Pocahontas in Malick's "The New World". A Contextual Analysis

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

42 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Theory and Method
2.1 Contextual Approach
2.2 Cultural Work (Jane Tompkins)
2.3 Historical Film
2.4 Analytical Categories of Film Analysis
2.4.1 Music and Sound Techniques
2.5 Definitions of Central Terms and Concepts
2.5.1 Sentimentalism and the Cross-Cultural Love Plot
2.5.2 The Cruel Indian and the Noble Savage
2.5.3 Othering and Assimilation
2.5.4 Darwinism and the Doomed Race

3. Representation of Native Americans in American Literature and Art

4. Analysis and Interpretation of The New World
4.1 Native Americans as Noble Savages and Cruel Indians
4.2 Sentimentalism and the Cross-Cultural Love Plot
4.3 Othering and Assimilation
4.4 Social Darwinism and the Doomed Race
4.5 Music as a Means to create Cultural Work

5. Conclusion

6. Sources Cited


An dieser Stelle möchte ich all jenen danken, die durch ihre fachliche und persönliche Unterstützung zum Gelingen dieser Bachelorarbeit beigetragen haben.

Besonderer Dank geht an PD Dr. Kirsten Twelbeck, die sich für die Betreuung der Arbeit zur Verfügung gestellt hat und mir mit Rat und Tat, sowie vielen konstruktiven Gesprächen und Ideen jederzeit zur Seite stand.

Prof. Dr. Ruth Mayer danke ich herzlichst für die spontane Bereitschaft, die Aufgaben des Zweitprüfers zu übernehmen.

Angelika Luckert (der Blindenassistenz der Universität Hannover) danke ich ganz besonders dafür, dass sie mir alle benötigten Quellen in kürzester Zeit eingescannt oder in für mich lesbare Formate konvertiert hat. Während meines Studiums stand sie mir stets hilfsbereit zur Seite und scannte mir nicht nur Texte ein, sondern begleitete mich bei Bedarf sogar zu Prüfungsämtern etc. Vielen Dank für deine tolle Unterstützung, Angelika! Ohne dich wäre diese Arbeit definitiv nicht zustande gekommen!

Meiner Schwester Annemarie Arnold, sowie meiner Freundin Ines Matic und meinen Kommilitonen Florian Kalski und Ronja Secchi danke ich dafür, dass sie mich beim Korrekturlesen so gut unterstützt haben und mir mit hilfreichen Tipps zur Seite standen.

Zuletzt geht noch besonderer Dank an meinen Freund Holger Baars und meine Mutter Bettina Otterski, die mich als blinde Studentin mit ihren Beschreibungen von bestimmten Filmszenen und Bildern unterstützt haben und wesentlich zur groben Themenfindung meiner Arbeit beigetragen haben. Zudem möchte ich mich für die Unterstützung während meines gesamten Studiums bedanken und dafür, dass ihr mich so oft davor bewahrt habt, mein Studium einfach aufzugeben und mich dazu motiviert habt, allen Hindernissen weiterhin zu trotzen.

1. Introduction

Throughout the centuries, there has been an ongoing debate about intercultural, social, economical, and political relations between European colonists/the later U.S. government and Native Americans.

