Female gender roles in the short story "Boys and Girls" by Alice Munro

Term Paper, 2020

13 Pages



Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Gender in „Boys and Girls“
2.1 Expectations
2.2 Female and male characters
2.3 Relationships between the family members
2.3.1 Father and daughter
2.3.2 Father and son
2.3.3 Mother and daughter
2.3.4 Husband and wife

3. Gender and symbols
3.1 The foxes
3.2 Flora
3.3 The setting

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Alice Munro gets called a „powerful writer“ who assigned many awards for her literary works, such as the National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States and the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction (see Thacker 3 and Duncan 2). She is not only an author of several books, but she also wrote many collections of short stories throughout her career (see Duncan 2). Dance of the Happy Shades is her first collection and it contains 15 short stories, including „Boys and Girls“ which will be analyzed in this term paper (see Duncan 2 & 3). The short story is narrated in the first-person perspective and written in the past tense. Robert Thacker points out that Munro‘s first-person narration style „became characteristic“ for her writings (see Thacker 414). Although the narrator in „Boys and Girls“ is unnamed, we analyze him to be a female protagonist. It is truly important to mention that Munro included her personal experiences into her stories, as she focuses on issues like the role of women in society and how the female gender was designated until the 1960s. She, therefore, wanted to connect her own experiences with the content of her stories and wanted to demonstrate how they influenced her writing (see Knopf ix). Stereotyping and the discovery of limitations of the female gender can be seen as two important themes Munro deals within her short story (see Gadpaille 58).

According to a quote of Munro, the idea of gender roles in her stories gets truly clear as she says:

„What it says is something like this: it is permissible to have fine feelings, impractical sympathies, if you are a girl, because what you say or do does not finally count. On the other hand if you are a boy, certain feelings are not permissible at all. So taking on these roles, whichever you get, is a hard and damaging thing.“ (see Disney 195)

Due to „Boys and Girls“, which will be the base of this term paper, Munro criticises the social expectations and the gender roles of females in this short story, illustrated through the rebellion of the main character. The following analysis will show how the main protagonist deals with existing gender roles and rules in the society to that time and her attempts of liberation from social norms, although the 20th century is also characterized by two waves of feminism. As Disney states, the protagonist is a child, „who wishes to retain her ungendered access to those zones delineated by rules she is increasingly made aware of; these are rules she attempts to resist […]“ (see Disney 198).

First, I will concentrate on female and male characters in the story as well as on general gender conceptions in the Canadian society to that time. Thus, the term paper will focus on the relationships between the characters as well as on how gender and symbols are connected. Finally, I will summarize my results to bring them to a useful conclusion.

2. Gender in „Boys and Girls“

Gender perceptions in the short story are similar to those in the Canadian society in the first half of the 20th century. Derrick Thomas describes it as the following:

„Beyond the physical differences between men and women and their different reproductive functions are separate sets of socially-determined behavioural norms and performance standards attached to each gender […] Social conventions may also set down different roles within the family or establish a hierarchy with respect to the sharing of work, resources and decision-making in the household and more broadly“. (see Thomas 40)

The quote also illustrates the exact concept of gender in the short story: the male person had to be strong and the provider for the whole family, whereas the female person had to be obedient and submissive. Distinctions between males and females existed until the 1960s, as women were responsible for managing the household as well as for raising the children. In contrast, husbands were seen as the „head of the household“ (see Thomas 42). Any deviations weren’t accepted or rather not appreciated with pleasure. As Cristina Nicolaescu states: „In addition, gender is often a criterion for social stratification and different political treatment, as well as a favored symbol for expressing values and beliefs“ (see Nicolaescu 1064). Hence, gender was the decisive criterion for your social status and your rights to that time, values were more or less determined by society. The distribution of gender roles gets reflected in Munro’s short story „Boys and Girls“, where the wife stays mainly inside the house and the daughter faces unequal treatment several times. That distinction contains „[…] a privileging of male labor, wherein women who have been put to work as unequal and ghettoized subjects transmit powerlessness to one another“ (see Disney 200). Therefore, the hierarchy in the presented family gets clear throughout the story, as they have to fit into given constructions. Dan Disney states it as the following: „[…] individuals must perform according to economies predetermined as fit for either male or female subjects“ (see Disney 197).

