Compare and contrast Mary Rowlandson’ A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration with Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
We might expect these two texts to be completely different from each other because they come from such different genres. A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration is an example of the captivity narrative genre, which was very popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and beyond – until the American frontier was finally closed towards the end of the nineteenth century. They always involved European prisoners, held captive or hostage by indigenous tribes people, before being rescued or freed as part of a hostage deal. By contrast, slave narratives were written by African –Americans who had been transported as slaves to the USA and other European colonies. They are far more numerous than captivity narratives and were also used for political purposes as the case of the abolition of slavery gathered pace in the 19th century. By their very nature, slave narratives tend to be more fully autobiographical than captivity narratives as we shall see in this essay. Rowlandson’s book A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration deals only with the period of her captivity.
Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration (1682) is a deeply Christian work as you would expect from a New England Puritan. Rowlandson finds comfort and refuge in her Bible and is always quoting the Bible either to give herself determination or stamina to carry on or to draw comfort when things turn out badly. there are pints in the narrative where the natives show her kindness and mercy to her – and again the Bible is used again to explain or justify the actions of the “heathens” as Rowlandson calls them throughout the text. For example, in ‘The Thirteenth Remove’ at a low point on a Sunday, the Sabbath, she comforts herself with “For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee. “ (Isaiah 54.7) at the very end of the text, when has been reunited with her husband, she says in conclusion to the text:
Yet I see, when God calls a person to anything, 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.” (p 340)
In one sense, then we might see this text as a piece of Puritan propaganda – showing that faith in God will save us and that the “heathen” somehow deserve to have their lands taken from them.
The other overwhelming impression that a reader gets from Rowlandson is a sense o chaos. Her chapters are called ‘Removes’ and this reflects the nomadic life she leads with the natives during her captivity. The tribes were naturally nomadic, but also keep on the move to avoid English reprisals against them for their attacks on English settlements. Rarely does Rowlandson know where she is or what is going to happen to her. The fact that she cannot properly communicate with her captors (she does not speak their language) also adds to the sense of confusion and chaos. We rarely know the names on the natives – because Rowlandson did not know them. She comes into contact fleetingly with her own son from time to time and with her niece, but the narrative relates a confused series of movements around the wilderness with Rowlandson struggling to find enough food to stay alive and often feeling under threat from the natives.
Rowlandson shows little curiosity about the lives of her captors but does describe their varied diet in disapproving terms in ‘The Twentieth Remove’ (p 336), but generally she is more content o dwell on their barbarity and their fickleness. She seems never to know what behaviour to expect from them: as she writes in the ‘Tenth Remove’ “Sometimes I met with favour, sometimes with frowns.” (p 322) What is also interesting ( for all Rowlandson’s criticism of the natives) is that she is quite often the recipient of random acts of kindness from natives whom she does not know who give her shelter for the night or who share their food with her. She also makes clear towards the end of the text that she has not been sexually attacked or harassed during her captivity. Having said that, she has also witnessed the stripping and burning alive of a white woman and her baby (p 316) The clash of cultures between Christian Europeans and pagan natives leads to mutual incomprehension on both sides, it seems.
Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is very different type of text. It takes place over several years and it is more carefully and consciously plotted. Some characters have been given fictional names, although all the events are true. Linda, the central character, is Harriet Jacobs and the book was published on the eve of the American Civil War with the intention of drawing attention to the cruelties and barbarities of slavery. It is set in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Jacobs’ account of her sufferings is told at a more leisurely pace than Rowlandson’s and we come to know all the characters better as a result. The two main similarities between the texts are the way they both act texts of propaganda almost, and the way that they deal with vulnerable women in hostile and threatening circumstances. The major difference in their situations is an important one: Rowlandson has some monetary value as a hostage and eventually her husband pays to have her returned. Linda has a monetary value to but she belongs to her owner and, because she runs away and makes it to the North she runs the risk of being arrested under the law and returned to Dr Flint.
Jacobs’ text begins in a light and optimistic manner because Linda lives with her mother and father i a family unit and they are treated very well by their female owner. However, her owner dies and she becomes the property of Dr Flint who harasses her sexually. Jacobs is trying to draw attention to the ills of slavery, but also to the fact that women in particular were very vulnerable under the system of slavery: their owners could do anything to them, because, under the law, they owned – even rape of a slave woman was not illegal. Of her own choice, Linda has two children by a neighbouring white farmer, Mr Sands. When Dr Flint hears of this he decides to send Linda to the fields to do hard manual labour and sell her two children. Linda has to spend year in the attic of her grandmother’s house, i an attempt convince Flint that she has escaped to the north. She finally does escape to Washington, but she is still pursued by Flint: Linda is a runaway slave and can be arrested and taken back. She runs away to Boston and is re-united with her son, Benny. She finds work with a pleasant family, the Bruces, and Linda works as a nanny to the family’s children, even spending a year in England – where for the first time in her life she experiences no racial prejudice. However, upon her return to the States she is still pursued by Dr Flint’s daughter and Mrs Bruce buys Linda to keep her in the North. Linda resents still being bought and sold like an object, and she also regrets that she has never has a proper home with her children. So unlike Rowlandson’s text Jacobs’ ends with a sense of disappointment, of battles still to be fought over slavery and racial prejudice.
I think another vital difference between the two texts is that Rowlandson hates and despises the way of life of her captors, but Jacobs aspires to have the same freedoms and privileges as white people, so the protagonist’s attitude to the dominant culture is very different. In one sense, Jacobs does succeed in her quest for equality because she creates and manages to publish her manuscript: the voice of a down trodden black woman is heard
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Pages 1759 – 1779 in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B. 2003. New York: W W Norton & Company
Rowlandson, Mary. A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration. Pp308 – 340 in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume A. 2003: New York: W W Norton & Company,