Study Guide

A Northern Light Duty

By Jennifer Donnelly

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In A Northern Light, duty and responsibility largely arise from family and community. Duties are often based on gender norms and other social expectations, and these pressures cause a lot of friction when it comes to some characters' desires and dreams. In fact, adhering to duty may require characters to abandon their own desires. So duty and responsibility are inherently tied to sacrifice in the novel—of self, of dreams, even of health.

This book digs deep into the question of where duty to the self ends and duty to others begins, examining both the benefits and losses at stake when duty comes knocking. It's tricky to sort out, but by the end, at least Mattie has found the right balance for her and, we think, her family.

Questions About Duty

  1. What are some of the most important duties and responsibilities in Mattie's rural community, especially at home on her farm? What activities are seen as superfluous and silly?
  2. What makes the sacrifice of personal desire worth it to some of the characters in the novel? Do you think that the same sort of sacrifice would suffice for Mattie? For Weaver? Why or why not?
  3. What's more important to Mattie in the beginning and middle of the book—duty or her dreams? At the end of the book? What has caused this shift, and what makes you say this?
  4. Is it necessary that Weaver and Mattie give up their own desires to do the duties expected of them in the community they live in?

Chew on This

Pa's expectations of Mattie are reasonable given the social norms and gender roles of the community.

Pa has a duty as Mattie's parent to encourage her to follow her passion, and until he realizes this, it is impossible for him to do right by his daughter.

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