12 September 1997
Recent history boldly notes the protests and political unrest surrounding the Vietnam Conflict during the 1960s and 70s. However, equally important in this era are the women who pushed for gender role reevaluation and publicly rebelled against the established social norm of a woman's "place." Although Alice Munro may not have been burning her bra on the courthouse steps, threads of a feminist influence can be found in "Boys and Girls."
Munro's main character, a girl probably modeled after Munro's own childhood experiences on an Ontario farm, faces her awakening body and the challenge of developing her social identity in a man's world. "The girl," an unnamed character, acts as a universal symbol for the initiation of a girl into womanhood. Through first-person narrative, Munro shoes the girl's views of her budding femininity and social identity by describing the girl's conceptions of her parents' work, her parallel to the wild mare Flora, and the "mysterious alterations" (Munro 474) in her personal nightly stories.
As if to forsake her femininity and forego a life of confinement and housework, the girl reveres her father's work and condemns her mother's duties. The sum of the girl's respect seems to lie with her father, as is evident in her reference to his work outdoors as "ritualistically important" (468). On the other hand, while the girl recognizes that her mother is busy, she still considers her mother's "work in the house [to be] [·] endless, dreary and peculiarly depressing" (468). The division between her parents' tasks is especially apparent in the girl's reaction to her mother's presence at the barn. She feels threatened by her mother's appearance, calling it "out of place" and saying her "mother had no business down [there]" (468). The girl distrusts her mother and believes her to be out of touch, while helping her father in "his real work" (468). Surprisingly, the girl's desire to avoid the manifestation of her femininity in womanly tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, influences her into feeling that her mother is "plotting now to get [her] to stay in the house [. . ]. and keep [her] from working for [her] father" (469). The girl chooses to dismiss her mother, thereby dismissing her own future role as a housewife.
In an attempt to reflect the girl's changing awareness of her social identity and femininity, Munro weaves in a young sorrel mare, Flora. As the expectations of the girl's pending role in society grow, Flora takes up residence in the stable and adds an "air of gallantry and abandon" (470) to the girl's sheltered life. Just as the girl experiences confusion and angst, "Flora [is] given to fits of violent alarm" (470) of more of tangible nature. An approaching crossroad in Flora's life, namely her death, parallels the crossroad of identity the girl is facing. With the realization of Flora's death, the girl adopts "a new wariness, a sense of holding-off, in [her] attitude to [her] father and his work" (473), causing her to question the very foundation of her social opinions up to that point. By allowing Flora to escape through the gate, the girl symbolically opens the passageway to her feminine side. Even in its futility, this act sets the stage for a new level of consciousness for the girl.
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Ironically, one of the girl's most heightened moments of awareness to her changing role comes during an instance of imagination. Rather than "opportunities for [personal] courage, boldness and self-sacrifice" (466), as in her past stories, the girl's new stories concern themselves with her personal peril or need for rescue. Also, the added element of "what [she] looked like" comes into play to the degree that "the real excitement of the story [is] lost" (474). This "damsel in distress" mentality is a recognizable universal factor in the maturation of a girl to a woman. The girl's climactic realization becomes clear to her family, too, as she breaks into tears at the dinner table. Whether this quantifies complete acceptance with the girl, however, is not solidified by Munro due to the final sentence: "Maybe it was true" (475).
Through opinion, comparison, and imagination Munro details the girl's journey from a rebellious tomboy to a slowly blooming woman. The characteristics so endearing to the girl's developing identity, such as her assistance in Flora's escape and her unwillingness to easily submit to the social constraints of life as a woman, also lend themselves to her universality as a representative to initiation to femininity. Munro's own personal views of femininity arguably color this work, "Boys and Girls."
Munro, Alice. "Boys and Girls." The Norton Introduction to Literature. Eds. Carl E. Bain, Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 1995. 465-75.
Source: The University of New Mexico
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