(Un-)Doing Gender: Alice Munro, ‘Boys and Girls’ (1964)

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Date: 2007
From: The Canadian Short Story: Interpretations
Publisher: Camden House
Reprint In: Contemporary Literary Criticism(Vol. 370. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,223 words

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[(essay date 2007) In the following essay, Nischik discusses autobiographical elements of the short story “Boys and Girls,” noting the frequency with which Munro’s adolescent characters are confronted with strict gender norms that divide them into “different species, ‘boys and girls.’” He observes that the story’s young female protagonist, a victim of these repressive ideals, is nevertheless able to develop a complex relationship to gender, which hints at the open nature of Munro’s later work.]

Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.1Adrienne Rich

“Is it true that in order to appreciate Alice Munro’s stories we need to begin by looking at a map of Canada?” These are the opening words of Coral Ann Howells’s excellent book on Munro’s oeuvre.2 The answer to that question might be that a map of Canada is not really necessary to appreciate Munro’s fictional worlds, but that Munro in her writing prefers to “map” a certain Canadian region: southwestern Ontario (sometimes abbreviated as “sowesto”), more specifically the area around London, close to Lake Huron.

Munro’s longtime preoccupation with that particular region and her interest in local history and topography in her writing are linked to her own life. She was born on 10 July 1931 on a farm on the outskirts of the small town of Wingham, Ontario (some thirty miles from London in Huron County), the eldest of three children of a former school teacher and a fox farmer with a family history going back to Scottish pioneers. After completing school in Wingham she attended the University of Western Ontario (1949-51) in London, where she studied English and had her first short stories published in the university magazine. She married James Munro, a fellow student, in 1951, and they moved west to Vancouver. After the first of her three daughters was born, she sold her first short story to the (now defunct) Canadian magazine Mayfair in 1953 and then “The Strangers” to the radio programme CBC Anthology whose director, Robert Weaver, was to play an important role in popularizing Munro’s writing in Canada. It was in the 1950s, when her second daughter was born, that Munro started to write short fiction on a regular basis and first published her stories in Canadian magazines such as Queen’s Quarterly, The Tamarack Review, and Chatelaine. When Munro was twenty-eight years old, her mother died from Parkinson’s disease, a painful experience which led Munro to write “The Peace of Utrecht” that summer (one of the many Munro classics today). In the 1960s the Munro family moved yet further west to Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, where they ran a bookshop called Munro’s Books3 and where their third daughter was born. It was at the end of the 1960s, after the publication of seventeen stories in Canadian magazines, that Munro had her breakthrough with her first story collection Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), which won Canada’s most prestigious literary prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. In 1971 Lives of Girls and Women was published, a book of linked stories which brought Munro international recognition. Since then, all of her short-story collections have been national and international bestsellers: Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), Who Do You Think You Are? (1978, which won Munro another Governor General’s Award; it was published under the title The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose in England and the USA4), The Moons of Jupiter (1982), The Progress of Love (1986, winning a third Governor General’s Award), Friend of My Youth (1990, Ontario Trillium Book Award, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), Open Secrets (1994, W. H. Smith Award in England), The Love of a Good Woman (1998, National Book Critics Circle Award from the United States), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004, Giller Prize and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), The View from Castle Rock (2006), plus four volumes of selected stories: Selected Stories (1996), No Love Lost (2003), Vintage Munro (2004), and Carried Away (2006).

In 1973 Munro’s first marriage broke up and after more than twenty years on the Canadian west coast she moved back to Ontario to teach at York University in Toronto and at her former university, the University of Western Ontario. In 1975 she returned to southwestern Ontario, to Clinton, a small town twenty miles from Wingham, where she has lived with her second husband ever since, dividing her time between Clinton and Comox on Vancouver Island. In 1976 began Munro’s longtime affiliation with The New Yorker, which published many of her stories for the first time,5 thus popularizing her writing among American readers in particular.

Both nationally and internationally Munro’s tremendous success as a short-story writer has done much to raise the profile of the Canadian short story. She is without doubt Canada’s leading short-fiction writer and has, over five decades, created an impressive oeuvre. Munro is by far the most frequently anthologized writer of Canadian short fiction, and there are critics who argue that she is the best living short-story writer. The many literary prizes she has received (see also the PEN Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the Canadian Authors Association’s Jubilee Award for Short Stories in 1997) and the fact that her fifth story collection, The Moons of Jupiter, drew the highest price for the paperback rights ever arranged for a book of Canadian fiction (novels included) together attest to her extraordinary success as a short-fiction writer with critics and academics as well as the general reading public.

