Young Adult Lit/Crit

April 24, 2008

Reading A NORTHERN LIGHT from Multiple Critical Perspectives

Filed under: A NORTHERN LIGHT — sunyprof @ 9:16 pm

We didn’t have time to talk tonight about the ALAN REVIEW article which pairs CATCHER and IRONMAN and applies Structuralist and Marxist theories to these novels.

What theoretical perspectives do you think would best inform a reading of A NORTHERN LIGHT? I’d like small groups to form around reading the novel from a particular perspective. F/J may be helpful here. Clearly, those of you who have TYSON from 541 may find it useful as well.

Please comment and suggest which theory you would like to apply to the novel. Thanks! KES



  1. I’m glad you asked this, Professor Stearns. As I was reading the book today, I was actually thinking to myself that a feminist lens would be SO applicable to this book. Take the character of Mattie. She seems oppressed due to gender in many ways. Her father does not take her seriously. She must struggle to go to college. Royal and Weaver seem to mock her constantly.

    If I were to teach this novel, I would also tie in a new historicist reading. I would ask students to examine the time period of the novel, and their own time period. I would ask them to highlight all of the “time markers” in the novel- the subtle aspects of history, place, and time, that are subtly infused into the novel.

    So there are two theories to get us started, but there are plenty more!


    Comment by allison — April 27, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

  2. Allison,

    I’m intrigued by your suggestion for “time markers” and think it is a meaningful approach. Using your feminist theory idea while creating a timeline of important moments in womyn’s rights around the framework of the novel is certainly worth doing.I didn’t read Royal and Weaver the same way you did, so I might suggest a different angle with them, but I’m right with you on these theories.

    I would like to add that a phenomenological approach could work. Jennifer Donnelly lives in New York City, and we see that New York holds the promise for a new, better, brighter future throughout the book. The interview in the back of the novel provides a great deal of insight into Donnelly’s perceptions of the world. I think that she has infused a great deal of her own ideas into Mattie, beginning with the feeling of being “haunted” after reading Grace Brown’s letters. Mattie even reads Grace’s letters to Chester AND Chester’s letters to Grace at the same time, much like Donnelly did when she read GRACE BROWN’S LOVE LETTERS, rather than experiencing them in a more historically accurate manner (as only Chester’s letters to Grace were found at the hotel.) Through reading A NORTHERN LIGHT, I actually feel like I could construct a kind of Donnelly-consciousness of sorts. I know that I would get along with her, that I would appreciate her opinions, and that I would read another one of her books.


    Comment by Joyce — April 28, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

  3. […] as you continue to read. You might want to look at Mandy and Joyce’s comments on an earlier post. […]

    Pingback by Lit Circles for Last Class?? « Young Adult Lit/Crit — April 28, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

  4. Joyce,
    What an interesting idea. I wonder if students would be able to write mock conversations with Donnelly about the letters and the time period.
    As I continue to read, other critical perspectives jump out at me. Certainly an African American lens make for a compelling reading. The scene at the train station when Weaver reacts to the racism really struck me. I’m sure it would lead to an thorough discussion in the classroom. I have not yet finished the novel, but I will now be looking for more ways to read this book through an African American lens.

    One other “critical” perspective that I would like to consider is the role of literature in this novel. I suppose this might fall under new historicism (Prof. Stearns, let me know what you think) I notice that Mattie complains about the fact that books do not tell reality. Any books that do tell reality (Miss. Wilcox’s poems) are censored by society. It seems we are seeing the movement from romanticism to realism. I compliment Donnelly on this. It’s a subtle aspect of the book, but a compelling, clever, and meaningful one. Did anyone else pick up on this?


    Comment by allison — April 29, 2008 @ 7:02 am

  5. Allison, Joyce, & Class,

    I agree with you completely. Within the first 10 pages of reading A NORTHERN LIGHT, I thought to myself, “What a great novel to take a feminist and/or historicist approach at!” This novel oozes with socially constructed roles and labels, particularly that of the female character. Mattie is strong, independent, brave and intellectual; which are characteristics common of a man during the early 1900’s. How does/did society and history influence the role Mattie plays? Would Mattie be perceived differently if she possessed the same characteristics, but in a different time period?

    Also, considering Joyce’s thoughts, perhaps this book is more autobiographical and historical than one realizes. Let’s consider the fact that Mattie moves to New York City in search of a more fulfilling life; but discovers that one cannot escape racism and sexism by relocation. This highlights the significance of time period/setting, and the necessity for the historicist and feminist lenses.

    Oh, and let’s not forget romance… how appropriate for that time period, and our hopeless romantic readers!


    Comment by jexter1 — April 29, 2008 @ 10:53 am

  6. Hey guys!
    As a first semester student, the only theories I really have to apply to this discussion are those from F/J and other texts from this course. As I was reading this novel, however, the idea of oppression and power seem to be a relevant way to teach this. Allison mentioned the feminist lense which seems highly appropriate with the family situation that Mattie finds herself in at the beginning of the novel. F/J would have us conduct discussions with our students about this section of the novel about who has the power and why, and who is oppressed and why. Using Weaver and his family situation could also be relevant here because his mother felt that she needed to “escape” the South and would be safer the further North she lived. Interesting to explore further into the power/oppression of this situation as well as the dynamics of the social classes (rich guests vs. poor employees) that exist in the resort town.

    Comment by kariredmond — April 29, 2008 @ 10:22 pm

  7. Kari,


    LOVE this power/oppression idea. I can see a lot of ways that we could use it in a discussion of this text. Tommy would be another place to start, I think. One instance that comes to mind is the Tommy/Royal black eye incident when Mattie returns to nurse her family back to health. I’ll never question my mother when she says that she is “royally” mad again. I’ll know exactly what she means by that.

    Additionally, the “fixing the stove” incident: clearly a power situation. This one could also be used in Allison’s idea using the feminist perspective.


    Comment by Joyce — April 30, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

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