John Smith wrote one of the earliest texts that tried to solve some of these issues. His Generall Historie (1624) brought up the myth about the Powhatan girl Pocahontas that has saved Smith’s life, and became known as a mediator between the English settlers and the Powhatan tribes. In 1682, Mary White Rowlandson published a different, distinctly female account of representation of Native Americans. Her autobiographical narrative A true history of the captivity and restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson depicts her experiences during her captivity by Algonquian tribes in the time of King Philip’s War between 1675 and 1678 (cf. Harris).The account thoroughly includes a nuanced image of intercultural interaction: With the hand work that her autobiographical character exchanges against Indian goods, Rowlandson showed that female work could be used for a mutual benefit. The publication of her account laid the foundation stone for a whole genre of American literature: the Captivity Narrative, which was used as a medium for debating intercultural questions. Female writers, who relied on the genre to voice their own experiences and sometimes dissenting views that had not been mentioned before like forced living in Native American society, and the physical and psychological sufferings of captured women dominated Captivity Narratives. The genre includes both autobiographical accounts (as by John Gyles and Elizabeth Meader Hanson) and fictional novels (as by Catharine Maria Sedgwick and James Fenimore Cooper). While some of these narratives openly embrace Native American cultures and ways of life, most of them emphasize the settlers’ negative views of the Native Americans as “savages” that had to be displaced in order to keep the white population safe (cf. Harris). These narratives were a central aspect of creation of a view of indigenous people that was based on fear. With few exceptions, there has been a lack of narratives that broached the issue of captured characters that were voluntarily staying with the indigenous people (cf. Isernhagen 2004: 15). Inspired by the sentimentality of captive narratives,sentimental novels emerged in the 19th century that have focused rather on problems of intercultural exchange than on the exchange of cultures as captive narratives have done. As a contrast to captivity narratives, authors like Lydia Maria Child and Sedgwick wrote sentimental novels about the failing intercultural communication between settlers and indigenous people (cf. Kelleter 2016: 105 p.). As women writers, Child and Sedgwick in their novels dedicated themselves to themes like love, religion, education, children and women that have been central to women’s literature of that time (cf. Breinig/Opfermann 2004: 64). Again, writing literature about Native Americans allowed white American women to voice concerns that were intrinsically linked to their own grievances in an era that allowed them little agency in public affairs. Sedgwick’s novel Hope Leslie is one of the first texts considered as specifically feminine (cf. ibid.). Subjects like the position of women in the New England society, and intercultural relationships are central to Sedgwick and Child’s literature, and have built additional aspects to works by male writers like James Fenimore Cooper. Child’s novel Hobomok (1824), for instance, is about the marriage of an English settler’s daughter (Mary) and the Indian chief Hobomok, who live on the border of the British colony. When Mary’s expulsed earlier lover returns to the colony, Hobomok heroically leaves Mary and their child, so that the conventional couple can marry after canceling Mary and Hobomok’s marriage. Contrary to the literary conventions of the 19th century, Child did not punish her female character for getting a child with a Native American, but relativized this through the assimilation of the half-Indian child (cf. Kelleter 2016: 105 p.). Whereas Child in her novel pointed to the “long-suffering womanhood”1, Sedgwick in Hope Leslie emphasized the independence of her female character (cf. Bardes/Gossett), so that both women writers contributed to the situations of women in their time.

With the end of the 19th century, more authors like Child turned against the ideals and literary conventions of their time, and called attention to the hardship of the indigenous people caused by poverty, displacement, and assimilation as Helen Hunt Jackson did in her novel Ramona (1884). In that time, the extinction of the First Nations was regarded as a natural selection rather than extermination (cf. Baym et al 2012: 15). The white Americans considered the indigenous people as a doomed race that has to assimilate to the dominant white population in order to survive, as has been believed in the biological concept of Darwinism. This notion led authors like Jackson in her novel Ramona (1884) to appeal to the necessary assimilation of Native Americans in order to keep this race from extinction. In the time after the Civil War, the U.S. government forced Native American parents to send their children to Boarding Schools that were built to assimilate them in all terms of (white) American society and culture, so that the inferior race (after the governments opinion) could survive through assimilation (cf. Adams 1995: 6, 63 p.).

With the Civil Rights Movement, Native American authors like Thomas King and Leslie Marmon Silko intervened in the stereotypical images of Native Americans that had been produced by white authors since John Smith, which has given a contrasting view to the latter representations of indigenous people. Taking up tropes from such “white” representations of them, and appropriating them subversively to their own uses, Native American authors have produced literature that includes Native American literary traditions like the use of tricksters, and specific narrative modes (cf. Georgi-Findlay 2004: 409 p.), so that they creatively criticized the overestimation by Euro-Americans of the American culture (cf. ibid.), and gave an insight into the Native American understanding of their own culture by using these modes. Nevertheless, the majority of white American authors did not take the opinion of Native American authors into account.

The National Museum of the American Indian (established in 1989) has contributed to a multifaceted image of the history, culture and heritage of hundreds of Native American tribes. In order to do the living Native Americans justice, it consulted them with questions concerning their desired representation of their culture. It has also emphasized that the indigenous history belongs to the history of all Americans, so that Native Americans are equal to white Americans.

Just like the National Museum of the American Indian, (white) Americans of the 20th and 21st centuries have been, and still are engaged in the concern to produce realistic portrayals of Native American culture like the filmmaker Terrence Malick. He tried in his contemporary film The New World (2005) to represent as realistically as possible the First Nations and their culture. The film deals with the Pocahontas myth, and takes up the notion of assimilation and othering that emerged at the end of the 19th century. The film picks up the story of John Smith, and enriches it with notions of the 19th century as they were especially written out in Jackson’s novel Ramona. Although the film mirrors rather the perspective and culture of the colonists, it also tries to establish Pocahontas’s views and cultural and religious aspects of indigenous people by using voice-overs of Pocahontas. It also spends an essential part on the psychological consequences of assimilation, which leads to the assumption that the film seeks to criticize the inhumane treatment of Native Americans by white Europeans in the time of colonization in order to come to terms with America’s indigenous people of today.