Munro is also exceptional in that she has published only short fiction (apart from several essays, mostly on aspects of writing, and some interviews). The closest she has come to the genre of the novel are her two short-story cycles Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are? Both have a curious publication history since they are the two instances where Munro—urged by her publisher to write a novel, mainly for financial reasons, after the big success of her prize-winning first short-story collection—tried very hard to forge her episodic technique and individual story units into the form of a novel.6 During the painful process of revision, Munro became aware that it was stories she wanted to write more than anything else and that it was this genre that best suited her talent and writing habits (considering her heavy revising technique and her intense preoccupation with style as well as her status as a mother of three small children during the budding stage of her writing career). “I think the most attractive kind of writing of all is just the single story. It satisfies me the way nothing else does. … It took me a long time to reconcile myself to being a short-story writer” (Munro in Hancock 1987, 190). And although the stories in her more recent story collections (Friend [Friend of My Youth], Open Secrets, Hateship [Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage], Runaway) have become substantially longer, Munro still keeps faith with her preferred literary format.7

The attraction of the short-story format for Munro is also directly linked to her particular writing aesthetics, which through explanatory gaps, supplementarity (Howells 1998, 10-11), the construction of “worlds alongside,”8 the contrasting of disparate interpretations, multiple views on a given event (by the same or by various characters), juxtaposition of the past and present, and the constant deferral of fixed meaning all stress the fluidity, incompleteness, variability, and the ultimate inexplicability of human experience (see Nischik 1992). The short story as a format that privileges slice-of-life representations, episodic and condensed time structures, suggestive, deliberately fragmentary representations and open endings is thus the perfect literary form to transport Munro’s “snapshot”9 views of her fictional world.

Next to the generic choice and the aesthetics connected with it, the multifaceted Munrovian fictional world has been marked over the course of half a century by three main characteristics: her regional attachments, her preferred choice of female protagonists and her privileging of a female perspective and “female themes,” and the autobiographical or, as she prefers to call it, the “personal”10 dimension of her work.

Munro understandably shrinks away from her frequent classification as a “regional writer”: “A lot of people think I’m a regional writer. And I use the region where I grew up a lot. But I don’t have any idea of writing to show the kind of things that happen in a certain place. These things happen and the place is part of it. But in a way, it’s incidental” (Munro in Hancock, 200). Although several of her stories have a varied, even international setting (for example, Australia, Scotland, Albania) and although her long stay on the Canadian west coast resulted in several stories with a western Canadian setting, it is her rural home region and the small-town life of southwestern Ontario that have most frequently formed the backdrop to her writing.11 Her frank, detailed, unsparing depiction of this region and its inhabitants, her way of looking beyond appearances, and her unflattering revelation of backward mentalities and crankiness of character have led inhabitants of Wingham to reject her writing.12 Howells discovered that neither the local museum in Wingham nor the Huron County Museum in Goderich stock a single reference to their region’s international celebrity author (Howells 1998, 3). Howells also rightly points out about Munro’s favorite setting that “what she emphasises is not its familiarity but its strangeness” (Howells 1998, 13). Especially at the beginning of her writing career in the 1950s, Munro was influenced by the female writers of the American South, such as Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and particularly Eudora Welty, in whose writing she “felt … a country depicted that was like my own. … I mean, the part of the country I come from is absolutely Gothic. You can’t get it all down” (Munro in Gibson 1973, 248). Munro’s gender awareness and her focus on the female perspective have made her a favorite author with astute (female) readers and critics alike. As early as 1972 Munro stated that she was generally sympathetic to the Women’s Liberation movement. Both her “regionalism” and her gender awareness combine in the often personal sources of her writing.13 One important thematic strand is the significance of family relationships, especially of mother-daughter relationships, which in Munro’s writing—somewhat in contrast to Atwood’s14—are usually highly problematic and psychological “works-in-progress.” Munro’s mother’s early death has been reworked in “The Peace of Utrecht” (Dance [Dance of the Happy Shades]), “The Ottawa Valley” (Something [Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You]), and “Friend of My Youth” (Friend). Other specifically female and partly autobiographical themes in Munro’s stories are the restrictive socialization patterns, especially of girls, in rural or small-town settings, gendered professional issues—often in the context of artist/writer stories (“The Office” in Dance), emotional dependence in love relationships (“Dulse” in Moons [The Moons of Jupiter]), and problems of aging (“What Is Remembered” in Hateship). Yet Munro is also a “writer’s writer,” who, making use of postmodern techniques, integrates poetological problems into her fiction (“Epilogue: The Photographer” in Lives [Lives of Girls and Women], for example), experiments with the short-story form in her non-linear, digressive, sometimes montage-like narrative style (“White Dump” in Progress [The Progress of Love: Stories]), reworks Joycean multiperspective (“The Albanian Virgin” in “Open Secrets”) and epiphanic techniques, and blends the quotidian with the extraordinary (“Miles City, Montana” in Progress). The metafictional tendencies of several of Munro’s stories have been memorably enshrined by Munro herself in self-reflexive renderings such as:

