Surviving the New Frontier Although Mary Rowlandson, in “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” appears to be a selfish, holier-than-thou Puritan woman, a close reading of the text indicates that Mary behaves predictably during her captivity with the Indians and suffered from what is currently referred to as Stockholm Syndrome, an unconscious psychological response and defense mechanism exhibited by hostages in their will to survive.
Mary exhibits the following characteristics of Stockholm Syndrome: submitting to and bonding with captors; mistaking a lack of abuse by captors for acts of kindness; and gratitude for not being killed. The reader first senses Mary’s strong will to survive when she is unable to lay down her life in the beginning as she had always planned in the event of an attack by the Indians. Possibly because of her motherly instinct, knowing her children depend on her, a survivor instinct manifests and she goes along peacefully with the Indians.
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Wounded, weary, sick, frightened, and emotionally distraught, she perseveres, fighting for her life day after day. Her only source of comfort and strength: her faith in God and a desire to see her family. As Mary becomes more and more isolated from the comfort of home and civilization, becomes separated from her other children, and watches her sick child die, she is forced to adapt to her captivity, adapt to the demands of the journey, and adapt to the culture of the Indians.
Only her will to survive prevents her from committing suicide. Mary thanks God for “preserving me in the use of my reason and senses in that distressed time that I did not use wicked and violent means to end my own miserable life” (240). Under such extreme distress, she begins to bond and identify with the Indians and integrate into their culture. Several times, when writing about the removes, she uses “we” instead of “I,” suggesting a sense of bonding and identifying herself as part of the group.
She even admits that at one point she was offered the chance to run away, but chose instead to stay with her captors. To keep from starving, Mary must adapt to their diet, and force herself to eat many things that before she found repulsive. She quickly learns their barter system and uses her sewing skills to gain many favors in the form of food and clothing. When offered food, she often perceives it as an act of kindness on their part, forgetting that they are holding her or ransom and that if she starves, if she dies, they will get nothing. She repeatedly remarks on how thankful she felt to be given a skin to lay on or food to eat. When her husband sends her tobacco, she gives it all away to those that she refers to repeatedly in her text as barbarous creatures. Her gratitude is obvious; she appears to be repaying their kindness towards her because “they did not knock us in the head and taking what we had” (260). Mary’s gratitude evolves throughout the text.
Repeatedly, she describes being surrounded by Indians, reminding her of the extreme danger to her life. They often threaten her, and tell vicious lies about the well-being of her family members. Their goal consists of breaking her will, breaking her mentally and emotionally. According to Mary, “they made use of their tyrannical power” (259). Under the guise of God’s will, she frequently gives thanks for not being hurt or killed, again forgetting that they plan to receive payment for returning her alive.
Her captivity ends with blatantly obvious examples of the bond formed between Mary and her captors: friendly hand shakes, requests for bread and tobacco by the Indians, and gifts of clothing for Mary. Throughout the story of her captivity, Mary Rowlandson, behaving predictably, behaving as any victim of captivity might, did whatever necessary to survive a horrific experience. Today, these behaviors would be classified as symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome.