Study Guide

A Northern Light Women and Femininity

By Jennifer Donnelly

Women and Femininity

Chapter 2

It wasn't like this when Mamma was alive. Somehow she provided good meals all through the winter and still managed to have meat left in the cellar come spring. I am nowhere near as capable as my mother was, and if I ever forget it, I have Lou to remind me. Or Pa. Not that he says the sorts of things Lou does, but you can tell by the look on his face when he sits down to eat that he isn't fond of mush day in and day out. (2.fractious.40)

What a double-edged sword. Mattie needs to step into her mother's shoes after she dies, but no one is willing to cut her some slack. It just goes to show how much the women who live in the region do and how little they get recognized for it.

Chapter 3
Weaver Smith

"Go round cringing like a dog, Matt," he said, "and folks will treat you like one. Stand up like a man, and they'll treat you like a man." That was fine for Weaver, but I wondered sometimes, How exactly do you stand up like a man when you're a girl? (3.abecedarian.55)

Once again, Weaver says some wise words, implying that people's views of themselves and how they comport themselves is a pretty big social cue for how others can and should treat them. But Mattie, too, strikes at the heart of one of the social issues in the book: How do these rules change between men and women? Do you think it matters that Weaver is a black man?

Chapter 5

Royal gave me a look over his shoulder—a wincing, withering look—that made me feel like the biggest babbling blabberer in all of Herkimer County. I closed my mouth and wondered what it was girls like Belinda Becker had to say that made boys want to listen to them. I knew a lot of words—a lot more than Belinda, who giggled all the time and said things like "swell" and "chum" and "hopelessly dead broke"—but not the right ones. (5.misnomer.29)

Mattie's experiencing her first crush on Royal Loomis, and she's telling him about her word of the day. But Mattie realizes that she doesn't fit the ideal of femininity that her society holds for her: she's too smart, too ambitious, and she doesn't flirt with boys. It doesn't help that Royal disparages Mattie's interests and identity, either. In fact, the desire to fit in and have a relationship causes Mattie to call into question who she really is and what it means to be a woman.

Pa just gathered Pleasant's traces and walked him back to the barn, asking the mule if he had any idea why Frank Loomis had four good sons and he didn't have one. (5.misnomer.57)

After Royal helps Mattie plow a field, he and Pa talk about farming. And the fact that Mattie overhears her father disparaging his children because of their gender (and what they can and can't do regarding physical labor and social customs) doesn't really give her confidence in gender equality.

Chapter 13
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

And then one moved higher and before I knew what was happening, he was kneading my breast, pushing and pulling on it like he might a cow's teat.

"Stop it, Royal," I said, breaking away, my face flaming.

"What's wrong?" he asked. "You saving them?"

I couldn't look at him.

"For who, Matt?"

And then he laughed and started back home. (13.xerophilous.37-42)

Mattie likens the way Royal touches her to how he touches a cow—instead of flowery language and intimate caresses, Royal treats her like a farm animal, a commodity. And then he has the audacity to ask Mattie why she wants him to stop and laugh at her, as though it's funny she has an opinion on this interaction. If we didn't dislike Royal and his treatment of women, we sure do now. Clearly, he doesn't value Mattie for more than her body.

Chapter 23

I'd heard all about A Distant Music. I'd read articles about it in Aunt Josie's cast-off newspapers. They said that Emily Baxter was "an affront to common decency," "a blight on American womanhood," and "an insult to all proper feminine sensibilities." It had been banned by the Catholic Church and publicly burned in Boston.

I thought there would be curse words in it for sure, or dirty pictures or something just god-awfully terrible, but there weren't—only poems. One was about a young woman who gets an apartment in a city by herself and eats her first supper in it all alone. But it wasn't sad, not one bit. Another was about a mother with six children, who finds out she's got a seventh coming and gets so low spirited, she hangs herself. One was about Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, setting fire to her loom and heading off to do some traveling herself. And one was about God being a woman instead of a man. (23.dehiscence.7-8)

Emily Baxter's poems are powerful stuff, especially because they are poems in which women have opinions and independence and emotions about their sexual identities and ambitions, even a spirituality and sacredness to them. And while these ideas tantalize Mattie, society (not just the rural community but the larger national community as well) feels threatened by these concepts. Ugh.

