Essay, Research Paper: Captivity By Erdrich


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Louise Erdrich, the author of the famous poem titled Captivity, tells a story
about a married mother who has been held captive by a tribe of Indians. The poem
uses a wide variety of literary elements such as sympathy, guilt,
submissiveness, and tentativeness. The two main themes of this first person,
six-stanza poem, are love and fear. Erdrich also uses tricksters, which are
supernatural characters found in the folklores of various primitive peoples.
They often function as culture heroes who are given acts of sly deception. In
this poem, the narrator’s captor takes on the role of a trickster. In most of
Erdrich’s writings, she uses multiple characters as tricksters and this
reflects on her Native American Heritage (Smith 23). One of Erdrich’s main
writing tactics is the use of “historical ‘captivity narratives’”
(Wilson and Jason 2716). One of the interesting facts about this poem is that it
is based upon a true story. Erdrich gives us that feeling of truth and captivity
before the poem begins. “He (my captor) gave me a bisquit, which I had put in
my pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fearing he had put
something in it to make me love him,” (Erdrich, 26). This quote came “from
the narrative of the captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” (Erdrich 26). Mrs.
Mary was held captive by the Wampanoag Indian Tribe in 1676, when Lancaster,
Massachusetts was demolished (Erdrich 26). The first stanza brings a strong
feeling of some sort of imprisonment or captivity. “But he dragged me by the
ends of my hair,” (Erdrich 26). The narrator at this point is experiencing
fear from her captor, however she also feels passion and love when she looks
into his face. “I could distinguish it from the others… I feared I
understood his language, which was not human,” (Erdrich 26). Also, there is
irony in this stanza when her captor saves her from the cold waters of the
stream (Wilson and Jason 2715). In the second stanza, the tribe is pursued by
white men who have “guns loaded with swan shot,” (Erdrich 26). However, the
tribe is put in danger because of her child’s cries, which are from
starvation. In my interpretation of the poem, she cannot “suckle” her own
child because she is so nervous and confused (Erdrich 26). Luckily for the tribe
and captives, there is a woman who feeds the child “milk of acorns,” (Erdrich
26). In the third stanza, the narrator is to the point of starvation as she
tells herself not to take food from his hands. “I told myself that I would
starve/ Before I took food from his hands,” (Erdrich 26). I believe that
Louise is trying to reflect the quote used before the poem taken from Mrs. Mary
Rowlandson, trying to give the reader a sense of hidden desire. However, going
against her will to not give in to her captor, she eats the fetus of a deer that
her captor gave to her. “He had killed a deer with a young one in her/ And
gave it to me to eat of the fawn,” (Erdrich 26). The way that the narrator
describes her meal is delicate, however Erdrich tells us that it is a fetus;
that paints a distasteful picture for the mind of the reader. At the end of the
stanza, Erdrich is very vague about what happens and leaves it up to the reader
to decide the outcome. I felt that the narrator was tentative when she said,
“That I followed where he took me./ … He cut the cord that bound me to the
tree,” (Erdrich 27). In my interpretation, this is where Erdrich uses the
literary element of submissiveness. I personally think that she slept with her
captor because the next and last stanzas of the poem she feels guilty. In the
fourth stanza, the narrator is frightened and hides herself in fear from God
because she knows in her heart that she has sinned. “After that the birds
mocked./ Shadows gaped and roared/… He did not notice God’s wrath./ God
blasted fire from half buried stumps./ I hid my face… fearing that he would
burn us all,” (Erdrich 27). Perhaps she is in a bad lighting or thunderstorm
in this stanza. She also notices “her captor neither notices or fears God’s
wrath,” (Wilson and Jason 2715). The last two stanzas take place at her house
later in her life after being held captive. This indicates that the climax of
the poem is in the fourth stanza. Although she is home and doing well, the
element of guilt is present when she longs for her captive experience and her
husband. She also does not feel at home when she says that she sees, “no truth
in things,” even though she has food for her child (Wilson and Jason 2715).
The narrator says, “‘I lay myself to sleep’ and ‘I lay to sleep’, two
lines that echo the prayer taught to children,” (Wilson and Jason 2715). In
the last stanza, she is perhaps in a dream taking her back to her captivity with
the Indian tribe. She feels that she is “outside their circle,” however she
then finds herself as a part of their chants and lives (Erdrich 27). “And he
led his company into the noise/… I could no longer bear the thought of how I
was./ I stripped a branch and struck the earth/ To admit to me/ And feed me
honey from the rock,” (Erdrich 27). Louise Erdrich uses her native history and
background to describe some of the elements in the narrative poem. I agree with
Claudia Egerer, author of Fiction (In)betweenness, when she describes the way
that Erdrich writes fiction. “First person voices are construed as subjective,
implicated as they are in the telling of their own story… their double
function as narrators and narratees,” (59). Captivity reflects this exact
statement. Without a doubt, Louise Erdrich creates life and history through
Captivity and it’s complexity.
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