And what happened, I asked myself, to Marion? … Such questions persist, in spite of novels. It is a shock, when you have dealt so cunningly, powerfully, with reality, to come back and find it still there.(“Epilogue: The Photographer” in Lives, 247)

People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable—deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.(Lives, 249)

Those shifts of emphasis that throw the story line open to question, the disarrangements which demand new judgments and solutions, and throw the windows open on inappropriate unforgettable scenery.(“Simon’s Luck” in Who [Who Do You Think You Are?], 177)

I always had a feeling, with my mother’s talk and stories, of something swelling out behind. Like a cloud you couldn’t see through, or get to the end of.(“Progress of Love” in Progress, 13)

Commenting on developments in Munro’s writing over several decades, Howells states that “her topics have not changed but her narrative methods have” (Howells 1998, 68). It is striking that in more recent collections, beginning with Love [The Love of a Good Woman], the protagonists tend to be older, having grown older along with Munro herself,15 “with an accompanying sense of individual lives scrolling out over many decades” (Howells 2003, 54). The crucial aspect is still, however, the question of controlling one’s own life in negotiation with restrictive social norms. The technical turning point in Munro’s writing career may be identified as the collection The Moons of Jupiter (1982). Although Munro has always adhered to indeterminacy in her stories, it is in this collection that this principle is amplified, structuring not only her verbal discourse but also her narrative method: “multiple and often contradictory meanings have room to circulate in structures of narrative indeterminacy … , unsettling the story at every stage of its telling … , as she allows more and more possible meanings to circulate in every story while refusing definite interpretations or plot resolutions” (Howells 1998, 11, 10).

“Boys and Girls” was first published in 1964 and included in Munro’s first story collection Dance of the Happy Shades (1968). The first paragraph immediately maps out the Munrovian fictional territory, with the three distinguished general features of her writing noticeable right from the beginning:

My father was a fox farmer. That is, he raised silver foxes, in pens; and in the fall and early winter … he killed them and skinned them and sold their pelts to the Hudson’s Bay Company or the Montreal Fur Traders. These companies supplied us with heroic calendars to hang, one on each side of the kitchen door. Against a background of cold blue sky and black pine forests and treacherous northern rivers, plumed adventurers planted the flags of England or of France; magnificent savages bent their backs to the portage.(111)
Apart from the clearly Canadian setting with its postcolonial historical background, we notice the autobiographical dimension to this first-person narrative told by an eleven-year-old girl growing up on a fox farm near Jubilee—if a strong personal orientation is assumed, with Munro born in 1931, the story would be set at the beginning of the 1940s, when Munro’s father was indeed still a fox farmer in Wingham.16 The rural setting of the farm surrounded by fields is only scantily sketched: “This was the time of year when snowdrifts curled around our house like sleeping whales and the wind harassed us all night, coming up from the buried fields, the frozen swamps” (112). Relevant as such information concerning place and time may seem, it is rather the highly traditional gender mentality of the unnamed girl’s parents and of other characters, like the hired man or the salesman (that is, representing inner family and external social attitudes and prejudices), that stresses the story’s setting with respect to time and place.17

A further autobiographical aspect of the story is the girl’s habit of creating stories that imaginatively mirror her own state of development, at the same time revealing a budding writer (though this potential further development is, characteristically, left open in the story). One could even argue that the child’s fantasies are the prototypes of Munro’s “linked stories”:

