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What Are Captivity Narratives?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Captivity narratives are true or fictional tales of capture, enslavement, and escape, as narrated by the person taken captive. This type of story was particularly prevalent during the historical era of European colonialism. During this time, captivity narratives often described the experiences of an explorer or pioneer who had been captured by indigenous tribes. The term has also been used to include slave narratives, particularly those originating in the United States before the Civil War. In modern times, former prisoners of concentration camps or terrorist organizations have composed their own captivity narratives.

The history of the human race has been regularly punctuated with conflict between tribes and nations. Those inhabitants of a conquered territory who were not killed outright were often captured as slaves, prisoners of war, or both. Educated captives sometimes wrote down their experiences during or after their captivity. Many survived and escaped to see these chronicles later published. Captivity narratives were a popular publishing trend in in America and Europe of the 16th through 19th centuries.

During this time, the captivity narratives of white settlers fascinated readers in Europe, for whom the Americas represented a mysterious frontier. These narratives offered insights into the daily lives of pirate bands or Native American tribes. They were often biased by the prejudices of the time, but this was not an issue; many readers preferred to have their prejudices reinforced. Nevertheless, there were those captives who preferred the lifestyle of their captors, such as Mary Jemison, an American frontierswoman who became an influential member of the Seneca tribe that had captured her. Her widely read captivity narrative contained an accurate portrayal of her adopted people.

Captivity narratives played a part in the abolition of slavery in the United States. Literate slaves and former slaves recounted the cruelties they endured during their lives as human property. Writers such as Frederick Douglass helped turn popular opinion against slavery with their autobiographical works. During the 1930s, numerous slave narratives were recorded by the federally funded writers of the Works Progress Administration. Aging ex-slaves relayed more than 2300 histories, many of which have since been collected and published.

During World War II, the teenage diarist Anne Frank wrote movingly about her virtual captivity as a Jew hiding from Nazi pogroms. After Frank died in a concentration camp, her diary was published in translations around the world, inspiring films and a Pulitzer-winning play. Fictionalized narratives from the same era include Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, and the graphic novel Maus by art spiegelman. Both books contain detailed factual information about real survivors of Nazi captivity. In 1982, American heiress Patty Hearst’s memoir about her life as a captive and member of a terrorist group became a best seller, demonstrating the reading public’s continuing fascination with captivity narratives.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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