The aim of this paper is to analyze Malick’s film with regard to earlier notions of assimilation and othering. By exploring how earlier notions of assimilation, othering and sentimentalism of the late 19th century are combined with a newly interpreted version of the Pocahontas myth, I will analyze the film’s cultural work in the historical context of its making. In order to do this, I will rely on concepts linked to historical film, and on a comparative approach that takes earlier representations of Native Americans and specific notions like Social Darwinism into account. As a blind person, I am particularly suited to analyze the sound design, since this is a dimension of film that is often ignored. I will therefore pay close attention to the use of music, and to specific techniques of tone like the use of voice-overs. In order to analyze music, I will concentrate on the used instruments, and on the effect that music creates concerning the atmosphere of the film and the film’s interpretation. By considering how concepts and ideas from the 17th and 19th century survive in contemporary media, I want to analyze what happens to these notions when they are adapted to new forms of media (film), and how these old ideas are adapted to an entirely different situation of the present American society.

The structure of this paper will be the following: In the first part, I will explain the underlying theoretical background and the methodology of this paper. In order to do this, I will explain central terms and concepts that are essential for the analysis of the film. In the next part, I will give a brief overview about the development of representations of Native Americans in American literature and art. These representations are related to the already explained concepts in 2.5, and will reappear in the main part of this text, which deals with the analysis and interpretation of The New World. At the end, I will give a conclusion, which summarizes the findings of the paper and gives an answer to the research questions.

2. Theory and Method

This part will give a short overview about the used theory and method of this paper, and gives brief definitions of central terms and concepts.

2.1 Contextual Approach

This paper uses a contextual approach, which relates notions about Native Americans in The New World to earlier notions of American culture like the cruel Indian and the noble savage, notions about othering and assimilation, and notions of Social Darwinism and the doomed race, as well as representations by Native Americans in the context of the Civil Rights Movement.

2.2 Cultural Work (Jane Tompkins)

The definition of cultural work is essential for the analysis and interpretation of the film. Jane Tompkins defines it as follows:

It involves [...] a redefinition of literature and literary study, for it sees literary texts not as works of art embodying enduring themes in complex forms, but as attempts to redefine the social order. In this view, novels and stories should be studied not because they manage to escape the limitations of their particular time and place, but because they offer powerful examples of the way a culture thinks about itself, articulating and proposing solutions for the problems that shape a particular historical moment (1985: XI).

2.3 Historical Film

Since The New World is regarded as a historical film, this paragraph will briefly explain the aim of historical films, which is not a realistically historical retelling of historical events. Sorlin states that

[...] the study of the cinema considered as a document of social history that, without neglecting the political or economic base, aims primarily at illu­- minating the way in which individuals and groups of people understand their own time (2001: 25).

This means that filmmakers reinterpret certain cultural/historical events of their own society. For doing this, they also often include sentimentalism and romances to appeal to the audience (cf. Landy 2001: 23) as Malick did it in The New World.

2.4 Analytical Categories of Film Analysis

In the film analysis, I will pay special attention to sound techniques and music. This is because these aspects play a major role for interpreting, referred to the events in the scenes. Another reason is that the film uses rather unconventional sound techniques like voice-overs and silence to create a specific atmosphere and response of the audience.

Next to sound techniques, I will concentrate on camera work, and which perspectives it conveys. This means that I will look at aspects like composition and cinematography rather than on editing, which plays a minor role in this film analysis because it does not sufficiently contribute to the analysis of the film’s cultural work.

2.4.1 Music and Sound Techniques

Since music and sound techniques are central to my analysis, I want to examine to what extent the sound design supports or erodes certain images of Native Americans. I will also look at the effect of certain techniques like the use of silence, the emphasis on natural noises like animals or steps in the grass, the type of music and its usage.

2.5 Definitions of Central Terms and Concepts

This part will define the terms and concepts that are central to the film analysis. These can be regarded as heritage of the 19th century.2

2.5.1 Sentimentalism and the Cross-Cultural Love Plot

The concept of sentimentalism and the cross-cultural love plot developed in the 18th and 19th century. Literary sentimentalism stems from the philosophical tradition of sentimentalism, which is opposed to rationalism. It focuses on “feelings, affections, [and] intuitions as guiding moral impulses”, and considers feelings as more direct, and with it more true and divine than intellect. The combination of sentimentalism and cross-cultural love plots is very effective because it synchronizes the political discussion about multiculturalism with love, which is as a feeling considered as more true than intellect.

