|Notes on “Boys and Girls” by Alice Munro
(Class notes and additional analysis)
Henry Bailey is a farmhand. He is like a part of the narrator’s family, sharing meals and his life with them. He is mainly a source of entertainment for the children, probably since he does not appear as an authority figure, as the children’s parents clearly do. Thus, they can enjoy his teasing of them a great deal, and he, for his part, seems to enjoy thrilling them with his more spectacular accomplishments (like spitting very well).
Like the narrator’s mother, the father figure in the story seems a likable, decent and hardworking man. He humours his children, finding ways to praise them that pleases them a great deal. Like his wife, he seems to view a future in which his daughter will eventually leave off helping him to become, exclusively, a help to the mother.
The character who narrates this story does so with the hindsight of maturity, although she describes events from her childhood and manages to provide the reader with a youthful point of view. She describes the period in her life when her carefree childhood ended, and she began to feel as if she must conform to various expectations. The traditional socialization undergone by middle-class girls at this time was something she resisted, as she perceived that the roles and choices allotted to women were less attractive and various than those allotted to men. However, regardless of this resistance, she describes how she gradually capitulated to accept this socialization. The narrator is like the lively, frisky horse Flora in the story, a living thing with energy and will that is finally entrapped and used by forces greater than herself.
Laird is the narrator’s younger brother, a seemingly sweet little boy whose helplessness is, at first, contrasted to the narrator’s greater ability to be of help to her mother and father in the house and on the fox farm. However, as the story progresses, this image of babyishness falls away as it becomes clear that Laird will be the one to take the narrator’s place at their father’s side, a position the young narrator hoped would always belong to her. By the end of the story Laird has been taken into the company of men, and his sister, the narrator, has been relegated to the ranks of being ‘‘only a girl.’’
The narrator’s mother seems to be an exemplary woman, one who fulfills the duties of a homemaker with energy and verve. The portion of the story that describes what goes on inside the farm house shows her putting in a day’s work that matches the energies of the men working outside. She looks forward to the day when her daughter will be older and so able to relieve more of her labour’s burden. She seems to enjoy the company of her daughter; the narrator tells us that she talks freely about her past and things in general when they are working together.
Coming of age
The parents assume that the role that the narrator will desire is the traditional female role
Two different worlds are constructed in the story through the narrator’s parents
The outside world – that of her father
The inside world – that of her mother
The narrator is trapped in her gender role, in the same way that her father traps the foxes - ‘‘alive, the foxes inhabited a world my father made for them.’’
She feels more threatened, however, by the inside (female) world than that of her father – note the fear she has of being in the house at night
The narrator’s father’s favourite book is Robinson Crusoe.
Munro aligns the narrator to Friday, a character in Robinson Crusoe, and her father to Crusoe
Crusoe exploits his superior status over Friday
Her father, like Crusoe, does not recognize that she does not accept her inferior social status
The subplot concerning the two horses bought to be used for fodder is an instance of foreshadowing.
Munro’s attention to Flora’s attempt to run away provokes feelings of pity for the animal whose life will end while it is in its prime. The inevitability and unpleasantness of this animal’s fate foreshadows the fate of the girl protagonist. No matter how hard she tries to resist her future, she is destined to lose to forces greater than herself.
Connections to other short stories
Discuss how other short stories construe gender roles.
Compare the position that Marian is in (“The Test”) to that of the narrator of “Boys and Girls”.
Does the pride that the father demonstrates remind you of other male characters?