Study Guide

A Northern Light Society and Class

By Jennifer Donnelly

Society and Class

Chapter 8
Weaver Smith

"There." He points to the far end of the dock. A skiff is tied there. Its cushions are gone and its oarlocks are empty. "I went into the parlor after supper. To look at her." He is staring out at the lake. He closes his eyes. When he opens them again, his cheeks are wet.

"Oh, Weaver, don't," I whisper, touching his shoulder.

His hand finds mine. "I hate this place, Mattie," he says. "It kills everything." (8.23-25)

We need to put this in context. Even though this happens toward the beginning of the novel, Weaver, in chronological time, has experienced the loss of his home and his dream for college. So for Weaver, as for Mattie, Grace's death is incredibly symbolic of his own loss of childhood and innocence. Weaver is convinced that he's going to have to stay in Eagle Bay forever, and he can't stand the prospect.

Chapter 17
Miss Wilcox a.k.a. Emily Baxter

"She wants to go, Mr. Gokey. Very badly," Miss Wilcox said.

"Well, I blame you for that, ma'am. You went and put ideas in her head. I haven't got the money to send her. And even if I did, why would I send my girl where she don't know anyone? Away from her home and her family, with nobody to look after her?" (17.furtive.34-35)

One of the greatest obstacles to social mobility is the lack of money (which remains as true today as it was during 1906), but Pa seems to be hiding behind this reality. Of much greater worry to him is the fact that he would be sending his oldest daughter into the unknown world, one where he fears he might lose her and she might lose herself. Fear of the unknown is a powerful motivator to stay put in society.

Chapter 20

"This is stealing, Josie," I heard Mrs. Mclntyre say. "We're stealing Emmie Hubbard's mail."

"It's not stealing, Alma. It's helping. We're trying to help a neighbor, that's all," my aunt said.

"Arn Satterlee gave it to me right before I closed for lunch. I've got to put it into the outgoing mailbag by two o'clock or it won't get to Emmie today."

"You will, Alma, you will; it'll only take a minute..." (20.tottlish.7-10)

Aunt Josie is the quintessential overbearing, gossipy woman in society. In fact, she's committing a felony, and she's justifying it not because she cares about Emmie Hubbard but to satisfy her curiosity. This disregard for social boundaries and rules is hypocritical in many ways because Aunt Josie is one of the characters who has the strongest opinions about people moving up or down the social level (like Mattie going to college).

Chapter 22
Minor Characters

No one spoke for a few seconds. I could hear the clock ticking and the sound of my own breathing. Then Lou quietly said, "Cripes, Mattie. You oughtn't to talk like that." (22.glean.80)

Mattie feels so passionately about telling the truth in writing and literature that she lets her words get away from her as she explains what literature should be like to Miss Wilcox and Lou. It is important that Lou, as the most rebellious of the Gokey girls, is the one who admonishes Mattie for her beliefs about literature.

For all Lou's rebellion, she still operates within the social boundaries of society, not reaching above or below what people expect of her. But here, Lou realizes that Mattie is much more rebellious than she is; in fact, Lou, who habitually breaks social rules, is the one encouraging Mattie to conform.

Miss Wilcox a.k.a. Emily Baxter

"It's wonderful here in the woods," Miss Wilcox said, swerving to avoid a squirrel. "Such freedom! You can do whatever you like and no one minds." No, but how they talk! I thought. Glean, my word of the day that day, is a good word. It is old and small, not showy. It has a simple meaning—to gather after the reapers—and then meanings inside the meanings, like images in a prism. It is a farming word, but it fits people other than farmers. Aunt Josie never bent her back in a field one day in her life, but she is a gleaner. She combs other people's leavings—hints, hearsay, dropped words—looking for nuggets of information, trying to gather enough bits together to make a whole story. (22.glean.25-27)

This is the crux of life in a small town: everyone gets all up in your business. Gossip runs rampant, secrets are impossible, and Aunt Josie is the manifestation of all of these meddling traits. Miss Wilcox hasn't yet realized that even though there are striking differences between rural and urban life, social rules and restrictions exist in both of them. And often, these rules and restrictions are far more similar than different.

Chapter 24

My whole life is ruined and in a measure yours is, too. Of course it's worse for me than for you, but the world and you, too, may think I am the one to blame, but somehow I can't—just simply can't think I am, Chester. I said no so many times, dear. Of course the world will not know that but it's true all the same. (24.31)

As Mattie reads one of Grace's letters, she figures out that Grace is pregnant—and the social consequences of pregnancy out of wedlock are pretty awful for the woman. Grace's fatalistic view that society will blame her instead of Chester for becoming pregnant is unfair (especially since it sounds like rape might've been a factor) but absolutely on point for the time.

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

"He says you are obscene. And when Comstock says something, the entire country listens. You are doing grievous injury to the names of Wilcox and Baxter, Emily. I will seek help for you if you refuse to seek it yourself."

"Meaning what, Teddy?"

"My meaning is perfectly clear."

"No, it damn well isn't! Have some guts for once in your life! Say what you mean!"

"You leave me no choice, Emily. If you do not come home—on my conditions—I will sign you over to a doctor's care." (25.malediction.16-20)

As Mattie overhears the conversation between Miss Wilcox and her husband Theodore, the importance of name and reputation, as well as the power held by men, becomes clear. Teddy is far more concerned for his reputation than he is with his wife's desires. Plus we see that social pressures exist not just in small communities but on larger national scales as well.

Chapter 27

Jim Loomis had been playing tricks on tourist kids who wanted to go boating on Fourth Lake, telling them to go inside the Eagle Bay Hotel and ask the manager for Warneck Brown, he'd take them. And they actually did it and how dumb could city kids be when everyone knew Warneck Brown was chewing tobacco, not a person. (27.hispidulous.13)

One of the easiest ways to marginalize someone at a different social level is to scorn what they know, don't know, and value. It's easy to pretend that people who are different from one another are ignorant and dumb, and both rural and urban communities are guilty of committing this crime. The urbanites try to instruct Mattie in her own region, and in retaliation, characters like Jim Loomis and Weaver Smith try to place the hotel visitors in uncomfortable situations. The us-versus-them mentality persists across social boundaries.

Poor Tommy. His brothers and sisters hadn't seemed to know what was happening, but he did. I hoped Mrs. Loomis would never find out. Or Royal or his brothers. It would hurt them terribly. Beth hadn't seen anything and surely Tommy was much too ashamed to tell. It would stay a secret. No one else would ever know. (27.hispidulous.43)

C'mon, Mattie, even you don't believe this. There've already been plenty of events in the novel where secrets have been revealed—just because Mattie's shocked by this one, doesn't mean it has been churning around the gossip mill for a while now (which it totally has).

Chapter 39

My aunt Josie was interrogating poor Arn Satterlee about Emmie Hubbard's land and who was after buying it. I did my best to avoid her. She had told the whole county how selfish and uncaring I was to have gone to the Glenmore. She was only mad because Pa wouldn't allow Abby to clean her house and she now had to pay a girl from the village to do it. (39.confabulate.11)

Of particular interest here is the attitude of a wealthier member of the community (Aunt Josie) toward money. Whereas Mattie's family and other, poorer members of the community try to help one another out during hard times (Mattie makes food for the Hubbards, the Hubbards take Mamma Weaver in after the fire), wealthier members like Aunt Josie and Royal Loomis are much more interested in maintaining and increasing their wealth. What might this attitude toward money reveal about the community at large?