Laird [the narrator’s brother] went straight from singing to sleep. … Now for the time that remained to me, the most perfectly private and perhaps the best time of the whole day, I arranged myself tightly under the covers and went on with one of the stories I was telling myself from night to night. These stories were about myself, when I had grown a little older; they took place in a world that was recognizably mine, yet one that presented opportunities for courage, boldness and self-sacrifice, as mine never did. I rescued people from a bombed building. … I shot two rabid wolves who were menacing the schoolyard (the teachers cowered terrified at my back). I rode a fine horse spiritedly down the main street of Jubilee, acknowledging the townspeople’s gratitude for some yet-to-be-worked out piece of heroism.(113-14)
This is an apt example of the potentially compensatory function of literature in general, of the narrator’s imaginative ability in particular (which sets her apart from the rest of her totally unimaginative family, who are stuck in conventional thought patterns), and of Munro’s supplementary narrative constructions, her “worlds alongside.”

The later reference to the narrator’s story compositions shows the effect of her ongoing socialization into received gender patterns and thereby points to the central theme of this story, the constructivist aspect of gender identity—how male and female children are socialized according to different role patterns, forming them into two different species, “boys and girls”:

Even in these stories something different was happening, mysterious alterations took place. A story might start off in the old way, with a spectacular danger, a fire or wild animals, and for a while I might rescue people; then things would change around, and instead, somebody would be rescuing me. It might be … Mr. Campbell, our teacher, who tickled girls under the arms. And at this point the story concerned itself at great length with what I looked like—how long my hair was, and what kind of dress I had on; by the time I had these details worked out the real excitement of the story was lost.(126)
In this mise-en-abymic structure (a writer telling about a budding writer telling autobiographically based stories), we see the results of initiation into the female gender role as conceived at the time.18 While the narrator is still very young, she is allowed to do as she pleases, and she much prefers her father’s (money-earning) outdoor activities to her mother’s domestic sphere and chores: “My father was tirelessly inventive and his favourite book in the world was Robinson Crusoe” (114).19 Indeed, the whole story hinges on an inside/outside dichotomy linked to gendered spaces. The young daughter identifies with the male world and feels at ease with it; she even considers herself more appropriate for it than her younger brother Laird, whom she regards as a sissy for a large part of the story: “Laird came too, with his little cream and green gardening can, filled too full and knocking against his legs and slopping water on his canvas shoes. I had the real watering can, my father’s, though I could only carry it three-quarters full” (114).

In contrast, the girl turns decisively not only against the maternal domestic sphere, but against the mother herself: “It seemed to me that work in the house was endless, dreary and peculiarly depressing; work done out of doors, and in my father’s service, was ritualistically important” (117). The daughter enters into a domestic tug-of-war with her mother, even calling her an “enemy” (117) because she feels that “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” (118). That the mother might be in need of some help and allegiance, too, is a thought that never crosses the girl’s mind (“It did not occur to me that she could be lonely, or jealous,” 118).20 In turning against her mother and against her domestic confinement she symbolically rejects the traditional female gender role cut out for her as a girl. The story demonstrates how in her adolescence the girl is pushed by manifold social pressures into a role she would never have chosen herself: “One time a feed salesman came down into the pens … and my father said, ‘Like to have you meet my new hired man.’ I turned away and raked furiously, red in the face with pleasure. ‘Could of fooled me,’ said the salesman, ‘I thought it was only a girl’” (116). This gender contrast implies, of course, an upgrading of “male” and a downgrading of “female”—an evaluation that the girl, “red in the face with pleasure,” internalizes when her father masculinizes her because she is doing a good job for him. Being compared to a male worker is flattering in her mind because she does not yet realize the implications this has for her own gender. Professional work outside the house is a male domain; the father unwittingly robs his daughter of her sexual identity, whereas the salesman quite unashamedly brings her down to earth by reducing her to her biological sex with derogatory gendered implications—“only a girl.” Statements by her visiting grandmother rub in the fact that the female gender role is an utterly restrictive one at the time in which the story is set: “‘Girls don’t slam doors like that.’ ‘Girls keep their knees together when they sit down.’ And worse still, when I asked some questions, ‘That’s none of girls’ business’” (119).

