"You're to stay home and help me boil tomorrow. Your sisters, too."
"Pa, I can't. I'll fall behind if I miss a day, and my examinations are coming up."
"Cows can't eat learning, Mattie. I need to buy hay. Used up most everything I cut last fall. Fred Becker don't take credit, so I'll need to sell some syrup to get it." I started to argue, but Pa looked up from his bowl and I knew to stop. (2.fractious.104-107)
Very early in the novel, Mattie must reconcile her hopes and dreams of an education with her father's expectations for her and his desire to see his farm succeed so that he can take care of his family. Duty versus dream comes up time and again, and in this case, duty wins.
And Weaver gave Miss Wilcox my composition book without even telling me. And she read my stories and told me I had a gift.
"A true gift, Mattie," she'd said. "A rare one."
And ever since, because of the two of them, Weaver and Miss Wilcox both, I am wanting things I have no business wanting, and what they call a gift seems to me more like a burden. (3.abecedarian.96-98)
Sometime the people around us can inspire us to dreams that we might not have otherwise had, and in this case, Weaver and Miss Wilcox have inspired Mattie to hope for college. But even so, Mattie knows that to make a dream a reality requires making difficult choices. Also interesting is Mattie's phrase "things I have no business wanting." Why might she believe that it's not okay for her to want her dream? What pressures does she feel about her dreams?
"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)
Weaver knows the promise that Mattie made to her mother, and he thinks that the death of Mattie's dream is really the death of the life she really wants. He's right, but Mattie hasn't reached the point where she's ready to admit this to herself—she's still grieving for her mother.
She raised chickens, too. Scores of them. During the warmer months, she fried up four or five every evening, and baked biscuits and pies, too, and took it all down to the Eagle Bay railroad station the next day in her cart to meet the trains. Between the engineer and the conductors and all the hungry tourists, she sold everything she made. She put every penny she earned in an old cigar box that she kept under her bed. Weaver's mamma worked as hard as she did so she could send Weaver away to college. To the Columbia University in New York City. Miss Wilcox, our teacher, encouraged him to apply. He'd been granted a scholarship and planned to study history and politics and then go on to law school one day. He was the first freeborn boy in his family. His grandparents were slaves, and even his parents were born slaves, though Mr. Lincoln freed them when they were tiny children. (3.abecedarian.53)
It's clear through Weaver's backstory that his dreams are not just his own; they are the realization of dreams of his parents and his grandfather. And it's important to remember that sometimes a person's dreams and hopes don't just belong to that person; they are symbolic of something more. In Weaver's case, his dream of going to college is a physical representation of racial equality and a rejection of the inequalities that generations of his family has experienced.
As soon as she said it, as soon as she talked about my dream like that and brought it out in the light and made it real, I saw only the impossibility of it all. I had a pa who would never let me go. I had no money and no prospect of getting any. And I had made a promise—one that would keep me here even if I had all the money in the world. (6.somniferous.37)
And the winner is… reality. Crushing Mattie's dream before she has even begun to think about it. Poverty crushes dreams (anyone who's tried to go to college with no money can relate to this); family pressures can crush dreams. But what's important for Mattie is not just the reality she knows, but also how she strives to change that reality to realize her dreams.
Forty-five cents was a good deal of money, but I didn't want the ones for fifteen cents, not after I'd seen the others. I had more ideas. Tons of them. For stories and poems. I chewed the inside of my cheek, deliberating. I knew I would have to write a lot when I went to Barnard—if I went to Barnard—and it might be a good idea to get a head start. […] Guilt gnawed at my insides. (7.unman.15)
Mattie is trying to decide how to spend money she earned picking fiddleheads: on something for her future as a writer or on food for her family. And man, she feels some massive guilt for choosing the notebook over her family. Should she feel guilty? Why or why not?
I remained on the ladder, looking at the figurine in my hand. You're wrong, Aunt Josie, I thought. It's not pride I'm feeling. It's another sin. Worse than all the other ones, which are immediate, violent, and hot. This one sits inside you quietly and eats you from the inside out like the trichina worms the pigs get. It's the Eighth Deadly Sin. The one God left out.
Aunt Josie has just accused Mattie of being selfish and ungrateful for wanting to go to college. So there's some social pressure in the mix in addition to the pressure of familial life. But think about how interestingly Mattie characterizes hope: it's a sin, one that "eats you from the inside out." Hope is something that festers.
After a while, though, he took a breath, and just to say something, I told him I was going to college. I told him that I had been accepted to Barnard and that if I could only come up with some money, I would go.