2.1 Expectations

The protagonist feels uncomfortable with the supposed expectations of being a girl. For her, the female image is connected with „reproach and disappointment“ (see Munro 119). She does not fit in that typical image of a woman, as she can not understand her grandmother’s approach to give advice on how to behave as a girl: „Girls don’t slam doors like that. Girls keep their knees together when they sit down“ (see Munro 119). Instead of adapting to those expectations, the girl shows a rebellious behavior: „I continued to slam doors and sit as awkwardly as possible, thinking that by such measures I kept myself free“ (see Munro 119). Moreover, the protagonist is expected to help her mother in the house but instead of doing so, she tries to escape from her imposed obligations: „I just get my back turned and she runs off. It’s not like I had a girl in the family at all“ (see Munro 117). The girl does not feel responsible for housework at all, as she tries everything to avoid it. Thus, she does not follow the expectations of a female to that time. Dan Disney describes the protagonist’s situation as the following: „She has been positioned within gendered domains; […]“ (see Disney 205). This formulation illustrates the given circumstances to that time in a very good way, as the protagonist has to fit in a predetermined environment, in which she does not want to take part. How she is rebelling against her imposed image will be analyzed later in this term paper.

2.2 Female and male characters

Munro’s short story contains male characters as well as female characters, as the protagonist is the daughter of a fox farmer. The father and the son Laird embody the male section, the mother and the narrator are presenting the female section. As mentioned above, females were doomed to focus on householding and raising the kids and therefore it was kind of rare to see women outside the house. This is getting clear by the following quote: „It was an odd thing to see my mother down the barn. She did not often come out of the house unless it was to do something- hang out the wash or dig potatoes in the garden“ (see Munro 116). Furthermore, the description of the mother of „[…] not touched by the sun […] leads to the same assumption. In „Boys and Girls“, females can also be analyzed as the weaker and less important gender. The mother describes the help of the little brother as a „real help“ and that assents the help of the protagonist as less helpful at the same time. In Munro’s text, the young girl faces unequal treatment several times, especially when it comes to the condemnation of the protagonist of „only being a girl“ (see Munro 116 and 127). This expression is more or less despising the female gender and is stressing the importance of the male gender at the same time. There is no better statement than Dan Disney‘s opinion when he is saying the following about the father in the short story: „His ungenerous response bears all the sedimentations of a gender performance in which males are privileged with all the lead roles“ (see Disney 196).

The unequal treatment of the mother gets very clear by the following quote: „At any rate, I did not expect my father to pay attention to what she said“ (see Munro 118). But why deserves the opinion of the mother only little recognition? That can be explained by the existing hierarchy of family members in the early 20th century. Derrick Thomas states it as the following: „Head first, wife second […]“ (see Thomas 42). The opinion of the mother seems less important, therefore the father is patronizing his wife in every aspect.

2.3 Relationships between the family members

Throughout the story, mother and daughter seem both to be obedient towards the father, as he embodies the chief of the family. Even though the protagonist is still a child, she can differentiate „[…] by splitting between those she perceives as empowered (males, […]) and those who remain enslaved (women, and especially the narrator’s mother, but also Flora)“ (see Disney 198). Since the mother is always concerned with housework, she does not have time for self-care at all: „She would tie her hair up like this in the morning, saying she did not have time to do it properly […] It was true, too; she really did not have time“ (see Munro 116). Father and son seem to be relevant for the work on the farm and although Laird is the little brother, he always gets called as stronger. When the girl is beaten in a fight, Henry Bailey directly states: „Oh, that Laird’s gonna show you, one of these days!“ (see Munro 119). The following subsections will give a detailed idea of the relations between the family members and especially the hierarchical structure.

