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Emergence of Captivity Narratives in American Literature

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History is not everything that happened in the past, just the important events which happened in the past. Written form of history is known as literature. Drama, poetry, and novels are the different forms of literature. The literature during the different eras portrayed the common problems that existed within the society during that particular time. Therefore, literature is a kind of reflector which reflects the society, and the captivity narrative is a genre within American literature which commonly refers to the written accounts of European settlers who were kidnapped by the Native Americans. And this paper analyzes the emergence of captivity narrative in the nineteenth century in a detailed way.

The Reflection of 17th Century Society in Literature

The 17th century literature represents the volatility in society, religion, and the monarchy of this period. It was marked as a period of the shift from an age of faith to an age of reason. Life of the English people was changed by the Christian missionaries and the Civil War. It exhibited the role of individuals in society, perspectives of faith, and social structures in England. Writers of this period influenced the masses through their own philosophies. Common themes of the writers of this period were love, religion, and political views.

Characteristics of American Literature

Both the British and American literatures shared the language and have undergone a great evolution. English literature is the heritage of the Old Europe. All literary works written in the English language about the British experience can be called as English literature. The American literature is a sub-genre of English literature and can be called as the New World’s free child. The themes, the characters, and the scenery of the American Literature are derived from the English literature. American literature, on the other hand, is written by the English adventurers and the colonists in the New World about the American experience.

English literature is often termed as British literature. British English literature can be considered as the mother of English language and literature. And the American literature is the rude son that does not want to obey her mother and changed the rules and regulations of writing according to their will. Life in America and Britain changed significantly after the industrial revolution. While British writers were more concerned about the industrial revolution, the American writers concentrated on the reaction of the people to American independence and slavery.

The Captivity Narratives in American Literature

Another significant genre in American literature is captivity narrative. It emerged with the settlement of North America at the end of the nineteenth century. Even though the captivity narratives were written by several writers, the genre commonly refers to the accounts written by European settlers who were kidnapped by the Native Americans. The classic US captivity narratives encounter the relationship between the European explorers, foreign invaders, and the Native Americans. The most basic narrative formula of captivity narratives is relating the torments experienced by a captive in the society whom they consider inferior. Such narratives were often used as propaganda to tell their sufferings in the captor’s camp. Mrs. Mary Rowlandson’s ‘Sovereignty and Goodness of God’ (1682) is perhaps called as the most famous captivity narrative. It describes the American woman who has been taken as a captive mercilessly by the voracious Indian savages assailing the reputable family. The main themes of this captivity narrative are trials of captivity, escape or rescue, and assimilation into a Native community. This narrative received an outstanding popularity in its time and inspired many subsequent writers. Her account has the conservative plot structure and talks about the stereotypical beliefs of savagery, civilization, and feminine purity like modesty, gracefulness, delicacy, civility, compliance, reticence, chastity, affability, politeness, and virginity.

Rowlandson’s captivity narrative was not the first captivity narrative. For more than a century before her account European adventurers from England, France, Portugal, and Spain had published more influential accounts throughout the New World. But centuries after Rowlandson, many writers added literary devices to enhance their captive experiences. To attract and seek the sympathy of the new audiences, the editors, publishers and writers fictionalized captivity tropes and sensational images to their works. Everyone used the captivity narrative to implement, condemn, and criticize the opposite groups of people through the works. For example, British colonial writers of captivity narratives debased the French in the mid-18th century, American writers degraded the British during the Revolutionary era, US writers used it to condemn US policies of Indian removal in the 19th century, and the Native writers used the themes and styles of captivity narration to scorn the US imperialism.

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Kendall Johnson in captivity narratives says the armed ship owned and crewed by the private individuals or privateers were used by the government to attack and steal the ships at sea especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. Especially, the privateers in the North African coast of the Barbary States targeted American ships in the Mediterranean Sea. The American sailors moving through the islands of Southeast Asia feared to fall into captivity. As like African American slave narratives, the American captivity narrative patterns also echo the plots and dramatic accounts of transatlantic slavery. It also includes the stories of the Bible, Greek mythology, and the genres of autobiography like slave narratives, travel writings, and the novels. These genres had been shaped and reshaped into a literary legacy by many cross-references and mutual influences. Even the present-day authors and filmmakers use the themes of the captivity narratives of centuries past by reviving and revising the familiar narratives and stereotypes to special cinematic effects (Johnson).