For a while the girl manages to resist such strict gender norms: “I continued to slam the doors and sit as awkwardly as possible, thinking that by such measures I kept myself free” (119). Her most spectacular opposition works on a more pronounced symbolic level of action. She purposefully keeps the gate open for the female horse Flora,21 thus enabling her to postpone her fate of being slaughtered by the narrator’s father for fox food. The girl intuitively identifies with the female horse because she, too, wants to escape a certain death—if not in the literal sense of the word, then in the sense of the end of her free-ranging activities and options when she is pressed into a fixed female role pattern. The symbolic act of letting Flora run wild also constitutes the protagonist’s first rebellion against her father, who adheres to the authoritative gender patterning. Mainly, however, it is a silent outcry against her own domestication. In this opposition, the girl is similar to the mare Flora, who is clearly contrasted with the stallion Mack in that she, too, refuses to be fenced in:

Mack was an old black workhorse, sooty and indifferent. Flora was a sorrel mare, a driver. … Mack was slow and easy to handle. Flora was given to fits of violent alarm. … Flora threw up her head, rolled her eyes, whinnied despairingly. … It was not safe to go into her stall; she would kick.(119)
The climax occurs at the end of the story when the family is gathered at the dinner table, that is, symptomatically in a scene that is the epitome of ordered (or, depending on one’s perspective, regulated and individually restricting) family life. Here, the gender pendulum fully swings back: Laird, in a classical act of “male bonding,” tells on his older sister by disclosing that she let Flora escape on purpose. For the first time in the story he sides with his father against her. The father, having overcome his immediate consternation about his daughter’s apparently ill-advised act, reacts in a manner that is even more threatening to his daughter than either fury or reproach: “‘Never mind,’ my father said. He spoke with resignation, even good humour, the words which absolved and dismissed me for good. ‘She’s only a girl,’ he said” (127).22

This reaction represents her initiation into a female gender role, with the word “girl” becoming what Jacques Derrida calls a “conflictual site.” The implications are disastrous for the narrator. Girls behave irrationally and—like the mentally handicapped—cannot be held responsible for their actions; in any case, in the domestic sphere cut out for them it will not matter much what they do because power is not on their side. The girl’s reactions to such implications are even graver because they suggest the impact of socialization on the forming of mentalities: “I didn’t protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true” (127). The girl has learned her gendered place in the social hierarchy the hard way. Humiliated by her younger brother’s self-seeking act of betrayal and now domineering attitude, she has internalized not only to behave, but also to feel and think as a girl and thus to consider herself, as the ending suggests, rather insignificant. Adopting her father’s belittling view of her act of letting Flora run, she betrays her own desire to rid herself of the restrictive role patterns forced upon her by the dominant gender system.

Nevertheless, even on the level of the narrated time there is some hope presented at the end of the story by the modal adverb “maybe” (“Maybe it was true”)—the girl may manage eventually to distance herself from prescribed gender roles (see the narrator’s critical reflections on the past events) which, as this story illustrates, work against the interests of women by drastically reducing their options for leading a suitable and fulfilling life according to their individual—and not predominantly categorical, gender-type—characteristics and desires. As the quotation by Adrienne Rich at the beginning of this article suggests, especially for women, re-visioning and then revising traditional gender roles is not only part of cultural and personal history but a step towards self-acceptance and, finally, an act of survival. “Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves,” Rich states (35). Questions of gender identity and an autobiographical impulse combine, as often with Munro, in this story told in retrospect by a narrating “I” that has a higher level of awareness than the narrator/protagonist as a young girl. As Robert Thacker claims, “Munro’s stories share the definition of the self—the primary urge in autobiography—as their central aim. … In fact, autobiography lies at the very core of Munro’s celebrated ability to offer stories of such precision, such haunting beauty, and finally, such verisimilitude” (Thacker, 155). That Munro deals at the same time with general role models and goes far beyond a potential autobiographical background of shedding internalized social patterns through the liberating experience of writing is suggested from the beginning by the story’s generic title in the plural form, “Boys and Girls”, which points to the social significance of the individual experience rendered. The socialization forces with regard to both girls and boys are also evoked by the fact that the narrator’s brother is named and thereby individualized, significantly through a speaking name that suggests his empowered gender role (“laird” is the Scottish word for “landowner”23). The female narrator, in contrast, remains nameless, which helps to generalize her socialization experience to a larger extent while at the same time keeping her character more open to an autobiographical reading of the story, as Munro herself has supported in various interviews concerning this and other stories.

