Alice Munro's short story, "Boys and Girls," explores the various roles that both men and women are perceived to have in society. She does all that by focusing on the story of a young girl who discovers what it means for one to be born as a girl. The girl grows up in the mid 20th century in Canada. She lived with her family, consisting of her mother, father, and little brother. A variety of gender roles always characterized the girl's whole life. The author never gives the main character a name hence being referred to as a protagonist meaning an individual without any name or any power of her own. The first gender conflicts depict itself because her younger brother had a name, meaning he was more important and also had his power (Munro 7). The protagonist of the story is based on the fact that the girl's life rotated around the house mist, especially in the kitchen, while that of the boy rotated around being with his father helping him out on the farm. It is therefore important to consider what factors result in the gender conflict, how the protagonist struggles to find an identity of her own, and why there are different expectations between a girl and a boy.
The protagonist in Munro's story is forced by her gender to have a whole complex of behaviors on her own. An example of this behavior is when she resists working with her father by asking questions. That form of resistance that she presents can be linked through the social expectations of how a girl behaves and through the girl's reluctant complicity. She becomes confused between gaining the respect she deserves from her father and her awareness about the kind of job that her father does. The fact that her brother betrayed her makes her think she is not part of the "outside" world chores (Chang 32). However, she is as well not convinced with her mother's world. She eventually becomes unsure of whether the label functions as a form of liberating or enslaving her.
A key factor that plays a significant role in gender identity in the short story is the fact of accepting who people are. Initially, the protagonist was always against working with her mother. Eventually, she realizes that it is part of her predetermined fate that she is supposed to fit the molded gender stereotype. Since the girl faces much hardship throughout her life, she eventually accepts that her brother is the man that should take her place and help her father with the farm activities and that she is expected to concentrate on her womanhood. The story generalizes on gender identity and most of the stereotypes that society has and illustrates how a young child moves to adulthood. Since the rite of passage cannot be avoided, it is evident that the girl could not as well avoid her true gender identity. As the girl grows, she starts expressing her feel like a woman, who initiates her development from being a young girl to an adult and, more specifically, an adult woman.
Initially, the girl believes that she can be of greater value to her father. However, all that fades away once she realizes how the society views and expects of her. The girl always admired helping her father on the farm. She was impressed with the attention that her father always gave her whenever she was doing the house chores. That was evident when the salesman came to their home and found the protagonist helping her father pull the grass from the farm. The girl's father introduces her to the salesman as a newly hired man," but the salesman answered, "I thought it was only a girl" (Munro 140). If the salesman found the protagonist's brother helping his father, then the salesman would have responded differently and would not have been surprised, hence demonstrating how the girl always struggled with her gender. That is mainly one of the key things that the protagonist's mother does whenever she wants her daughter to come in and help her with the house chores. She emphasizes on her husband that he is supposed to wait until his son becomes a bigger man, and that is the time when he gets real help.
The protagonist in the story struggles to find her own gender identity. Most of the time, she is seen preferring to work with her father on the farm instead of staying at home and work with her mother in the kitchen. "As soon as I was done, I ran out of the house, trying to get out of earshot before my mother thought of what to do next" (Munro 329). The protagonist seems to be much confusion about what she is supposed to be doing as a woman and what she would rather be doing, which is helping her father on the farm. She perceives her father works like the one she enjoys most doing while, on the other hand perceiving her mother works as much tedious while at the same time, not being meaningful. Although she is well aware of her duties as a woman and what she is expected to be doing, she prefers to break the mold and become more of her father by doing what he does most. It is evident from the short story that she enjoys most doing her father's work. Although the protagonist is confused about what she wants, it is evident that she faces much influence from both genders.
The girl in the short story does not want to become just a traditional girl. Instead, she tries hard to find her own identity. That can be seen from the short story where the girl narrates about her mother and the kind of work she undertakes. She narrates her mother as an individual who cannot be trusted at all, and she thinks of her as being plotting. "To get me to stay in the house more, although she knew that I hated it" (Munro 141). From the story, the girl seems to prefer doing her father's work compared to that of her mother's. She describes her mother's work as being "endless, dreary, and peculiarly depressing" (Munro 141). The protagonist describes her father's work as being "ritualistically important" (Munro 141). The girl does not become a person who is concerned so much on the house chores; instead, she wants to become a person who makes a difference in the "outside" world. That is evident from the short story when the protagonist narrates about the things she always thinks of every night before she sleeps. Based on how she narrates, it is evident that much of the things she thinks of every night are filled with heroic moments and the key person surrounding such moments is the girl herself. The girl wishes to become such a heroic woman that she always thinks of, but that is much different from what her family and the general society expects her to become.
The girl in the short story still struggles with finding her gender identity through her identification with a horse named Flora. The horse was supposed to be killed as fox meat. However, it managed to run away for the protagonist's father only because it was much powerful, rebellious, and strong enough. The only person who could close the gate and prevent the horse from running away was the protagonist. Instead of closing the gate, she instead decided to open it even wider for the horse to pass. The protagonist argues that "I did not make any decision to do this; it was just what I did" (Munro 146). That is evident that she identifies herself with the horse. The protagonist feels that the chains of society cannot help her; instead, she wants to run away, just like the horse. She knows very well that just the same way there will be no freedom for Flora, it is just the same way there will be no wild country for her.
In conclusion, the protagonist in Munro's short story is a young girl that desperately seeks her own identity. Before she sleeps every day, she always wishes to work outside and become a free and independent woman of her dreams. However, the traditions and expectations from society force her to grow and become a girl who always works inside the house, including helping her mother with the house chores and the kitchen activities. The story depicts how the protagonist faces difficulties and implications on her way to womanhood only because she is a woman, hence resulting in the gender stereotype within the family and the entire society. The whole of the short story presents various expectations and boundaries set for her. She always tries to fight the expectations and finds things to encourage and inspire her like the horse. However, she eventually realizes that her expectations are too many, and she is forced to accept and live with them.
Chang, Jungyoon. "Girls and gender in Alice Munro’s short stories." Asian Women 32.2 (2016): 27-47.
Munro, Alice. Boys and girls. Atlantis Films, 1983.
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