Let’s use this prompt to look at one way a rhetorical analysis might proceed with Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. I’ll set you up with a “big question” that can go a few different directions. You choose a direction to follow, consult the textual evidence I suggest, and try to “build on” or “develop” this interpretation with your own insights.
Bradford is writing a chronicle about a religious sect (English Separatists, who we commonly call Pilgrims) for their future descendants (the Puritans). One of Bradford’s rhetorical goals is to persuade the reader that the Separatists’ decision to travel to America was an act of Providence, according to God’s will. Bradford believes (and wants us to agree) that this small group of religious dissenters who decided to separate from the state-sanctioned religion and eventually leave their country were not mistaken, selfish heretics but in fact the true, righteous Christians. How does he try to persuade us?
One way he tries to persuade us is to portray often at length and in detail the significant amount of suffering these dissenters had to undergo in their pursuit of God. In Chapter I, they are persecuted for their beliefs at home. In Chapter IX, at sea, they must be “delivered” from several “peril and miseries” (76). And when they arrive at Cape Cod, they are beset by multiple compounding issues no friends, a difficult season and terrain, hunger, and fatigue and go on to face trial after trial as they try to establish themselves.
In some way, for Bradford, the Separatists’ perseverance through intense suffering is an important sign of Providence: the more they suffer, and the more they persevere through suffering, the more it proves that their actions were indeed righteous and providential, not mistaken or against the will of God. The suffering is both a test and a sign of their commitment to God’s vision.
Now that we have observed this important assumption Bradford seems to have about suffering, we can start to investigate it a little more closely. So, the “big question” might be framed this way: How does this assumption about suffering inform Bradford’s decisions about what to include in this chronicle and what to leave out or what to emphasize, and even what to downplay?
There are different ways to explore this question. If a specific one occurs to you, go for it. If not, I want to give you two possible routes, which I will characterize as reading “with the grain” and “against the grain.”
Reading with the grain: When we read “with the grain,” we “go along” with the author’s assumption to see the different ways it “plays out” consistently across the text. To read Bradford with the grain, you might
Look for specific scenes or instances of suffering and how they “fit with” or “conform to” or “follow” or “illustrate” or “illuminate” this bigger assumption about suffering; or
Choose to focus on one of the more intense and detailed instances of suffering;
Look for patterns across different “types” of suffering (for example, suffering at the hands of other people vs. suffering at the hands of Nature).
Reading against the grain: When we read “against the grain,” we read more skeptically and try to look for “inconsistencies” or “blind spots” or “difficulties” created by an author’s belief system or assumptions. For instance:
When does suffering mean something different? And what does it mean? How does Bradford interpret the suffering undergone by the two “lusty” young men at sea (75, top of 76), or of the Native Americans, or others who are either not Separatist or who Bradford believes behave in an ungodly way? What about a person like Mr. Morton, who Bradford believes deserves to suffer but ultimately doesn’t. How does Bradford view such a case, which doesn’t neatly fit?
Or, taking another route, are there any instances of suffering within the Puritan community that don’t fit neatly with Bradford’s assumption? For instance, Bradford doesn’t have much to say about the death of William Butten, the only death among the Puritans at sea (76). Does he treat this moment of suffering differently than other similar moments? If so, how and why? Or what about the other group of Separatists that undergoes extreme hardship and loses over half their members?
One final possible angle different than the two above would be to look for the origins of this assumption about suffering. This assumption seems firmly grounded in the Bible and scripture, for instance. So you might notice where and how Bradford references or incorporates stories from the Bible to “comment on” or help “shape” and “explain” different parts of his narrative.
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