Captivity narratives are a popular plot, narrative, or story-line in American (and world) literature. Stories of capture, suffering, rescue, and escape seem to appeal to primal human emotions and fit the ever-popular romance narrative.
In American literature, captivity narratives often relate particularly to the capture of European-American settlers or explorers by Native American Indians, but the captivity narrative is so inherently powerful that the story proves highly adaptable to new contents from terrorist kidnappings to UFO abductions.
Prototypes in world literature may be found in stories involving hostages such as The Tale of Genji (11c Japan) or captivities of English travelers or sailors by Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean in the 1500s, and even by popular romances involving rescues of fair damsels from rogue knights, ogres, trolls, ethnic others.
In colonial North America this narrative originally told more-or-less factual stories of real people--sometimes women--captured by Indians; their trials, sufferings, adventures; finally, their escape, redemption, or death. Many of these narratives were published in New England and later in the west.
Nonfiction examples in early American literature:
Cabeza de Vaca, La Relacion concerning this Spanish explorer's captivity among Southwestern Indians.
John Smith's A General History of Virginia (1624) concerning his captivity by Powhatan & rescue by Pocahontas
Anticipates popular fiction, esp. romance narrative: action, blood, suffering, redemption—a page-turner
Anticipates or prefigures gothic literature with depictions of Indian “other” as dark, hellish, cunning, unpredictable
Association of Indians as “heathen” and “hellish” connects the later gothic to its base in Judeo-Christian and Neoplatonic aesthetics of light-dark, etc.
Opportunity for a woman’s writing and experience
Interpretation of American experience as Christian or biblical allegory
For multicultural or cross-cultural studies, captivity narratives often provide important data on non-literate societies and show captives adapting to a cross-cultural identity between that of his or her birth society and his or her captors.
As the genre became popular it grew more formulaic with standard scenes, and the factual became more fictional. Eventually the Captivity Narrative became a recurrent plot device in American literature and film.
Other novels with elements of captivity narrative:
films depicting Indian captivities
films / video with elements of captivity narrative
Historical events associated with captivity narratives
Other cultural phenomena with captivity-rescue elements:
Texas's most famous captivity narrative
Cynthia Parker / Naduah of Fort Parker & the Comanches
Texas's most famous captivity narrative is that of Cynthia Parker (1827-70) from a Scots-Irish settler family whose encampment at Old Fort Parker in Mexia was overrun by Comanche Indians in 1836. Nine-year-old Cynthia and other members of the Parker family were taken captive. She witnessed the torture of several family members.
Cynthia, renamed Naduah, later married Comanche Chief Peta Nocona, becoming mother of the great Comanche Chief Quanah Parker (1845-1911). In 1860 Cynthia Parker and her two-year-old daughter Prairie Flower were returned by Texas Rangers to the white settlements. Cynthia Parker tried to escape and return to the Comanches.
The classic 1956 captivity-narrative film The Searchers was partly based on the story of Cynthia Parker. The film remains controversial for representing the disdain and defensiveness early white settlers felt toward American Indians.
Significance of the Captivity Narrative
self-other: white self and Indian other
test of ethnic faith or loyalty: Will captive "go native," crossing to the other side, esp. by intermarriage?
(With male captives, risk seems less since he can abandon mixed-race children and relocate more easily back to white settlements.)
test of womanhood and womanly identity: if woman resorts to violence to escape, she may appear as a heroine to modern readers, but readers of the time may have found such actions threatening to traditional femininity and masculinity.
slave narrative as comparable companion to
Abduction of Daniel Boone's Daughter by the Indians (1853)
Statue of Hannah Dustin