Some other most important and often read captivity narratives were Captain John Smith’s ‘Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England’, and the Summer Isles’ (1624) and John William’s ‘The Redeemed Captive, Returning to Zion’ (1707), as containing the first American captivity narrative. The genre had a great impact of the Puritan society, as fiction, plays, and poetry prohibited there. The captivity narratives not only served as a form of entertainment, it also served as a tool of promoting the Puritan theology. Early Puritan captivity narratives, written by the authors like Mary Rowlandson, John William, and Cotton Mather made use of their narratives to urge social conformity. All these authors described the attack, abduction, forced immigration, agonies, tortures, adaptation among the Native American society, and return to the Puritan society. They framed their narratives around the beliefs of the Puritan society that God would punish the unruly people who were disobedient through capture, and would save them through His ultimate forgiveness and mercy to the person, who is faithful through rescue and return to their own society.

These narratives have an everlasting place in literature, history, and the study of indigenous peoples and their cultures. Captivity narratives were significant in the study of modern spiritual and religious movements, not because they provided the historical fact about Native American practices, but because they provided the readers with a scope of assimilating the changes in the popular mass culture. The British people who were captured during the exploration and settlement in India and East Asia also wrote their experiences in the form of captivity narratives, and they resembled a well-established genre in African American literature called ‘slave narratives’. The colonists in New England were frequently taken captives by Canadians and their Indian allies, Because of the competition between New France and New England in North America. Similarly, the Canadians and Indian prisoners were taken as captives by the New Englanders and their Indian allies. Ellen Campbell Rhodes in ‘The Adaptability of Women’s Captivity Narratives in American Literature’ quotes the words of Christopher Castiglia like this: “The captivity narrative gives a voice to the voiceless, both in the events and people that it explores. Even when men removed them from the writing and publishing of their stories, women could still rely on the genre to give them a voice, a place in literature. Women captives have consistently shown their ability to transgress and transform the boundaries of the genre in order to accomplish their own ends” (Rhodes).

The captivity narratives in American literature were stories of captured people, which stipulated the basic human qualities and emotions. The captivity narrative is so inherently powerful that the story naturally fits the terrorist kidnappings of the present-day society. Hostages such as captivities of English travelers or sailors by Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean can be seen in the preliminary version of the world literature. The popular romances like the rescues of fair damsels from rogue knights, ogres, trolls, ethnic others can also be seen in the narratives. In colonial North America, these narratives told the factual stories of real people. Sometimes the stories of the women captured by the Indians, their trials, sufferings, adventures; finally, their escape, redemption, or death were also told. Many of these narratives were formerly published in New England and later in the west.

The captivity narratives had its origin from the 17th century in the American literature, and the first famous literary form was by a woman’s experience. The earliest and popular was ‘A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson’ (1682). It went through four editions in the year when it was published and became 15 when it was republished in America and England. It was considered to be the first American bestseller. It was the story of a woman called Rowlandson. She was the wife of a Puritan minister. One day she with her three children was taken hostage by Narrhaganset Indians in February 1676. The Narrhaganset tribe was an Algonquian American Indian tribe from Rhode Island. For a long time, the tribe was nearly landless, and so they worked to regain the federal recognition, which they achieved in 1983. While they were captured the six-year-old Sarah was wounded fatally in the raid on their village and died nine days later in her mother’s arms. The other two children were sold to different tribes, and Mary was made to travel with her captors, for about 150 miles north from her hometown before being ransomed by her husband after eleven weeks of captivity.

Mrs. Mary Rowlandson’s ‘The Sovereignty and Goodness of God’ describes the time spanned in the Native American camp and the twenty distinct ‘removes’, because she had been removed more than 20 times from each camp by the Indian captors. From each painful step in her life as a pious Puritan matron entering into the harsh world of the Narrhaganset, she found that her will to survive was stronger than her fear or grief. She helped herself with her endurance and ability to adapt by eating food which previously disgusted her, like raw horse liver and bear meat to survive in the new Indian Savages. She also learned to admit their humanity and to barter and bargain with them. Even after being ransomed, Rowlandson could not relive from her sufferings for several months in dreams and flashbacks. It took many days for her to recover and adjust herself in her own society. Slowly she began to realize how much her emotional expression and religious grace had changed, from the public acceptance through writing her story. Thus, by writing about her suffering and redemption, she re-entered the Puritan society in a new role.


In conclusion, the difference between British literature and American literature, the captivity narrative and the reasons for its emergence in American literature, have been analyzed elaborately in this paper.

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Emergence of Captivity Narratives in American Literature. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
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