He stopped dead in his tracks. "What on earth you want to do that for?" he asked, frowning.
"To learn, Royal. To read books and see if maybe I can write one myself someday."
"Don't know why you'd want to do that."
"Because I do," I said, annoyed by his reaction. (13.xerophilous.28-32)
There are many words we could use to describe Royal Loomis, and right now, we can't think of a single positive one. While we understand that Mattie is attracted to him—he seems like a pretty good-looking guy—we can't really forgive him for not paying attention to or trying to understand Mattie's dreams. His scorn for education and literature—a.k.a. her hopes and passions—make it harder for her to hold on to them, especially because she's so attracted to him.
Pa (Michael) Gokey
My sisters scattered. Pa looked at me. "You couldn't tell me yourself?" he asked.
His eyes were hard and his voice was, too, and all the soft feelings I'd had for him only moments before swirled away like slop water down a drain.
"What for, Pa? So you could say no?"
He blinked at me and his eyes looked hurt, and I thought, just for a second, that he was going to say something tender to me, but no. "Go, then, Mattie. I won't stop you. But don't come back if you do," he said. Then he walked out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind him. (17.furtive.49-52)
Pa feels betrayed that his daughter wouldn't trust him with her dreams, but he also feels abandoned… especially after his wife abandoned him by dying and his son abandoned him by ditching life on the farm. Can we really blame him for his reaction? But then he gives Mattie the worst ultimatum ever: your dream or your family. It's really not a fair choice at all.
"Look at that stretch of land right there, Matt," he said, sweeping his hand out in front of him. "Nice and flat, well drained, and a good stream besides. Make good growing land. I'd farm it for corn in a second."
The stretch of land he was talking about included Emmie Hubbard's property and a bit of my father's, as well as Loomis land. "Well, I think Emmie might have something to say about that. And my pa, too."
He shrugged. "A man can dream, can't he?" (26.abscission.9-11)
Royal seems to be the exception to the rule of dreams in A Northern Light. He never really feels guilty for pushing Emmie Hubbard off her land; he never really seems bothered by society or torn between duty and dream, probably because his dream aligns with his family's and society's expectations of him. Life is much harder when one's dreams are in conflict with others' expectations.
I'd already found myself a new place, one I'd never intended to find, but I was in it now all the same. It was a place for myself alone and one I couldn't tell Weaver about, no more than I could tell Miss Wilcox. It was in Royal Loomis's arms, this place, and I liked it there. Weaver would never understand that. Sometimes I barely did myself. (31.limicolous.31)
Mattie wants her own story more than anything else, but she has no idea how exactly her story should be written. We have to wonder, though, how can Mattie know she likes her place in the world if she doesn't understand why she's there? Is physical attraction enough to make up for Mattie's lost dreams?
Just then, I saw what Weaver would be, too. I saw him in a courtroom, thundering at the jury, commanding their eyes and ears, their hearts and souls and minds—on fire with the strength of his convictions, the passion of his words.
Weaver wasn't that man yet, he was only a boy, tall and lanky, scrubbing a greasy roasting pan. But he would be. Scrubbing was only for today for Weaver Smith, not for ever. (34.saltant.27-28)
Mattie's clearly not the only one with hopes and dreams; Weaver, too, wants more than what he has, and he feels the pressures of society and community to conform as a young black man. His dreams are tied to equality and justice, and he is much surer of his dreams than Mattie is, which makes the death of his dream of college that much more devastating. Unlike Mattie, he doesn't have an alternative way to cope with the loss.
I cried as if someone died.
I could see him in my mind's eye—a tall, proud black man in a suit and tie. He was dignified and fearsome. He was a man who could cut down a roomful of other men with only the brilliance of his words. I saw him walking down a city street, brisk and solemn, a briefcase under his arm. He glanced at me, walked up a flight of stone steps, and disappeared. (45.leporine.34-36)
Talk about your symbolic deaths. Mattie watches the physical representation of Weaver's dream—and his dignity and pride and solemnity and intelligence—disappear. And she hates it, because it's hard enough for her to have given up on her dream and her future of college. Which, at this point, she has.
"Why, Matt? Why are you going now?" he asks me.
I look at the Glenmore. I can see a light glowing softly in a window in a little bedroom off the parlor. "Because Grace Brown can't," I tell him. (49.33-34)
Death is both literal and figurative for Mattie, and she realizes that if she stays in Eagle Bay, her soul will die. Because Grace never got the chance to realize her own dreams of marriage, Mattie feels a responsibility to take control of her future instead of letting others make choices for her.