“Boys and Girls”, written at the beginning of the “second wave” of feminist involvement with literature in North America, renders gender relations in a rather programmatic manner:24 the almost stereotypical characterization of the father and the mother, the systematic, highly symbolic opposition between interior/female and outer/male space, the divergent character of the male and the female horses, the clear-cut socializing influences imposed on the girl both by family members and by the closed rural society, and the seemingly logical mirroring of the girl’s ongoing socialization process in her different dreams. This early story does not feature Munro’s later postmodernist technique of circulating indeterminacy but rather “the capsule summary conclusions—the ‘false unity’—found so often in Dance of the Happy Shades” (Thacker, 157). The story demonstrates the restrictive, de-individualizing forces of an essentialist gender concept during the adolescent phase of development. At the same time, it also points out positively valued, liberating opportunities for women to rebel against dominant male codes of behavior. Thus the girl feels the first estrangement from her father when she surreptitiously watches him kill a horse, apparently without any emotions on his side: “Yet I felt a little ashamed, and there was a new wariness, a sense of holding-off, in my attitude to my father and his work” (124), an attitude which later climaxes in her spontaneous rebellion against her father when she helps Flora escape. It is part of the female role that the narrator abhors the routine killing of animals, although an economic necessity on the fox farm. Her brother Laird, in contrast, is ritualistically initiated into the male role by being allowed to join his father in the hunt to capture Flora and also through having her blood on his body. He seems to be proud of symbolically having arrived at male adulthood: “Laird lifted his arm to show off a streak of blood. ‘We shot old Flora,’ he said, ‘and cut her up in fifty pieces.’ ‘Well I don’t want to hear about it,’ my mother said” (126-27).25

Nevertheless, from the vantage point of the experiencing “I,” the clear difference between the girl’s and the boy’s initiation into their respective gender roles seems to be to the girl’s disadvantage: “Far from being a heroic aggrandizement, her initiation, by contrast to her brother’s, is an ironic deflation of her status, which helps her understand that for a girl to grow up is to come down” (Ventura, 80). The family scene at the dinner table is supposed to be a lesson for life, making the adolescent girl aware that, just as foxes are raised on the farm in fenced pens, so the gender role she is supposed to identify with is a social “production,”26 a construct: “A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become. It was a definition, always touched with emphasis, with reproach and disappointment” (119). With even her younger brother and former pal eventually joining the forces socializing and suppressing her, every character and almost every act or speech rendered in the text functions as a socializing agent or agency, pushing her in a certain direction of behavior and stressing a highly differential view of the sexes and their strictly separate spheres of action and development. Even the two types of calendars mentioned in the story bluntly differentiate between men and women on a symbolic level of meaning. The historical calendar on the kitchen door showing scenes from nature and of Canada’s colonial past (thus representing domestication on a national level) openly marks the mother’s personal domestication, with the kitchen being the epitome of domestic existence. Henry Bailey’s (the hired man’s) calendars, in contrast, are stashed away in the male sphere of the barn—most likely pornographic pin-up calendars which “embody” another, more drastic and reifying form of domestication of the female, that is, through the representation of her naked body as an object for the male voyeuristic gaze and desire.

The painful, conflicting feelings that the gender instruction at the dinner table must instil in the girl silence her for the moment yet make her body speak: as her brother points out “matter-of-factly, ‘she’s crying’” (127). On the one hand, the experiencing “I” is given a ready-made explanation for her behavior with Flora that she did not understand at the time of her spontaneous decision. On the other hand, she seems to have lost the gender battle for the more attractive and dominant position in the family, being reduced to the description of “girl,” which is used dismissingly twice in the story. The conflicting feelings that such fixing, derogatory attributions must provoke under the circumstances are captured in contradictory, oxymoronic formulations, a hallmark of Munro’s earlier writing in particular (see Hoy 1980), for example: “He spoke with resignation, even good humour, the words which absolved and dismissed me for good” (127).

