In many ways, A Northern Light is all about the power associated with words. Unfortunately, though, only a few characters truly understand the impact words can have on relationships, individual identities, racial tensions, and characters' futures. Mattie lives in a society where honest communication isn't as important as social rules and norms. Lack of honest communication tends to stunt relationships in the novel, though, and it's only when characters are frank with one another and with themselves that they are able to mature and develop.
Questions About Language and Communication
Donnelly uses excerpts from Grace Brown's real letters (remember, there's historical truth to this novel). Why might she have done this?
Why might Mattie tell Miss Wilcox what she really thinks about literature, but not be able to tell Royal about her hesitations about marriage?
Why are some of Mattie's last words to the people in her community in the form of letters? What do letters allow her to do that spoken word doesn't?
Communication is a two-way street. Who really is willing to listen—and conversely, who isn't willing to listen—to Mattie, and how does this two-way communication develop the relationship between the characters?
Chew on This
Much as she criticizes other people's failure to communicate well, Mattie is just as guilty of doing so herself. It's fine and dandy for her to share her real thoughts with us, but it's only once she can share them with other people that she really comes into her own.
If Royal had listened to Mattie and shown that he cared about her words, Mattie could have been very happy married to him.