Chapter 24

My eyes latch on to one line again: "I said no so many times, dear"...and then I gasp out loud, because I have said no a few times myself, dear, and I finally understand why Grace was so upset: She was carrying a baby—Chester Gillette's baby. That's why she had to give up her position and go home. That's why she was so desperate for him to come and take her away. Before her belly got big and the whole world found out. (24.32)

Out-of-wedlock pregnancy was not all that uncommon during the turn of the century, but there was a big social stigma tied to it anyway. Grace doesn't have control or power in this situation; either Chester marries her and saves her reputation, because she surely can't save it herself, or he doesn't marry her and she is ruined socially.

This may not seem like a big deal, but a lot of value was placed on women's virtue (i.e. virginity) and to give it up outside of marriage would not improve a woman's social standing. And for a lot of women, this mean a life of certain poverty.

Chapter 33

"I know you do. I hate them, too. Sometimes. I do." Her voice had dropped to a whisper. Her eyes were tormented.

"You hush right now! You don't mean that!"

"I do mean it. I wish I'd never had them. I wish I'd never gotten married." The babies struggled and howled against her. She sat down on the bed, opened her blouse, and grimaced as they latched on to her. (33.gravid.35-37)

Here we see another place where the reality of womanhood is much different from what Mattie originally thought of womanhood. Minnie's life is hard. She's got twins, and she's going through some post-partum depression. She can't fulfill her role as a woman (cooking, cleaning, sexually satisfying her husband) because of her new responsibilities as a mother, which is also part of being a woman, and her life is just overwhelming.

I knew then why they didn't marry. Emily and Jane and Louisa. I knew and it scared me. I also knew what being lonely was and I didn't want to be lonely my whole life. I didn't want to give up my words. I didn't want to choose one over the other. Mark Twain didn't have to. Charles Dickens didn't. And John Milton didn't, either, though he might have made life easier for untold generations of schoolkids if he had. (33.gravid.47)

Mattie leaves Minnie's house with a greater understanding of the reality of what it means to be a woman in her community. And she doesn't want it. She recognizes the double standard in gender treatment, but she's not sure if she's ready to give up a life with Royal for a life of writing. We have to wonder if she can have both, and then we realize that it doesn't matter what we think—it only matters what she thinks.

Chapter 38
Miss Wilcox a.k.a. Emily Baxter

"My husband is on his way, Mattie. My sister wired that he's a day away at most. If I'm still here when he arrives, the next stop for me is a doctor's office. And then a sanatorium and so many drugs pushed down my throat, I won't be able to remember my own name, much less write."

"He can't do that."

"He can. He's a powerful man with powerful friends." (38.threnody.37-39)

It's not just the men in rural New York who have power, and here Miss Wilcox admits that her husband will do everything to keep her from writing and embarrassing him and his reputation. To him, she's no more than a problem that must be dealt with. And it's scary to Mattie how much power a husband has over his wife. Heck, it's scary to us over a hundred years later.

Chapter 39

Clara's eyes narrowed. "That's not what I heard. I heard she wrote dirty poems under another name and when the school trustees found out it was her writing them, they sent her packing."

"She wrote beautiful poems, Clara," I said, bristling. "Have you ever read one?"

"I wouldn't. Not ever. My mother says her books aren't decent. She says they're dangerous." (39.confabulate.48-50)

At the Fourth of July celebration, a former classmate of Mattie's takes issue with Miss Wilcox's poems. But she's never even read them. And it's a good thing, too, because they might contaminate her… or, you know, open her mind to a world of possibilities. Same difference.

Chapter 43

She turned and ran off toward the lake and Ada and I ran after her, laughing and crowing the whole way. (43.nonpareil.66)

After the girls trick table six and humiliate him, they regain some of the power they have lost. In fact, this power gives them a freedom that they previously hadn't realized. Even though the whole table six plot line seems only to add humor, we realize that it's more likely there as a way for Mattie to see what power feels like.