Study Guide

Miss Wilcox a.k.a. Emily Baxter in A Northern Light

By Jennifer Donnelly

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Miss Wilcox a.k.a. Emily Baxter

Young and vibrant, Emily Wilcox provides a physical example of what and who Mattie could become: a writer, a teacher, and a role model for other girls. But because of Mattie's conflicting tensions, we only catch a few glimpses into Miss Wilcox's life and psyche; we have to fill in many gaps on our own.

Before Gloria Steinem

Emily Wilcox embodies many early feminist ideals and is motivated by many ideas in the feminist movement. (Click here for a crash course in first wave feminism.) She's independent—she seeks a life beyond that of the home, which is all about serving and being subservient to her husband—and she believes firmly that her husband doesn't have the moral right to stop her from pursuing her dreams and passions, mainly teaching and writing. She thinks women have the right to attend college, and she hopes to divorce her own husband, which was illegal in the United States at the time.

In other words, Miss Wilcox is pretty revolutionary.

The Strength of Convictions

The way that Miss Wilcox takes control of her life is a marker of a deep belief in self-determination. She has lied to her family about who she is and where she is so that she can pursue her passions of teaching and writing, plus she continues to publish her work despite public outcry, since she believes in the power of literature to affect people's lives. Although these actions are potentially dangerous to her person, this doesn't stop her from pursuing opportunities for women.

Miss Wilcox is incredibly intelligent as well, and this intelligence serves her well in her profession. She's a gifted teacher who pushes Mattie and Weaver to achieve their dreams (3.abecedarian). Moreover, she's a compassionate person who does what she can for those less fortunate than her, like giving the Hubbard kids sandwiches (14.monochromatic.42) and offering Mattie a job.

Beyond Her Control

Many of Miss Wilcox's weakness are stem from circumstances beyond her control; in fact, we have to wonder whether these weaknesses are even hers in the first place. In many ways, it seems like they really belong to society.

First of all, Miss Wilcox has very little power in her marriage. As Mattie overhears the fight she has with her husband, Miss Wilcox demonstrates both her socially-created powerlessness and inner strength:

"Under what conditions, Teddy? Knowing you, there will be conditions."

"There's to be no more scribbling, no more foolishness. You're to come home and take up your duties and responsibilities. If you do, I promise I will do my best to forget any of this ever happened."

"I can't. You know I can't." (25.malediction.7-9)

Teddy, her husband, wants Miss Wilcox to fit neatly into the traditional role of women, but she refuses to acquiesce to his demands and to the demands of society. Instead of feeling a duty to uphold the conventional roles of womanhood, she feels a duty to free women from social constraints. Her husband still holds the upper hand, though, and Miss Wilcox's insecurity is hidden behind her confident comments during the last encounter she has with Mattie. She says:

"And once I'm in France, I'm going to do my best to get a divorce. Teddy's dead set against it, but I'm hoping I can make him so angry that he'll change his mind. A few more volumes of poetry should do the trick." Miss Wilcox smiled as she said that, but I saw the cigarette tremble between her fingers. (38.threnody.42)

She's clearly frightened of the power her husband has over her, which is just one example of the power men in general have over women. And this is one reason that she continues to write and publish works that push against conventional roles of women; she wants to make sure that other women who come after her don't have to go through the same battles she has to. Thanks Miss Wilcox—we hope you made it to France and got your divorce.

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