“The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be, rather than recognizing who we are.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Alice Munro’s short story “Boys and Girls” follows the story of a young girl in the 1950’s in Canada, on a rural fox farm. The unnamed girl helps her father around the farm, because her younger brother is not old enough yet. The girl learns that in time her younger brother will eventually replace her and she will be forced to work inside alongside her mother, doing house chores, because she is a girl. Initially, the girl does not know that her role in the home will be dependent on her gender. As the story progresses, she begins to feel resentful to her family. Munro has created a character in the unnamed girl that represents the struggle girls and women have against traditional gender roles; she wants to be free to do everything she wants to do. The girl’s gender role thrust upon her in the household and resentment toward her family will be examined in terms of the major conflicts, characters, and theme of the story.
The first and main conflict in “Boys and Girls” is the girl vs. Society, specifically society’s views and expectations of her as a female, and her desire to find her own identity. The girl enjoys working outdoors with her father; she is proud of the work that she does with him. She was “red in the face with pleasure” when a salesman came to the farm and her father described her as his “new hired man.” The salesman responds “I thought it was only a girl.” This is the first time she had realized being a girl made a difference to what she could or couldn’t do. Later, after working the farm, the girl hears her mother talking about her with her father. “Wait till Laird gets a little bigger, then you’ll have real help... And then I can use her more in the house, I just get my back turned and she runs off. It’s not like I had a girl in the family at all.” The girl's mother wants her to work inside with her; because it is where she feels she belongs. The girl thinks back on what her mother said later, “It showed how little my mother knew about the way things really were.” Ironically, the girl has no idea the way things are for her, as a girl. The girl feels that she does an excellent job on the farm, and cannot imagine her young brother doing her work as well as she does. She believes that should be the reason she should be allowed to continue. She describes her mother as “She was always plotting. She was plotting now to get me to stay in the house more, although she knew I hated it (because she knew I hated it) and keep me from working with my father.” The girl thinks that her mother is planning against her, unfortunately, she does not realize that this is just how things are in society at that time.
The protagonist also has internal conflict in “Boys and Girls”, known as person vs self. The girl has an internal struggle with her family, who are pushing her to be something that she does not want to be. The girl overhears a conversation between her mother and father about replacing her with her brother doing the farm work, saying “I no longer felt safe.” She feels her family has it out for her- and is worried. She goes on to describe what she feels it means to be a girl, “The word girl had formerly seemed to me innocent and unburdened, like the word child; now it appeared it was no such thing. A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become.” She used to feel open to explore her possibilities, but as she is growing up, she is realizing that her family has rules for how she Is allowed to act. When the father is upset with the girl, he lets her off the hook because she is just a girl, “I didn’t protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true.” The girl is starting to give in to the wishes of her family. The girl loves her family, but continues to act out even though she knows she is wrong, thinking that this will keep her free of the role as a woman at that time.
The protagonist also has a man vs man conflict with her mother and grandmother because of her resistance to the gender roles. The girl is constantly trying to escape from the work that her mother does, “As soon as I was done I ran out of the house, trying to get out of earshot before my mother thought of what she wanted me to do next.” After a visit from her grandmother, who constantly scolds the girl-- “girls don’t slam doors like that... Girls keep their knees together when they sit down.” When she would ask a question, “That’s none of girls’ business.” She is not given a choice to act as she sees fit and acts out. In contrast, she finds the work her father does as “work done out of doors, and in my father’s service, was ritualistically important.” Unfortunately, the girl will have no choice. Eventually, just because she is a girl, her brother will replace her and she will be stuck indoors, doing housework, with her mother.
The girl enjoys working outdoors with her father and wishes she could be free to be whom she wants to be. The girl’s struggle to be recognized is also shown through her identification with the family horse, Flora. Flora is going to be killed for meat for the foxes but manages to escape and run about the farm, away from the father. The father shouts to the girl to run and shut the gate, as she is the only one close enough to get there in time. The girl chooses to leave the gate wide open, and the horse escapes. The girl describes her choice as “I did not make any decision to do this, it was just what I did.” Clearly, the girl feels a kinship with the horse, even if she does not know it-- they both want to be free of their roles. She knows that Flora’s fate is unavoidable, “Flora would not really get away. They would catch up to her in the truck. Or if they did not catch her this morning somebody would see her and telephone us this afternoon or tomorrow. There was no wild country here for her to run to, only farms.” Eventually the horse will be caught, neither the horse nor the girl can escape their fate. When the brother, Laird, tells the father that the girl had allowed Flora to escape, the father’s response is “She’s only a girl.” The father thinks she was never genuinely good enough to do the farm work in the first place, just because of her gender. The girls work on the farm was always temporary- unbeknownst to her- her parents always meant to replace her with Laird.
The girl’s brother, Laird, although he will be allowed to do the farm work, is similarly stuck in a role based on his gender. The girl is jealous of her brother, his feelings are unknown on the farm vs housework; it is possible he would prefer to stay indoors and work with the mother. The girl describes Laird’s work ethic as “He was no help to anybody. Where was he now? Swinging himself sick on the swing, going around in circles, or trying to catch caterpillars. He never once stayed with me till I was finished.” The girl works hard for her father, but neither sibling is given a choice in what work they would like to do, based on their genders. The girl feels her brother is not deserving of working with their father. “Who could imagine Laird doing my work—Laird remembering the padlock and cleaning out the watering-dishes with a leaf on the end of a stick, or even wheeling the tank without it tumbling over?” She feels that she has done everything she could do. She describes how she feels about her situation, “Also it was a joke on me.” The girl feels that the entire situation is a joke at her expense. Traditional gender roles do not serve either child in this story, yet they are still present in society today.
The theme of “Boys and Girls” is gender inequality, and reluctance to growing up. The girl feels that her mother is “not to be trusted. She was kinder than my father, more easy to fool, but you could not depend on her, and the real reasons for the things she said and did were not to be known.” She does not yet understand that her father and mother feel the same way about her work, because the roles of boys and girls are set. The girl is reluctant to stopping her childish bedtime routines “In the dark we lay on our beds, our narrow life rafts, and fixed our eyes on the faint light coming up the stairwell, and sang songs.” She continues this routine because she wants to delay growing up and becoming a woman. The girl feels sorry for her mother because she doesn’t have time for herself to do even simple things for herself, “Her hair was tied up in a kerchief, wisps of it falling out. She would tie her hair up like this in the morning, saying she did not have time to do it properly, and it would stay tied up all day. It was true too; she really did not have time.” The girl does not want to end up working all day inside the house unable to do anything for herself like her mother. The girl’s reluctance to grow up and become a woman shows her struggle against traditional gender roles and how powerless she really is.
The protagonist in Munro’s “Boys and Girls” feels that she has earned the right to continue her farm work regardless of her gender, but her family will not give her that option. She resents this but comes to accept it, just as she accepted the fate of the horse, who had nowhere she could run to be free from her destiny. “Gender roles are a social construct. When we attempt to assign strengths and weaknesses to either gender, we literally cut our potential as the human race in half.” Fred Ward.
© 2022 Daniel