Study Guide

Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie in A Northern Light

By Jennifer Donnelly

Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

First person narration is pretty much the best of times and the worst of times, all rolled into one. On the one hand, because Mattie's telling us her own story, in her own words, we become pretty familiar with her thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, which also helps us really care about her. The downside of all this, though, is that we have to fill in gaps in the story, especially when it comes to figuring out other characters' motivations and ideas. Luckily for us, however, Mattie is a stellar eavesdropper.

Mattie's character seems deceptively easy to understand. Her primary want? To go to college. Her primary strength? Her intelligence. Her primary weakness? Oh… well now that's a little more difficult. So we return to the first question: Is her primary desire to go to college? Or is it deeper seated, like acceptance in the society in which she grew up? And is her intelligence a strength, or could we characterize it as kind of a weakness as well?

The more we look at and think about Mattie's character, the more complex she becomes.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Mattie doesn't fall down a rabbit hole like Alice, but she does share Alice's curious nature. Perhaps the coolest thing about this, though, is that this curiosity often inspires Mattie to listen in on other people's conversations—and when she does, we get to glimpse characters acting without taking Mattie into consideration. And when we do, they often reveal things they wouldn't share with Mattie. Check out the following for example:

They had a falling-out over it once, when Mamma was expecting Beth. They were sitting in Josie's kitchen, drinking tea, and I was in the parlor. I was supposed to be dusting, but I'd been eavesdropping instead. (12.UriahtheHittite,stinkpot,warthog.11)

The falling out Mattie overhears is between Mamma and Aunt Josie, and in it, Aunt Josie expresses her concern about Mamma and her life on the farm; she thinks it's straight-up just too hard. The conversation gets a bit heated, showing just how much each woman cares about her side of the argument, and nothing that's said between them would have been said openly in front of Mattie. So Mattie and her curiosity help us understand the dynamics of her family, and gain insight into what motivates different characters.

When Uncle Fifty visits, Mattie listens in to another conversation:

On my way back, just as I was about to push the parlor door open, I heard my uncle say, "Why you stay here squeezing cow teets all day long, Michel? Wat kine life dat be for a reevairman? Why you not come back and drive da logs?" (16.recouriumphoration.72)

Mattie just hangs back and listens in, and because of this, we get some insight into Pa's character: how he feels, what exactly he's lost, and the difficulties that he might face. And what emerges is a clear picture of how much he cares for his daughters—we're told, "Pa laughed. 'And let four girls raise themselves?'" (16.recouriumphoration.73)—which is something he doesn't always do a great job of showing.

Mattie's curiosity is more than a narrative technique to enrich characters, though, and each time Mattie learns more about the people around her, this new knowledge leads her to recognize the complexity of human nature, which is key to her coming of age process. So when Pa takes Mattie to the Glenmore Hotel for the first time and tells her, "'Things ain't always what they seem, Mattie. You remember that. Just because a cat has her kittens in the oven, it don't make 'em biscuits'"(29.icosahedtrom.7), she responds with:

Things are never what they seem, Pa, I thought. I used to think they were, but I was wrong or stupid or blind or something. Old folks are forever complaining about their failing eyesight, but I think your vision gets better as you get older. Mine surely was. (29.icosahedtrom.8)

Mattie knows the truth of Pa's words before he speaks them—that people have more sides than they show at any given moment is a lesson Mattie has learned time and again, particularly by letting her curiosity guide her. Mattie has a near insatiable desire to know more about the people around her and the world.

Driven by Duty?

At the beginning of the novel, we think we know what drives Mattie to act the way she does. Her love of words and passion for writing motivate her to consider becoming a writer, while the promise she made to her mother on her deathbed pressures Mattie to stay with her family and care for them. Easy, right?

Not so fast. Mattie's also motivated by intangibles: the love she feels for her family and the guilt she would feel at abandoning them, especially after her mother, her brother, and her uncle have abandoned them in the past. In many ways, this is the biggest—and most confusing—obstacle she faces. We see her struggle repeatedly with her own desire to leave the place she's grown up and invest in herself academically, and the sense of responsibility she has for her family. Here's a great example:

My pa always stayed.

I looked at him. And saw the sweat stains on his shirt. And his big, scarred hands. And his dirty, weary face. I remembered how, lying in my bed a few nights before, I had looked forward to showing him my uncle's money. To telling him I was leaving.