2.3.1 Father and daughter

It gets clear that father and daughter do not have an intense connection in the story. There is truly no close relationship between them, which can be demonstrated by the descriptions of the father by the protagonist: „My father did not talk to me unless it was about the job we were doing […] Whatever thoughts and stories my father had were private, and I was shy of him and would never ask him questions“ (see Munro 115). Hence, the character of the father can be described as „silently unimpeachable“, as „his […] languageless presence exerts particular force“ (see Disney 196). Disney also states one relevant fact: „Indeed, Munro’s child-narrator unwittingly reveals how language violently shapes these social bodies […]“ (see Disney 196). There is no conversation between father and daughter and that makes him unapproachable and authoritarian. The fact that the girl worked „willingly under his eyes“ gives an idea of how strong his authority is (see Munro 115). Communication is only given through work and the fact that he does not speak implies a certain „non-connection“: „[…] non-language as the presentation of possible non-connection“ (see Disney 197). The young girl can’t do anything in order to resist the imposed restrictions. She rather has to subordinate and to obey her father: „I never disobeyed my father before […]“ (see Munro 125).

2.3.2 Father and son

Isn’t it dubious that some characters in „Boys and Girls“ bear names while others remain nameless? Shown by the relationship between the father and the two kids, one can come to a good explanation: As we see in the ongoing story, Laird is getting more and more important as he grows up. He does not seem to be important in the beginning, but it is getting clear very soon, that Laird will follow his father’s footsteps one day. In contrast to that, the mother and the girl do not bear names at all, because they are might not as important for the future of the farm as Laird. Laird bears a name and that shows superiority towards his sister. In contrast to the female protagonist, who is always trying to resist her imposed obligations, the brother „seems young and obedient […]“ (see Munro 122).

2.3.3 Mother and daughter

Considering the relationship between mother and daughter, we recognize a quite different connection. Whereas the protagonist is „shy“ of her father and „would never ask him questions“, her mother „would tell [her] all sorts of things“ (see Munro 115). But at the same time, her mother is trying to keep up the traditional gender roles as she keeps the girl away from the work with her father. Instead, she wants her to stay in the house (see Munro 117 and 118). The girl describes the work in the house as „[…] endless, dreary and peculiarly depressing; […]“ (see Munro 117). Although the mother knows about her daughter’s dislike for housework, she does everything to keep her doing it. It seems like she is not tolerating any deviations regarding the division of work in order to keep up the traditions. The protagonist knows exactly about her mother’s intentions: „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 for my father“ (see Munro 118). At this point, it is obvious why the word „ because “ is written cursive. It illustrates her mother’s purpose of keeping her daughter strictly in the house, no matter how much she hates it. The interests of the female protagonist are getting clearly ignored as she is forced to do what is expected from her. When the protagonist does a comparison between mother and father, she assumes her mother as being „kinder“ (see Munro 117). Nevertheless, the girl mentions her mistrust towards the mother, entitling her as her „enemy“ (see Munro 117). Their relationship can be defined as more intense, but it can also be seen as a „love-hate-relationship“. The girl can rely on her mother somehow, but the family cohesion can rather be described as superficial. Hence, the protagonist does not really have a person of real trust and the division of responsibilities is clearly defined. We can assume the mother to be obedient to her husband. The raising of the protagonist reflects how the mother is threatened by her husband. Therefore, the mother keeps up her habits and sets limits to her daughter. Like the mother faces the restrictions of being the wife, the daughter is getting taught how to behave like a female and is, therefore, experiencing those restrictions in her early years.


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Female gender roles in the short story "Boys and Girls" by Alice Munro
University of Constance
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ISBN (Book)
female, boys, girls, alice, munro
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Anonymous, 2020, Female gender roles in the short story "Boys and Girls" by Alice Munro, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/937363


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