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  • Mary Rowlandson and the Phenomenology of Patient Suffering
  • Branka Arsić (bio)

John Williams's Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion (1707) succinctly defines captivity as "trial to our persons." The phrase suggests that captivity is less an issue of the body's freedom being suspended than of the person's identity changing and of that change being endured rather than enacted. The existence of a power to resist captivity would contradict the very notion of captivity, and so the captive, according to Williams, only suffers-"patiently suffers"-afflictions that try his or her self, unsettling its boundaries and thus causing shifts in identity.1 Hence the basic and aporetic logic of captivity: while being forced into passivity-held captive-the self actively changes. Because mutations of the self were often violent and swift, they seemed to seventeenth-century captives miraculous effects of wonder-working providence. But this initiation into a new state of being operated for them-inexplicably, since it was contrary to the goodness of God-as a "counter-conversion." In contrast to the serenity and joy induced by religious conversion, New England captives were introduced to a state of being that was a product of fear, irresolution, emptiness, and anxiety. [End Page 247]

As many critics have observed, anxiety without closure organizes the text of the first captivity testimonial in the history of American letters, Mary Row-landson's The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, which narrates her eleven-weeklong captivity in 1676 among the Algonquin Indians.2 Patricia Caldwell's seminal study The Puritan Conversion Narrative argues, for instance, that Rowlandson's testimony does not find its resolution in "something external and concrete" that might assign it a meaning. Despite there being an external enemy identified with satanic forces, its existence does not mobilize Rowlandson's desperation in a way that enables her to live her suffering as providential and hence as a meaningful experience. Instead captivity slowly transforms her experience into "something inward, vague, unformed and unnamed."3 Mitchell Breitwieser identifies this "vague and inward something" as the work of mourning: he claims that Rowlandson disturbs the way that Puritan ideology managed mourning.4 Puritan funeral sermons operated typologically; by representing the life of the deceased as an exemplary and providential figure of redeemed experience, sermons channeled the grief of the survivors toward more abstract and politically useful modes. Puritan pragmatics thus substituted an ideal-a disembodied type-for the reality of individual loss. This idealistic switch was essential in disciplining the psychic dynamic, reshaping its remembering from mourning into exemplarism.5 Captured by the singularity of a grief that refuses resolution in abstraction, Row-landson's mourning, by contrast, undoes the idealistic political economy of the type, destabilizing it at the moment of its evocation. Politically speaking, then, because the singular loss persists and is not rendered providential, it functions as incursion of the real into the Puritan ideology of exemplification. Rowlandson's work of mourning resists the collective imaginary.

Breitwieser supports his argument by reading one of the passages from the narrative's Ninth Remove. Her six-year-old daughter Sarah already dead, Rowlandson visits her son in his captivity. Upon returning to her master, she finds herself "as unsatisfied as I was before. I went up and down mourning and lamenting: and my spirit was ready to sink, with the thoughts of my poor children."6 Breitwieser interprets this passage as a "blasphemous" and Joblike "refusal of false comfort": [End Page 248]

In the account of the visit of her son, for instance, she punctuates her expression of gratitude with the remark that the prayer was answered in some measure, which is to say, not enough, only enough to excite a deeper despair. . . . Unmoving intransigence, unresting impatience: this is the existential crux or chiasm of grief, which detaches at its own rate rather than at imposed rates, which refuses to settle for or move toward specious surrogates.7

Thus God does not sustain Rowlandson in accepting her burden, as a relevant scripture had encouraged her to hope he would (S, 339). What sustains her is nothing divine but only desperation over human death.

However, Rowlandson's text suggests not only that typological references fail...