The Autobiographical “I” in Thomas Shepard’s Life narrative

When reading Thomas Shepard’s life narrative, I find that certain intimate details of the person are revealed that are separate, in a way, from the character that is narrating the story. When we read an autobiography, or any other narrative, “we “hear” a narrative voice distinctive in its emphasis and tone” as Smith and Watson say. They explain that there is more than one “I” in any life narrative; the “historical I,” the “narrating” and “narrated I,” and the “ideological I.” With regards to Thomas Shepard’s life narrative, the “narrating,” “narrated,” and “ideological I” are particularly useful for interpreting Shepard’s story. Smith and Watson describe the “narrating I” as “the persona of the historical person who wants to tell, or is coerced into telling, a story about the self.” This can be thought of as the image of the person who is telling his life narrative; in this case, a Puritan minister fleeing Archbishop Laud and oppression in England by immigrating to the newly colonized New England region of America. Smith and Watson explain the “narrated I” as being the “version of the self that the narrating “I” chooses to constitute through recollection for the reader,” or remember versions of the self as Shepard does by retelling his days of sin. Smith and Watson explain that the “I” of a narrative is also “steeped in ideology, in all the institutional discourses through which people come to understand themselves and to place themselves in the world.”

What then can we interpret from Thomas Shepard’s narrative, other than his apparently devout Puritan beliefs, and contempt for the state of things in England, namely the church? What I find is that there are certain moments in the narrative that can be interpreted as being whole-heartedly in opposition of what one would expect from a devout Puritan Minister. Puritans believed that the Church of England still upheld practices and rituals that they associated with the Catholic Church. England at the time did not tolerate any differences of opinion when it came to the Church. Puritans also maintained the Calvinist belief that only a few were preordained for heaven and that people were inherently depraved. The worldly life was spent in repentance, and if God took something then it was simply meant to be that way, and worldly possessions were not to be cherished. At times though Thomas Shepard reveals that he may have had a different feeling at some point. Shepard maintains his “narrating” voice throughout the story, only wishing to practice his faith in public, but for fear of Laud. He regards all events in his life, the hardships and the breaks, as being the will of God true to his “narrating” form. It is very apparent that his narrative voice is as Smith and Watson said, “steeped in ideology.”

The “narrated I” offers a different persona, or “version of the self,” that is revealed as Thomas unfolds his story. As an example, when speaking of his first wife, Thomas Shepard admits that he “began to grow secretly proud and full of sensuality, delighting my soul in my dear wife more than in my God, whom I had promised better unto.” At this point Shepard had fallen into a drinking binge earlier in his narrative and promised God a more devout life.  But in admitting this joy that he feels, he has once again drifted from righteous path of God, into the loving arms of his wife. This is an example of when the “Puritan” persona of the “narrating I” gives way to a more conflicted person; a person who finds more comfort in the presence of his wife then he does in practicing his faith for which he is only persecuted for. This again happens with regards to the passing of his second wife, where he, for two pages, laments the death of yet another loved one. With this understanding of the distinctions between the “narrating,” “narrated,” and “ideological” “I,” it is hard to read “the Lord hath not been wont to let me live long without some affliction or other,” and interpret it as simply a devout Puritan minister explaining his hardships.

Furthermore after he explains, for two pages, the passing of his beloved second wife, it is even harder to read, “Thus God hath visited and scourged me for my sins and sought to wean me from this world,” and not feel that he truly mourns the passing of his loved ones.

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