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BOYS AND GIRLS
Alice Munro’s short story, “Boys and Girls,” is a story of the way of life in the 1940s, where men and women had specific roles controlled by gender. They were expected to learn those roles as children and conform to them as adults. As the title suggested, males and females played separate and distinct roles from each other, with no one role blending into the other. Instead of saying “Girls and Boys,” Munro chose to say “Boys and Girls.” He is superior and she is subservient to him.
Although Munro narrated the story through the voice of the girl, she did not give the girl a name. Her role, as a girl, was not important. Interestingly, Munro named the boy “Laird,” another name for “Lord.” The narrator wanted the reader to know that even though the boy was the younger of the two, he was superior, or Lord, over his older sister. Also interesting was how the narrator began the tale. “My father was a fox farmer,” not “I grew up on a fox farm.” The narrator, instead of focusing on herself, gave her father center stage.
The men dominated the household. When Henry, the hired man, was introduced, the narrator detailed how disgusting he was. “He would cough and cough until his narrow face turned scarlet, then he took the lid off the stove and shot out a great clot of phlegm straight into the flames.” Her mother said nothing. The woman did not have control even over the hired man in her own kitchen. The men could do what ever they wanted wherever they were. “She (mother) disliked the whole pelting operation and wished it did not have to take place in the house.” The mother would not dare suggest to the father that they could pelt in the barn.
The jobs that the men and women were responsible for further separated the sexes. The mother “did not often come out of the house unless it was to do something hang out the wash or dig potatoes.” The narrator found the work done in the house, where the women belonged, to be “endless, dreary and peculiarly depressing.” That was in sharp contrast to how she saw the work of the men. Her father’s work was “ritualistically important.” His work supported the family. His work produced the money. When her mother went out to the barn to talk to her father, which was an unusual thing, her father stood listening, “but with an air of wanting to get on with his real work.” There was no glory in the work of the women.
The narrator wanted guts and glory and was resentful of the role that was being forced upon her. Her grandmother insisted on her playing the correct role. “Girls keep their knees together when they sit down.” “Girls don’t slam doors like that.” “That’s none of girls business.” When told all of these things, she did the exact opposite. In doing so, she thought that she would remain free. Freedom was also the reason she opened the gate for Flora, the horse, to escape being shot and cut up. She gave Flora something she herself would never have.
Eventually the narrator began to change and conform to the stereotypical role of the female. She began to find her father’s work dreary and found herself doing more work in the house. “Lately I had been trying to make my part of the room fancy, spreading the bed with old lace curtains and fixing myself a dressing table…” Also, her brother began to take on more of the work of the men, instead of just running off to play. “We shot old Flora, and cut her up in fifty pieces.” Laird also started to feel his superiority over both his mother and his sister. Near the end of the story, he told of how Flora had escaped from the yard and when his mother told him not to come to her table “like that,” with dirt and blood all over his hands, he did not move until his father made him go. This, more than any other thing in the story, demonstrated male dominance in 1940s society. Although his mother told him to wash, he listened only to his father, the authority figure. His mother had only a secondary, subservient role to his father.
Alice Munro demonstrated her points very thoroughly. Males were the superior, authoritative heads of families, while females were paid no attention at all. Those roles were learned in childhood, Munro depicted Laird as a little boy who showed no concern to dismissing his mother and the girl as resenting the subservient female role, and perfected in adulthood, the grandmother, when she visited, reiterated what girls did and did not do. Munro used the girl and her brother to show that in the 1940s men and women, girls and boys, were not equal. They were very far from it.
Munro, Alice. “Boys and Girls.” Literature For Composition. New York: Longman, 2000. 714-23.
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