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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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 Native Americans’ savagery is actually connected to the natural world around them. The Native Americans 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 Native Americans and the settlers become more apparent. Wettimore is as vain as a rich white woman, “praying Indians” claim to have converted to Christianity, and Native Americans sometimes wear the colonists’ clothing. Rowlandson also recognizes her own capacity for uncivilized behavior. She finds herself eating and enjoying the Native Americans’ 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 Native Americans) eventually gives way to a worldview that contains more ambiguity.
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 Native Americans 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.
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 Native Americans sooner is that the Puritans have not yet learned their lesson. They are not humble and pious enough for the reward of victory.
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 Native Americans. 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Sovereignty and Goodness of God!