And I was so ashamed. (17.sesquipedalian.50-52)

In just a matter of days, Mattie has shifted from excitement about heading out on her own, to guilt over having felt excited about doing so. How can Mattie leave when so much is tying her to her family? She loves them, and worries that if she leaves, she'll never be able to forgive herself. At the same time, though, she's desperate to explore the bigger world.

Or Driven by Passion?

And the thing is, Shmoopsters, that when Mattie talks about her dreams, it's pretty clear what she actually wants. Just take a look at the words that she uses to describe her acceptance into Barnard College:

I looked at my teacher, barely able to breathe, much less speak. It says they want me, I thought. Barnard College wants me—Mattie Gokey from the Uncas Road in Eagle Bay. It says that the dean herself likes my stories and doesn't think they are morbid and dispiriting, and that professors, real professors with long black gowns and all sorts of fancy degrees, will teach me. It says I am smart, even if I can't make Pleasant mind and didn't salt the pork right. It says I can be something if I choose. Something more than a know-nothing farm girl with s*** on her shoes. (6.somniferous.33)

"I can be something if I choose." These words are so important: Mattie recognizes that she has to choose her path. Which, quite frankly, she doesn't actively do until she finishes sitting vigil over Grace Brown's body, because she's so afraid of leaving everything she knows for the unknown.

Fear is a great motivator, though, and as much as Mattie fears what the future holds for her in the great wide world, she also fears who she'll become if she stays in Eagle Bay. She tells us:

I couldn't bear it. To think of him stuck here. Working in a dining room or a tannery or up at a lumber camp. Day after day. Year after year. Until he was old and used up and all his dreams were dead.

"Go, Weaver, just go!" I cried. […] "Before you're stuck here forever. Like an ant in pitch."

Like me. (45.leporine.39-41)

Mattie has a glimpse of her future as it stands to be if she stays in Eagle Bay when she's confronted with the prospect of Weaver not going to Columbia, and she doesn't like what she sees one bit, though for the time being, she mainly understands that she doesn't want this future for Weaver. By the end of the book, though, Mattie's figured out a way to honor her family and herself, striking a balance between passion and duty.

When Weaver asks Mattie why she's finally decided to leave Eagle Bay, she tells him "'Because Grace Brown can't'" (49.34). Mattie realizes that if she stays and commits to her duty and responsibility of marriage and motherhood, she's sacrificing far too much of herself, much in the same way that Grace sacrificed her own life. So Mattie's not going to do it—she's going to strike out, and see if she can hack it in the world—and in this way, something good comes from Grace's death.

Pressure, Pushing Down on Mattie

Family obligation isn't the only thing standing in Mattie's way of coming into her own, and social pressures definitely push down on her, too. She feels like life will be easier if she conforms to the accepted role for women: marry, pop out some kids, make her husband the center of her world. You know the drill. But Mattie doesn't just feel like life along this path would be easier; she always feels a certain pull toward it, which we see when she begins to spark with Royal. Check it out:

And then he put his arms around me and held me to him as best he could in a rowboat, and it felt so good. No one had so much as hugged me since my mamma died. I wished I had the words to describe how I felt. My word of the day, augur, which means to foretell things from omens, had nothing to do with it as far as I could see. I felt warm in his arms. Warm and hungry and blind. (21.auger.53)

A relationship with Royal has the potential to give Mattie something she longs for: intimacy and partnership and warmth. But as the relationship progresses, it becomes clear through Royal's actions and words that he doesn't reciprocate the intimacy Mattie seeks. Thank goodness Mattie recognizes this before she makes a big mistake. She says:

I lie back against my pillow and spend a long time silently repeating them to myself, over and over and over again like a litany, but it's no use. Mamma said I would know. And I do. I guess I have all along.

"Poor, sad, stupid Grace," I whisper to the darkness. "Poor, sad, stupid Matt." (37.21-22)

Mattie, realizing Royal will never love her the way that Pa loved Mamma, wouldn't have come to this conclusion about her relationship with Royal had she not been curious enough to read Grace's letters and draw the accurate, though unfortunate, comparison between her relationship with Royal and Grace's relationship with Chester. In this way, Mattie's curious streak and her academic aspirations partner to lead her to what she really should do: follow her dream of college to New York City.