2.5.2 The Cruel Indian and the Noble Savage

The categorizations of cruel Indians and noble savages emerged with different experiences with Native Americans in the 18th and 19th century, and were used to put these experiences in order. Whereas the concept of the cruel Indian often deals with Native Americans that killed white women in the Indian Wars, the concept of the noble savage was coined by Rousseau, and romanticizes indigenous people and their culture as the “ur-Americans”.

2.5.3 Othering and Assimilation

Othering distinguishes other individuals and cultures from one’s own culture, and is often connected with condemnation (cf. Schönhuth). Concerning Native Americans, othering already emerged with the first English colonies in the 17th century3. With the time, this led to the notion of assimilation as a solution to the “Indian Problem”. By building Boarding Schools for Native Americans, white Americans tried to “civilize” them, so that they could be integrated into the American society without living their own culture, traditions and beliefs (cf. Boyer 2003: 522 p.). The notion of assimilation has to be seen in the light of immense immigration during the 19th century, which caused fear in terms of foreign infiltration and rivalry.

2.5.4 Darwinism and the Doomed Race

With Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory (1837), which proposes that “evolution is driven mainly by natural selection” (“Darwinism” in Encyclopaedia Britannica), there emerged the notion of the doomed race. According to this notion, Native Americans were regarded as inferior to the dominant white population, so that, according to Social Darwinism, they were regarded as naturally doomed to die out. In order to prevent this, there were assimilation programs, which were seeking to adapt Native Americans to the white American culture.

3. Representation of Native Americans in American Literature and Art

In the following, I will amplify the previous four paragraphs of 2.5, and explain how they could have become that culturally influencing.

When the first settlers arrived in America in 1608, they had to cope with the indigenous people there, and made different experiences with them. At the beginning, the Native Americans welcomed the settlers with hospitality and acceptance of trade (cf. Firstbrook 2014: 170-234), but when the settlers spread more and more in their territory, it came to conflicts with the First Nations (cf. Firstbrook: 305). These territorial conflicts remained throughout the centuries, and the European settlers have established an enemy image of Native Americans in literature and art. In 1804, John Vanderlyn finished his painting The Death of Jane McCrea, which has served as propaganda to justify the settlers’ treatment of Native Americans (cf. Lubin 1989: 13 p.). The picture shows two standing Native Americans holding tomahawks in their hands, during hindering a kneeling white woman from leaving. Whereas the woman wears a long dress, the indigenous men wear loincloths that symbolize their “uncivilized” lives, which the dark setting in a deserted wood underlines aswell. The Native Americans appear as strong, brutal, animalistic creatures that do not hesitate to kill helpless, innocent young women. Similar to The Death of Jane McCrea, Charles Deas’s The Death Struggle (1845) pictures the brutality of Native Americans towards whites. It again contrasts the “uncivilized”, nearly naked indigenous people to the “civilized” whites. As the titles of the paintings suggest, they focus on the cruelty of Native Americans. Paintings like this, together with captive narratives, led to the concept of the cruel Indian, which supported the settlers’ ideologies, and justified displacements and extermination of Native Americans.

However, authors like Cooper, Child, and Sedgwick, together with painters like Tompkins Matteson contradicted these negative representations, and contributed to the idea of the noble savage, elaborated by Rousseau. In his novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Cooper represented Native Americans at the same time as brutal and malicious (Hurons), and as noble and loyal (Mohicans) characters. Whereas the treacherous Hurons capture two white young women, the two last remaining Mohicans (Chingachgook and his son Uncas) together with a few white men try to rescue them, which leads to bloody battles with the Hurons. In the end, the Mohicans fight together with the Delaware tribe against the Hurons, and win the battle. Next to one of the captured girls, Uncas becomes a victim of the battle, so that Chingachgook has only his white friends left, and remains as the last of the Mohicans. This novel conveys several concepts concerning Native Americans: the cruel Indian that captures innocent young women, the noble savage that even gives his life to rescue white women, and the vanishing Indian that is doomed to extinct. In order to criticize Native Americans’ extinction, Cooper used the concept of sentimentalism, especially in the last scene when Chingachgook laments his dead son Uncas at his funeral. Although this novel does not convey the issue of assimilation and Darwinism as such, it has already supported the image of the noble savage, has pointed to the Native Americans’ struggles, and has put emphasis on extinction of indigenous tribes. Representations of Native Americans like this, together with Vanderlyn’s, Deas’s and other artists’ paintings and texts led to debates concerning the European settlers’ justification of their ideologies.

