Consequences of Female Independence
American women’s captivity narratives are vastly politicized texts which are often utilized to advance theological, racist, or sexist beliefs. These narratives were commonly used to justify the genocidal tendencies of white colonists toward Natives, as the white woman embodied the ideal pitiable victims of the violent nature of such “savages” and thus was one way in which to justify white colonialism. One such narrative is that of Hannah Duston who lived in a small settlement in what was known as the province of Massachusetts Bay. Duston’s tale is extraordinary in that, unlike most female captivity narratives, she resorted to brutal violence in order to kill her Native American captors and escape. Her narrative was originally deployed by the clergy and cast her as a hero by employing biblical parallels to rationalize her actions. However, the account of Duston’s experience as a captive of the Abenaki has been told and retold with a variety of different versions, each propagating a different agenda. Nathanial Hawthorne’s fictional retelling of Hannah Duston’s story is a cautionary tale that serves as a warning of the dangers of female independence and removal from domestic duties in a highly patriarchal society.
Hawthorne attempts to contain Hannah Duston’s independence by continuously placing her in relation to her husband, thereby demeaning her role as protagonist. He writes of Mr. Duston as a primary character, consequently making Hannah Duston a secondary character in her own story. In fact, the narrative begins by introducing “Goodman Duston and his wife…” and continues to say that she “had blessed her husband with an eighth [child]” (Hawthorne 122). This patriarchal prose is found throughout the retelling and establishes Mr. Duston as a loyal father and family figure who was nearly left not only a widower but childless as well when his family was attacked and his wife taken captive. Hawthorne justifies Mr. Duston leaving his wife by first ensuring the reader knows he did go to her room at the first sign of peril. “The father…without a moment’s pause, flung himself from his horse, and into Mrs. Duston’s bedroom” but when he saw the enemy was approaching had to leave “for the thought of his children’s danger rushed so powerfully upon his heart” (123). Mr. Duston seems only to have left his wife alone and in danger because he had to make the impossible decision to go rescue his children. Hawthorne emphasizes the rescue of the children in order to establish Mr. Duston as a hero. Thus, as a result of how Hawthorne presents him, a good husband and father, Hannah Duston’s captivity cannot be blamed upon her husband’s abandonment and subsequently, neither can her violent actions.
Hawthorne also establishes that it is Mr. Duston who is the hero, as it was he who saved his seven children from the “blood-thirsty foe” (123), furthering his attempt to replace the woman protagonist with that of a man and to justify his failure to contain his wife. After leaving Mrs. Duston’s room (during the attack upon his household), Mr. Duston races to save his children and Hawthorne asserts that when seeing him, “[t]he little ones stretched out their arms; while the elder boys and girls, as it were, resigned their charge into his hands; and all the seven children seemed to say – ‘Here is our father! Now we are safe!’” (123). Mr. Duston catches up with his children just in time to save them and Hawthorne is sure to highlight their father’s deep affection and concern. However, when Hannah Duston is forced to follow her Indian captives away from her home, Hawthorne is sure to point out that, though she could do nothing, “she hardly
to throw a parting glance at the blazing cottage, where she had dwelt happily with her husband, and had borne him eight children, – the seven of whose fate she knew nothing…” (124). Accordingly, this further removes Hannah Duston from her role as protagonist and impugns her motherhood while advancing Mr. Duston’s portrayal as the hero of the narrative by emphasizing that his children view him as “safe” and that he is simply a loyal, loving family-oriented man, who should not be held accountable for the actions of his wife.
Hannah Duston’s autonomous decision to escape and not await rescue by a man is not acknowledged by Hawthorne. He focuses instead on the horror of her actions and thus her role is read almost entirely as a villain instead of heroine, as the previously typological meaning of the narrative is reversed. The small section dedicated to her actions is used to highlight the most grotesque details of her captives’ beheading and scalping, further emphasizing the dangers that could result from a woman straying from her traditional motherly duties. Her actions are described as though they were premediated: “all three stood up, with the doubtful gleam of the decaying fire hovering upon their ghastly visages, as they stared round at the fated slumberers” (126). Hannah Duston’s appearance is “ghastly,” and her captors become “slumberers” instead of kidnappers or savages as would be the typical portrayal in many captivity narratives. While the adults are beheaded, “Another! -Another!” (126), it is the focus on the children that further demeans Duston making her actions no longer justifiable to the reader. Hawthorne essentially speaks to Duston, asking her to spare the Native’s children: “Hannah Duston, spare those seven little ones, for the sake of the seven that have fed at your own breast…” (126). He juxtaposes her captivity with her role as a mother, creating a parallel between the children of her captors and her own. In doing so, as she beheads all but one boy who escapes, he confirms to the reader the monstrosity that she has become. Hawthorne subsequently refers to Hannah Duston as a “raging tigress,” and a “bloody hag” and in the concluding paragraph he refers to her as an “awful woman” (126). She becomes a symbol of cruelty, bloodthirsty and unmerciful, who is undeserving of acknowledgment or praise for her escape.
Hawthorne ensures that Hannah Duston’s removal from her home and domestic duties as a wife and mother, her blatant assertion of initiative, is what detracts from her being a “good woman.” The further she strays from her home and from her duties, the further she strays from her depiction as an honorable woman. Hawthorne refers to her as a “good woman” while she is actively playing her socially-dictated role as mother and wife, but as soon as she attempts to break free of her captors, and thus abuse her independence in captivity, she becomes a “raging tigress” and “bloody old hag.” Hawthorne proclaims that it would have been better if “the bloody old hag [had] been drowned in crossing Contocook River, or that she had sunk over head and ears in in a swamp…til summoned forth to confront her victims at the Day of Judgement” (126). His repugnance for Hannah Duston is made entirely transparent as she embodies the consequences of women straying from their usual submissive roles and abusing their independence.
Although Hannah Duston was a white woman and her captors were Native American, Hawthorne’s retelling does not justify white colonialism as is prevalent among this type of narrative. Instead he focuses on the importance of maintaining a patriarchal society by containing the threat that is embodied by independent women like her who may stray from their husbands and homes. His exhaustive attention to Mr. Duston only emphasizes the notion that men should be in charge and that only men can be the heroes, for women will turn into savages when given any type of independence. Like many authors who write of or about historical events, Hawthorne selectively frames the narrative to uphold his beliefs regarding women’s role in society. By presenting Hannah Duston as unrestrained and ruthless, he demonstrates the dire consequences of female independence and initiative, consequently making it even more difficult for women to have any sense of liberation within such a male-oriented society.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Duston Family.” American voices, American Lives, edited by Wayne Franklin, Norton, 1997, pp. 122-126.