—though she is not certain—that they are still savages underneath.

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