Correlating with the conflictual ending of the story, “Boys and Girls” shows competing gender concepts at work, thereby calling into question a strictly essentializing view of gender hierarchies. Already in this early story, Munro has shifted the emphasis to “throw the story line open to question” and thereby to “demand new judgements and solutions” (Who, 177), because the binary oppositions between male and female in which the story is drenched are constantly undercut (for example, by the father calling his competent daughter a “hired man” and by the daughter feeling ill at ease with the stereotypical role distribution). What the girl yearns for is not an “either/or” but, in an early postmodernist stance and a plea for multiplicity, an “and.”27 As Dell, the female protagonist of Munro’s second book following upon Dance of the Happy Shades was to formulate in another context and in more pronounced metafictional terms: “And no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting” (Lives, 249).28


1. Rich 1979, 35.

2. Howells 1998, 1; see also Howells 2002 for a short survey of Munro’s life and work.

3. Still trading under that name in Victoria, British Columbia.

4. Because the publishers thought that while the provocative original title would make sense to Canadian readers, it would not appeal to an American or British audience.

5. On the potential influence of that sought-after magazine on her writing see Beran 1999. See also Munro’s “Author’s Note” to Love: “Stories included in this collection that were previously published in The New Yorker appeared there in very different form.”

6. See her sometimes hilarious reminiscences in Struthers, for example, when he asks her about the revision of Who: “Oh, it’s the most confused revision in history” (Struthers 1983, 29 passim).

7. Building on the fact that Munro had her say, of course, in the choice of stories for her Selected Stories, Howells comments: “Only Lives of Girls and Women was ever published as a ‘novel’ and its omission from her Selected Stories would indicate that she wishes it to be considered as a novel” (Howells 1998, 157, note 35).

8. “So lying alongside our world was Uncle Benny’s world like a troubling distorted reflection, the same but never at all the same” (Munro, “The Flats Road” in Lives, 26).

9. For example: “I didn’t stop there … because I wanted to find out more, remember more. I wanted to bring back all I could. Now I look at what I have done and it is like a series of snapshots” (Munro, “The Ottawa Valley” in Something, 197).

10. Munro in Struthers, 17.

11. See Howells: “To return to that map of Canada, if we began by locating a group of small towns in southwestern Ontario (Wingham, Clinton and Goderich on Lake Huron) we would delineate Munro’s geographical territory” (1998, 2).

12. Note Munro’s disclaimer on the bibliographical page of Lives: “This novel [sic] is autobiographical in form but not in fact. My family, neighbors and friends did not serve as models.—A. M.”

13. On the strong autobiographical dimension in Munro’s works see Thacker 1988.

14. See my article on Atwood in this book.

15. “We can see that, from her earliest stories on, Munro’s narrative perspective has grown gradually older with her, so that now many characters have personal histories—and thus perspectives of time and space—roughly equivalent to Munro’s own” (Thacker, 154); see also Martin 1998.

16. In her second book, Lives, the first-person narrator’s father is also a fox farmer, and this book of linked stories is also set in Jubilee, the fictional homage to Wingham, as has often been argued. For a later autobiographically inspired story on the father-daughter relationship see “The Moons of Jupiter,” which was first published two years after Munro’s father’s death during heart surgery.

17. See Carrington, who speaks of a “closed rural society” (1989, 15).

18. See also Goldman: “No longer the valiant hero, she becomes the victim in need of rescue” (1990, 65).

19. On the significance of Robinson Crusoe in the context see Goldman 1990, for example: “Robinson Crusoe, the economic man par excellence, is an apt hero for the narrator’s ‘tirelessly inventive’ capitalistic father” (73 note 1).

20. See Hallvard Dahlie’s statement on Munro’s biographical mother: “Like many of the unfulfilled and despairing mothers of Munro’s fiction, she expended her energies during the formative years of the three Laidlaw children in the nurturing of a family under conditions of deprivation and hardship” (Dahlie 1993, 188-89).

21. On the significance of this name for the female horse see Heliane Ventura: “The name given to the mare reinforces her female status. Flora is one of the minor Greek goddesses of agriculture. Like Demeter, she represents the bounties of nature, its seasonal fertility. Her liberation inaugurated by her passing through the opened gate can be likened to a new birth which reiterates the primordial act through which the individual takes possession of the world” (1992, 86).

22. See also the film Boys and Girls (1982) based on the Munro story, which was produced by the National Film Board of Canada and won an Oscar in 1984 for Best Short Film and Live Action. It is advertised on the Internet as “the paramount short film on sexism.”

