Study Guide

A Northern Light Duty

By Jennifer Donnelly

Duty

Chapter 2
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

I knew he'd say no. Why had I even asked? I stared at my hands—red, cracked, old woman's hands—and saw what was in store for me: a whole summer of drudgery and no money for it. Cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing, feeding chickens, slopping pigs, milking cows, churning cream, salting butter, making soap, plowing, planting, hoeing, weeding, harvesting, haying, threshing, canning—doing everything that fell on the eldest in a family of four girls, a dead mother, and a pissant brother who took off to drive boats on the Erie Canal and refused to come back and work the farm like he ought to.

I was yearning, and so I had more courage than was good for me. "Pa, they pay well," I said. "I thought I could keep back some of the money for myself and give the rest to you. I know you need it." (2.fractious.115-116)

Think about all the duties Mattie lists on the farm. Previously, her father has stated that he can't run the farm alone, and it becomes clear here that running a farm in the early twentieth century Adirondacks requires a ton of hard labor, long days, and self-sacrifice. Mattie is the only one who can help Pa as much as he needs it, and she's torn between her desire to do so and her desire to earn money to go to college.

Chapter 3
Weaver Smith

Weaver's eyes locked on mine. "It's not work that stops you, is it, Matt? Or time? You've always had plenty of one and none of the other. It's that promise. She shouldn't have made you do it. She had no right." (3.abecedarian.80)

As Mattie's complaining about the responsibilities that she feels to her family, Weaver pinpoints a hard truth that Mattie's not ready to admit: it's not just the physical labor that prevents Mattie from pursuing her dream. There's a psychological component to the duty that Mattie feels, and it's this mental obstacle that she must overcome if she is ever to leave her family and attend college.

Chapter 11
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

"But you can't break a promise to anyone who's dead. They'll come back and haunt you if you do. Why are you asking?"

Ada blinks at me with her huge, dark eyes, and even though it's boiling hot in our room, I suddenly feel cold. I roll onto my back and stare at the ceiling. "No reason," I say. (11.22-23)

Mattie made two promises to dead people: She promised her mother she would stay, and she promised Grace she would burn her letters. Does this fall in the components of duty and responsibility, and how is Mattie haunted for eventually breaking both of these promises? (Boo.)

Chapter 12
Minor Characters

"You are just as bad as your no-account brother," she finally said. "Selfish and thoughtless. It must come from the Gokey side, because it doesn't come from the Robertsons. What on earth can you be thinking? Leaving your sisters when they need you? And for a terrible place like New York!" She nodded at the figurine I was clutching. "Pride. That's very fitting. Pride goeth before a fall. You're on a very high horse, Mathilda. I don't know who put you there, but you'd best get down off it. And fast." (12.UriahtheHittite,stinkpot,warthog.61)

Aunt Josie often functions as the mouthpiece for social values in the novel, so what we hear coming out of her mouth is often what other people around her think. But Aunt Josie latches on to Mattie's conflict: abandon her sisters and Pa for her dream, or stay and fulfill the responsibilities dictated to her by her gender and social norms.

Pa does not like my aunt Josie, and he did not want me to clean her house. He said I was not a slave—which was rich, coming from him—but there was not much either of us could do about it. (12.UriahtheHittite,stinkpot,warthog.10)

Mattie started cleaning her Aunt Josie's house before her mother, Josie's sister, died, and she keeps it up because she knows her mom would want her to. How does Mattie's commitment to Aunt Josie, a woman she doesn't really like or respect, make it harder for her to shirk her duties at the farm and follow her dreams? Also, Mattie thinks of herself as a slave, but clearly her Pa doesn't. Why might this difference of opinion exist?

Chapter 16

It had been years since Pa worked a drive, but I could tell from the look on his face as my uncle talked that he missed it. He flapped a hand at the stories and tried to seem all disapproving, but I saw the pride in his eyes as Uncle Fifty told us that there was no one more skillful with a bateau, no one faster or more fearless. He said my pa was the most surefooted riverman he'd ever seen, that he stuck to logs like bark. He said he'd seen him dance a hornpipe on a log once, and do a cartwheel and a handspring, too. (16.recouriumphoration.59)

We don't often see this, but Pa has also sacrificed dreams for responsibility. When his wife realized that he'd had one close-call too many, she demanded that he quit working the river (an incredibly dangerous job) or she and the girls would leave him. So he quit something he loved to save something he loved more. It's a mark of Mattie's maturity that she is able to see beyond her own dreams to the sacrifices that others make for responsibility and duty.

Chapter 17

I looked at him standing by the sink. He was washing his hands, splashing water on his face. My mamma left us. My brother, too. And now my feckless, reckless uncle had as well. My pa stayed, though. 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)

Mattie depends on her uncle to give her the money necessary to go to Barnard College, but, like her mother and brother, he, too, abandons her. Only her father, who she doesn't really get along with, has remained. So the shame that Mattie feels is guilt for wanting to abandon her family like she has been abandoned, but also shame for treating her father and the responsibilities he's been forced to shoulder with scorn.

Chapter 25
Miss Wilcox a.k.a. Emily Baxter

"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.8-9)

Mattie overhears a conversation between Miss Wilcox and her husband through an open window; he insists on asserting his husbandly rights, but she refuses. We think it's because she thinks she has a duty to her craft of writing and to women who might want to follow in her steps. It might not seem like it at first, but Miss Wilcox is willing to sacrifice the safety and security of marriage—remember, we're in 1906—in the name of pursuing her dreams and helping change the world, one poem at a time.

Chapter 46

I look down at the bundle in my hands. At the pale blue ribbon. At the loopy handwriting, so like my own.

If I burn these letters, who will hear Grace Brown's voice? Who will read her story? (46.13-14)

Throughout the whole novel, we see Mattie torn between dreams and responsibility, and to be honest, we're really not sure how we'd handle this one. On the one hand, Grace specifically asked Mattie to burn the letters. But on the other, Grace was murdered and her letters contain part of her story. Duty doesn't always make itself clear, Shmoopsters.

I saw her as she begged me never to go away, as she made me promise to stay and take care of her babies.

And I saw myself, tears in my eyes, promising her I would. (23.dehiscence.21-22)

Okay, this is the moment where we find out what the promise Mattie made to her mother is: to stay with her family and fulfill the responsibilities expected of the eldest girl on the farm. But we have to put the promise in context: Ellen is sick with cancer, not herself, and wracked with pain and grief. How could Mattie refuse her mother's request? And even more importantly, in what spirit did Mattie's mother make her request? Would she really want Mattie to give up her dream of college to stay on the farm? We kinda think she wouldn't.