Strong Like Bull…Figuratively

Mattie's life is really difficult. She has to shoulder the responsibilities on the farm that her mother and brother left her, and she works from sun up to sun down, though she's rarely appreciated for everything that she does. Her time is very rarely her own, and when she does steal a few moments to herself, she's not exactly rewarded for it (consider Pa's reaction when he catches Mattie writing in her new composition book (10.plaintive), for instance). It's a bummer.

These responsibilities and setbacks teach Mattie to be resilient, though, and while her ultimate decision to venture off to Barnard is an example of this, perhaps the most telling demonstration of Mattie's resilience is the extraordinary empathy she shows others who are going through troubled times. In other words, Mattie's life is hard, but one of the ways we see her resilience is through her refusal to be embittered by this, and commitment to kindness anyway.

So when Pa expresses the guilt he feels over Mamma's death, she reacts not with condemnation, but with pity. She realizes:

That's why Pa never smiled anymore. Why he was so angry. Why he looked at us but never saw us. Oh, Lawton, I thought, some things should never, ever be said. Words are just words, Royal would say. But words are more powerful than anything. (35.aby.76)

Those are some pretty generous conclusions to draw, aren't they? Importantly, Mattie recognizes how much power words have, and as such, she has a keen awareness for what words can do to a person. Lawton's definitely really hurt Pa. This power Mattie recognizes in words adds to Mattie's appreciation for them, and is key to her conviction that they should be used to tell the truth. In a conversation with Miss Wilcox, she says:

"Why do writers make things sugary when life isn't that way?" I asked too loudly. "Why don't they tell the truth? Why don't they tell how a pigpen looks after the sow's eaten her children? Or how it is for a girl when her baby won't come out? Or that cancer has a smell to it? All those books, Miss Wilcox," I said, pointing at a pile of them, "and I bet not one of them will tell you what cancer smells like. I can, though. It stinks. Like meat gone bad and dirty clothes and bog water all mixed together. Why doesn't anyone tell you that?" (22.glean.77)

Even though Mattie has people telling her not to bother with words (ahem, Royal Loomis), she doesn't listen to them. We're not sure if this comes from her inner fortitude or if it's just that her passion for literature and writing eclipses her desire for acceptance by others—all we know is that she has the strength to stand up for what she believes about language, even if it goes against the status quo. And this may be her most powerful strength of all: the strength of her convictions.

"Please All and You Will Please None"

Aesop's fable is pretty much a reflection of Mattie's life. She's so selfless with herself and with her time, but in her desire to make everyone around her happy, she ends up making herself unhappy.

When Weaver confronts Mattie about one of the causes of Mattie's unhappiness (the promise she made to her mother to stay with her family on the farm), Mattie doesn't want to hear it. The two friends have the following exchange:

"God took her life and she took yours."

"You shut up, Weaver! You don't know anything about it!" I shouted, the tears spilling. (3.abecedarian.83-84)

There's a lot of guilt in breaking a promise to a loved one, especially a dead loved one, and Mattie isn't really ready to deal with it until the end of the novel. She's still prioritizing other people's happiness over her own.

Mattie's also seduced by the stability and life that Royal offers. He's a good farmer, and life with him might be happy, she thinks:

He pleased himself so much just talking about these things that he smiled and put his arm around me. It was the nicest feeling. Lucky and safe. Like getting all your animals inside the barn just before a bad storm hits. I nestled against him and imagined what it would feel like to lie next to him in a pine bed in the dark, and suddenly nothing else seemed to matter. (33.gravid.48)

But we have to ask Mattie if this is what will really make her happy. She's trying to please Royal, please her pa and mother's memory, please her community—but in the process, she's sacrificing herself and her dreams. And the thing is, Shmoopsters, that deep down, she knows it. She tells us:

I wondered if all those things were the best things to have or if it was better to have words and stories. Miss Wilcox had books but no family. Minnie had a family now, but those babies would keep her from reading for a good long time. Some people, like my aunt Josie and Alvah Dunning the hermit, had neither love nor books. Nobody I knew had both. (9.wan.72)

Mattie feels like she has to choose—human love or book love—but she's not quite sure how she'll choose until she reaches the end of the Grace Brown's letters. Despite her fears of only being able to have one thing or the other, Mattie ultimately strikes a balance between the two, sending money to her father to help with the farm, leaving money for Weaver to help him get to college, and then heading out for her own academic adventure.

And when she does this, we see that Mattie has strayed from both of the paths laid out for her, and found her own way through that honors both her love for her family, and her need to explore and cultivate her own interests. You go, girl.

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