23. “Laird is a potential laird, the male heir to the family who will by-pass the law of primo-geniture to occupy the whole territory, inside and outside, in keeping with male prerogatives on the farm” (Ventura, 82).

24. See Munro’s interesting—and highly self-critical—comments on this story; for instance, “I wrote it rather too purposefully perhaps, to show something” (Munro, “Author’s Commentary,” 185).

25. See also Goldman: “As they lift him [Laird] into the truck, the little boy becomes a man: he joins the hunting party. … The mark of blood and the domination of the Other continues to function as a crucial element in the rites of manhood. The boy cements his alliance with the father on the basis of their mutual triumph over nature” (71).

26. See again Goldman: “The familial discourse—a discourse which is ‘absolutely central to the perpetuation of the present, phallocentric order’—must also be fed …; it too requires bodies. … The construction of gendered subjects constitutes a form of production. Yet unlike other systems of production, the mechanisms which assist in the creation of gendered adults remain invisible; they seem natural, and for this reason they are taken for granted” (69, 62).

27. See Ventura, 84.

28. The American theorist Judith Butler has popularized the concept of gendered behavior as a learned pattern and subject to the workings of the social environment (see Butler 1990 and 2004). Munro’s view is similar, but the human concerns of her story and her sympathy with the victims of gender roles complement Butler’s otherwise highly abstract arguments and bring home even more clearly the emotional implications of socially instilled gender identities.

Works Cited

Beran, Carol L. “The Luxury of Excellence: Alice Munro in the New Yorker”. In The Rest of the Story: Critical Essays on Alice Munro, ed. Robert Thacker. Toronto: ECW Press, 1999. 204-232.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Carrington, Ildikó de Papp. Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro. De Kalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989.

Dahlie, Hallvard. “Alice Munro (1931-)”. In ECW’s Biographical Guide to Canadian Novelists, ed. Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley. Toronto: ECW Press, 1993. 188-191.

Gibson, Graeme. “Alice Munro”. In Gibson, Eleven Canadian Novelists. Toronto: Anansi, 1973. 237-264.

Goldman, Marlene. “Penning in the Bodies: The Construction of Gendered Subjects in Alice Munro’s Boys and Girls”. Studies in Canadian Literature 15 (1990): 62-75.

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Hoy, Helen. “‘Dull, Simple, Amazing and Unfathomable’: Paradox and Double Vision in Alice Munro’s Fiction”. Studies in Canadian Literature 5 (1980): 100-115.

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Howells, Coral Ann. “Intimate Dislocations: Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”. In Howells, Contemporary Canadian Women’s Fiction: Refiguring Identities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 53-78.

Howells, Coral Ann. “Munro, Alice”. In Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada, ed. William H. New. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. 769-772.

Martin, Peggy. “‘What a Pathetic Old Tart’: Alice Munro’s Older Women”. English Studies in Canada 24.1 (1998): 83-92.

Munro, Alice. “Author’s Commentary on ‘An Ounce of Cure’ and ‘Boys and Girls’” (1970), repr. in How Stories Mean, ed. John Metcalf and J. R. (Tim) Struthers. Erin, ON: The Porcupine’s Quill Press, 1993. 185-187.

Munro, Alice. “Boys and Girls”. In Munro, Dance of the Happy Shades, 111-127.

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Nischik, Reingard M. “‘Pen Photographs’: Zum Phänomen des (kanadischen) Kurzgeschichtenzyklus”. Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 66.1 (1992): 192-204.

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision (1971)”. In Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: Norton, 1979. 33-49.

Struthers, J. R. (Tim). “The Real Material: An Interview with Alice Munro” (1981). In Probable Fictions: Alice Munro’s Narrative Acts, ed. Louis K. Mackendrick. Downsview, ON: ECW Press, 1983. 5-36.

Thacker, Robert. “‘So Shocking a Verdict in Real Life’: Autobiography in Alice Munro’s Stories”. In Reflections: Autobiography and Canadian Literature, ed. K. P. Stich. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1988. 153-161.

Ventura, Heliane. “Alice Munro’s ‘Boys and Girls’: Mapping out Boundaries”. Commonwealth Essays & Studies 15 (1992): 80-87.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100118828