Alice Munro's Boys and Girls
In Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls” she tells a story about a young girl’s resistance to womanhood in a society infested with gender roles and stereotypes. The story takes place in the 1940s on a fox farm outside of Jubilee, Ontario, Canada. During this time, women were viewed as second class citizens, but the narrator was not going to accept this position without a fight
Munro’s invention of an unnamed character symbolized the narrator’s lack of identity, compared to her younger brother, who was given the name Laird, which is a synonym for “Lord”. These names were given purposely by Munro to represent how at birth the male child was naturally considered superior to his sister.
The father in the story was a fox farmer. He raised foxes and when their fur was prime, he skinned them and sold their pelts for profit. Growing up, “the girl” sought for attention from her father, therefore, she began to enjoy helping him work outside with the foxes. “My father did not talk to me unless it was about the job we were doing … Nevertheless I worked willingly under his eyes, and with a feeling of pride.” Consequently, she began to dread working in the kitchen with her mother, and thus loss respect for her mother’s subservient position in the household. When describing her mother’s housework it was “endless” compared to her father’s work outside, which was “ritualistically important.” This obvious resentment for society’s womanly duties symbolizes the narrator’s desire to be more than “just a girl”.
The protagonist in the story began to realize society’s views of her when her father introduced her to a salesman, while she was working outside, as his “new hired hand”. She was almost pleased until the salesman replied “I thought it was only a girl”. Even her grandmother bombarded her with commands, “Girls
keep their knees together when they sit down.” And “Girls don’t slam doors like that.” The worst was when she asked a question and her grandmother answered “That’s none of a girl’s business.” Even after that, she continued to slam doors and sit awkwardly because she felt that it kept her free. In other words, she was not ready to accept and claim her gender identity.
In the story, “Boys
and Girls”, the narrator is not the only one coming to terms with their identity. Her little brother Laird is developing a desire to do the masculine things around the house. The narrator overhears her mother talking to her father saying, “Wait till Laird gets bigger you will have some real help.” This represents the family’s innate expectations of Laird to follow in his father’s footsteps. “The girl” obviously sensed their higher expectations for Laird and her jealousy began to show. She once made Laird climb the ladder to the top beam, believing that he would get in trouble. But, when her parents arrived it was the narrator that was scolded, her parents yelling, “Why weren’t you watching him.” This amplified the double standard between genders in their family and in the general public.
The theme of the search for individuality in the story was also represented by the narrator’s nightly stories. She shared a room with her brother, and at night after he fell asleep she would stay up and tell herself stories. In these stories she would imagine herself as a hero, she was bold and courageous and everyone admired her. These stories represented the woman that she wanted to become; powerful and independent, which was the complete opposite of the stereotypical “girl”, which her family wanted her to become.
Another example of the protagonist’s struggle for her identity is her identification with one of the family’s horses, Flora. The father fed his foxes with horsemeat. Therefore, the family would sometimes get healthy horses that no longer had any use. They would keep these horses all winter long. Flora was one of these horses; she was a beautiful female horse who was fast, violent, and rebellious. When it came time for the father to kill Flora, to feed the foxes, the horse rebelled and tried to escape. The narrator was the closest to the gate to the yard and her father yelled for her to close it. The narrator got there just in time to close it, but instead she held it open for Flora and she escaped.
“I was on Flora’s side … I did not regret it; when she came running at me and I held the gate open, that was the only thing I could do.” was the narrators response to what she had done. The narrator’s association with Flora symbolized her own thrust for freedom. During, the actual act of her opening the gate she took a stance against her father and thus she chose her own identity.
Later that night, after Flora was captured and killed, the father and Laird returned home. Laird, covered in Flora’s blood, then told the father that his daughter purposely let the horse get away. The father proclaimed, “Why would you do that?” he paused, chuckled and said “Nevermine, she’s only a girl”. The narrator didn’t bother to dispute her father’s statement because she felt “in her heart, maybe it was true.” It was at this point that she accepted her gender role. She already began to care more about her appearance, decorate her room, and she even loss interest in her father’s work. Her nightly stories began to change as well. Instead of heroic journeys, the stories were now focused on the boys form school and her physical appearance.
“A girl was not simply what I was, it was what I had to become.” This simple statement by the narrator sums up the theme of “Boys and Girls”, the search and the acceptance of self-identity. Flora’s blood on Laird’s shirt represented Laird’s claim of his superior position in society. In conclusion, Munro sent the reader multiple messages about the discrimination against women in her story “Boys and Girls”. I also believe that she wanted the reader to understand the importance of finding one’s identity and accepting it. In the end, the girl became more than “just a girl”, she became herself.