12 September 1997
Initiation and Social Identity of "the girl" in "Boys and Girls"
Recent history boldly notes the [comment3]
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. [comment6]
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). [comment7]
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.
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 [comment10]
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. [comment11]
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 [comment13]
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
Munro, Alice. "Boys and Girls." The Norton Introduction
to Literature. Eds. Carl E. Bain, Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter.
New York: Norton, 1995. 465-75.