Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The Arctic sun isn't your usual sun, that's for sure. In the summer, it stays up all day long, and in the winter, for sixty-six days at least, it never rises. We can't imagine what it would be like to live in total darkness for two months, but hey, at least it's on a schedule.
The ever-resourceful Eskimos have learned how to adjust to the darkness, but that doesn't mean they're not thrilled beyond belief when the sun finally does come up in January. Here's how our narrator describes it:
Slowly the life-giving star arose until it was round and burning red in the sky. The Eskimos lifted their arms and turned their palms to the source of all life. […]
For an hour and a half the sun moved above the horizon, reminding the Eskimos that the birds and mammals would come back, that the snow would melt, and that the great ice pack that pressed against the shore would begin to retreat and set them free to hunt and fish. (2.109-110)
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that's certainly true when it comes to the Eskimos and their "life-giving star."
But remember, in the beginning of the novel, the sun presents a nasty problem for Miyax. That pesky old sun just won't go down, will it? When we first meet our heroine, she's stuck in eternal daylight, and if that sounds like a nice problem to have, remember that stars are useful navigation tools. Without the North Star, which she can only see at night, Miyax is stuck wandering in circles and relying on other, less reliable methods of finding her way.
Okay. So. The sun is awesome, right? But it's also annoying. It gives life, but it strands our Miyax. What are we supposed to make of that? The sheer number of times it's mentioned in the novel tells us that the sun is pretty darn important. But what does the sun really mean for the story?
A Sun for All Seasons
For one thing, the sun consistently reminds us that Miyax is in the most peculiar of predicaments. She's in one of the harshest, most extreme places on earth, making it all the more remarkable that she survives.
For another thing, the sun opens the door for a million different ways to keep tabs on the time. Miyax seems pretty familiar with a lot of them:
She noticed that the cotton grasses by the pond were seeding out into white puffs. This was worrisome, for they marked the coming of autumn, the snows, and the white-outs. (1.139)
The flowers were gone; the birds flocked in great clouds, and among them were eider and old squaw ducks that kept to the rivers and beaches except when they migrated south. (1.235)
As she dropped her pack it clanged out a frozen note, reminder her again that autumn was over […] Now it was winter, and the top of the soil was solid. (3.55)
All of these events – the migrating birds, the grasses turning white, the freezing of the soil – tell Miyax what time of year it is, and all of these things are controlled by the sun. It's the single most important thing in determining her life, because in the harsh world of the Arctic, everything the Eskimos do must depend on the seasons.