A Northern Light Themes

Themes

Coming of Age

Coming-of-age novels map the turning points in an individual's transition from child to adult, and are often characterized by specific rites of passage enacted universally by children of a certain age within a given culture. At the turn of the century, for a woman of Mattie Gokey's class and region, the rite was most often courtship and marriage. In rural America, where households full of children were valued for the labor they could provide the farm, it was not unusual for a woman to marry and bear children at fourteen or fifteen years old, like Mattie's friend Minnie Compeau. Mattie's flirtation with Royal Loomis, the pull of her emerging sexuality, and the social expectation that her life will progress in a pattern similar to Minnie's and Belinda's make up the foundation of Mattie's emotional struggle. It is not surprising that Mattie suffers such deep ambivalence after she is offered a scholarship to Barnard. She longs to go to college, be a writer, and live a life of the mind. The scholarship is a dream come true. At the same time, her emerging womanhood calls for definition and reliable markers that will help her make sense of her emotional conflicts. The conventional literature for women is of no help. She cannot find her story in the stories society believes are suitable for women. Miss Wilcox and Weaver Smith certainly support and encourage Mattie, but they are also struggling to find their ways. Mattie must therefore develop a heightened consciousness and savvy that will help her navigate her passage to adulthood alone.

Duty and Responsibility

Much of women's behavior has traditionally been based on the powerful dictates of duty and responsibility toward father, husband, children and home. In the farming culture of upstate New York, the effort to yield a harvest from harsh land during a short growing season contributed to a heightened sense that one's very survival was dependent on meeting daily responsibilities. One need only imagine the Gokey farm when Mattie returns to it from the Glenmore Hotel after her father and sisters fall sick to grasp how crucial it was for people of that time and place to stay on top of daily chores. After only two days of neglecting the milking, the cows get sick from infection and the Gokeys lose two of them, as well as substantial income from milk and future calves. Mattie's older brother has already abandoned the...

(The entire section is 995 words.)