Hardships in Boys and Girls by Alice Munro

Hardships in Boys and Girls by Alice Munro

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In her story, Boys and Girls, Alice Munro depicts the hardships and successes of the rite of passage into adulthood through her portrayal of a young narrator and her brother. Through the narrator, the subject of the profound unfairness of sex-role stereotyping, and the effect this has on the rites of passage into adulthood is presented. The protagonist in Munro's story, unidentified by a name, goes through an extreme and radical initiation into adulthood, similar to that of her younger brother. Munro proposes that gender stereotyping, relationships, and a loss of innocence play an extreme, and often-controversial role in the growing and passing into adulthood for many young children. Initiation, or the rite of passage into adulthood, is, according to the theme of Munro’s story, both a mandatory and necessary experience.

 

            Alice Munro's creation of an unnamed and therefore undignified, female protagonist proposes that the narrator is without identity or the prospect of power. Unlike the narrator, the young brother Laird is named – a name that means "lord" – and implies that he, by virtue of his gender alone, is invested with identity and is to become a master. This stereotyping in names alone seems to suggest that gender does play an important role in the initiation of young children into adults. Growing up, the narrator loves to help her father outside with the foxes, rather than to aid her mother with "dreary and peculiarly depressing" work done in the kitchen (425). In this escape from her predestined duties, the narrator looks upon her mother's assigned tasks to be "endless," while she views the work of her father as "ritualistically important" (425). This view illustrates her happy childhood, filled with dreams and fantasy. Her contrast between the work of her father and the chores of her mother, illustrate an arising struggle between what the narrator is expected to do and what she wants to do. Work done by her father is viewed as being real, while that done by her mother was considered boring. Conflicting views of what was fun and what was expected lead the narrator to her initiation into adulthood.

 

            Unrealistically, the narrator believes that she would be of use to her father more and more as she got older. However, as she grows older, the difference between boys and girls becomes more clear and conflicting to her.

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Her first experience with this was when a salesman stopped by one day. In the midst of working for her father, she was introduced as her father's "new hired hand," but the salesman, instead of smiling benevolently, remarks " I thought it was only a girl" (425). Being at the 'tomboy' stage, and implying, by the use of 'stage' that the condition is a temporary one that all right-thinking, demurring girls will outgrow, the narrator is once again confronted with the conflict of gender stereotypes. She shows no intention of putting away childish androgyny, but rather, shows an increased desire and ability to do a man's job – a tendency that disturbs her mother. It is at this time, that the mother, good intentionally shackles her daughter to her correct place in the world to prepare her for stereotypes later on in life. However, after talking with her mother, the narrator realises that she has to become a girl; "A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become" (427). Here, the narrator realises that there is no escape from the pre-determined duties that go along with the passage of a child into being a girl and a girl into a woman.

 

            Knowing that she is expected to become a girl and conform to society's beliefs and norms, she expresses her desire to rebel against what is expected. As with initiation, it is unknown what is lying ahead, but it is known that one must conform to the expected nomenclature, or face societal ridicule. As for example, when the narrator's grandmother is visiting, she explains the do's and don'ts of being a girl, "Girls keep their knees together when they sit down " (427). However, the narrator expresses her resistance by continue to do things against the norm, "thinking that by such measures [she] kept [herself] free" (427). Now exposed to what she must become, the narrator's freedom is killed. In many ways, this loss of innocence and freedom can be compared to the horse that her father raised. In making an effort to aid in the escape of Flora, the narrator shows her resistance to what she knows she now must become, and that ultimately her resistance is futile. This rebellion against her father's orders to cage the horse illustrates the narrator's last final attempt at avoiding her stereotype. In consciously making the decision to set the horse free, the narrator goes against her set stereotype. Because of this conscious act, she loses her innocence in her father’s eyes; however, this doesn’t matter as she is “only a girl” (432). Unlike her sister however, Laird, is seeking to becoming initiated, and is given the chance when he is allowed to go and recapture the horse which the narrator let loose. This contrasts the willingness of the narrator to conform to society's beliefs and her own. In each their own, both Laird and the narrator are accepted into their new niche with their rite of passage. Laird's passage was symbolised by the horse blood on his arm, blood from doing a man's job. Similarly, the narrator's passage was complete when her father found out she purposely let the horse loose, but didn't get mad because "She's only a girl" (432). The narrator doesn't protest this, "even in her heart. Maybe it was true" (432).

 

 "Boys and Girls" by Alice Munro highlights and emphasises the theme of initiation. The story depicts initiation as a rite of passage according to gender stereotypes and a loss of innocence. Conformity plays a vital role in determining the outcome of the narrator's passage into adulthood. Throughout the story, the narrator is confronted with conflicting thoughts and ideas regarding her initiation into adulthood. Ultimately, she wishes to work with her father, and stay a  'tomboy,' but through a conflict with her mother and grandmother, she comes to realise that she is expected, like the women before her, to adopt the gender stereotype which comes with her growing and passing into adult hood. Similarly, her younger brother, Laird, is also initiated, but into man-hood, something he yearns for. In conclusion, Munro's story illustrates the struggles between the dreams and reality of the rite of passage and initiation, based on gender stereotypes society has placed on men and women.
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