Helen Hunt Jackson has also pointed in her sentimental novel Ramona (1884) to the hardship of Native Americans. Her female protagonist Ramona is a half-blood Native American orphan girl that leaves her home, the ranch of her Mexican aunt, in order to live with Alessandro, a Native American sheepherder. The novel is dispersed with sentimentalism, and sad anecdotes concerning Native Americans’ hardship and removal. After the white Americans have occupied Alessandro’s hometown Temecula, he and Ramona have to leave place after place behind, until they find a small one on a very high mountain which is not attractive enough for whites to become occupied. Throughout the novel, Ramona and the Native American characters continuously struggle to survive. When Ramona and Alessandro’s child becomes very ill, the white doctor, who is responsible for Native American concerns, refuses to visit and medicate the baby, so that it consequently dies. The loss of their child makes Alessandro so mad that he begins to do things unconsciously. This madness finally leads to his death, when he confuses his own horse with one of a white farmer who knows about his madness, but nevertheless shoots him to punish the “stealing” of his horse. Next to Native Americans’ hardship itself that the novel focuses on, it also emphasizes the psychological and physical consequences of it, and shows that Native Americans have to give way to white Americans that are more dominant in population. By doing this, Jackson takes on the concept of the doomed race, which is inferior to another race, and consequently doomed to extinct (cf. Jackson 1884: 129). Unlike Cooper and other authors, Jackson went one step further and took the concept of the doomed race as a reason to propose Native Americans’ need for assimilation in order to survive. This notion can be seen in Ramona in several text passages, for instance when Alessandro claims that all indigenous people should learn to read and write although they do not want it (cf. 88). With the proposed need for assimilation, Jackson also picked up again the notion of othering, this time dominantly from the opposite side, so that white Americans are considered as the others. She nevertheless relativized the notion of otherness by arranging cross-cultural friendships between whites and indigenous people. With the focus on Native Americans’ life, she succeeded in creating a better understanding for the needs and hardships of indigenous people, caused by white Americans. In Ramona, Native American characters are aware of their inferiority to the white population, and expect to be totally driven away by them. The only solution to survive seems to leave their own culture and traditions behind and adapt to the culture of the dominant white population, as proposed in a Darwinistic point of view, although the whites’ way of life is in the novel generally portrayed as less “civilized” in terms of honor, greed, and loyalty. Assimilation was also a common practice in America’s Indian policies. According to Darwinism, the white population could not have allowed Native Americans to keep their culture because this would have been a threat to them. The Native Americans could have immensely procreated, so that their race could have become the more dominant one. This was to be prevented in order to keep the (white) population from extinction. There seemed to be only two possible solutions for the “Indian Problem”: first, the violent extinction through murder, and second the complete assimilation (cf. Adams 1995: 2, 6).


1 Taken from the following lecture: Twelbeck, Kirsten. “National Identity and Native Americans.” American Literature and Culture: From the Beginnings to the 1850s. Leibniz Universität Hannover. Kesselhaus, Hannover. 19 Jan. 2011. Lecture.

2 Contents of definitions are taken from several lectures by Kirsten Twelbeck:
Twelbeck, Kirsten. “The Novel of Seduction.” American Literature and Culture: From the Beginningsto the 1850s. Leibniz Universität Hannover. Kesselhaus, Hannover. 20 Dec., 2012. Lecture.
Twelbeck, Kirsten. “National Identity and Native Americans.” American Literature and Culture: From the Beginnings to the 1850s. Leibniz Universität Hannover. Kesselhaus, Hannover. 19 Jan. 2011. Lecture.

3 For more information see e.g. the accounts of John Smith.

Excerpt out of 42 pages


Pocahontas in Malick's "The New World". A Contextual Analysis
University of Hannover  (Englisches Seminar)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Pocahontas, The New World, Terrence Malick, Native Americans, Assimilation, Film Analysis, Cultural Work, Darwinism, doomed race, cross-cultural love plot, noble savage, cruel Indian, historical film, Powhatans, John Smith, Generell Historie, settler, Mary Rowlandson, captivity narrative, indigenous people, intercultural exchange, Lydia Maria Child, Sedgwick, sentimental novel, intercultural communication, women's literature, New England, Hobomok, Hope Leslie, Ramona, boarding schools, inferior race, Civil Rights Movement, tricksters, othering, histocial context, music, Jane Tompkins, sound techniques, camera work, cinematography, sentimentalism, multiculturalism, Rousseau, Indian Wars, tradition, natural selection, John Vanderlyn, painting, literature, art, Tompkins Matteson, The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper, Hurons, Uncas, Delaware, vanishing Indian, extinction, Helen Hunt Jackson, dominant race, novel, culture, violence
Quote paper
Isabel Kern (Author), 2016, Pocahontas in Malick's "The New World". A Contextual Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/469843


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