Societal Constraints in Alice Munro's 'Boys and Girls'

Categories: Robinson Crusoe

Alice Munro's "Boys and Girls" invites readers to witness a young girl's transformative journey into womanhood, enveloped within a constrained feminist perspective. In this narrative, the protagonist grapples with societal conformity on a 1940s Canadian Fox Farm, a period deeply entrenched in male dominance. Despite her initial desire to break free and become a powerful woman, she ultimately succumbs to the societal norms imposed on her.

Narrative and Literary Devices

The story unfolds through a first-person perspective, allowing readers to navigate the world of a young, free-spirited girl.

At its core, "Boys and Girls" delves into themes of self-discovery, stereotypes, and rebellion. To convey these themes effectively, Munro employs literary devices such as allusion, similes, and situational irony.

The narrator's use of allusion is evident in the line, "his favourite book in the world was Robinson Crusoe," wherein the father's inventive nature is symbolically linked to a well-known novel. Similes, on the other hand, are skillfully woven into the narrator's descriptions of the environment, painting vivid images, such as the "snowdrifts curled around the house like sleeping whales," to emphasize the howling of the winds.

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Munro's strategic use of situational irony is prevalent throughout the narrative, creating a nuanced exploration of societal expectations.

Inequality in the Family

The tale begins by offering a meticulous portrayal of the narrator's father, with every aspect of his life scrutinized, from his occupation to his friends. In stark contrast, the mother remains nearly invisible throughout this initial part, her existence limited to disapproving glances at her husband's pelting business.

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This asymmetry in focus highlights the father figure as an idol in the narrator's impressionable mind.

As the story unfolds, the patriarchal dominance within the family becomes increasingly apparent. The reader is left uncertain about the mother's whereabouts, but it is evident that the father holds a central place in the narrator's world. The meticulous detailing of the father's life serves not only as a character study but also as a reflection of the societal norms governing gender roles.

The Unnamed Narrator and Laird

Notably, the narrator, the central character, remains nameless, accentuating her lack of purpose in society. This anonymity transcends her individuality, symbolizing the broader struggles of women during this era. On the contrary, the narrator's brother is bestowed with the name Laird, denoting "lord" and underscoring society's bias towards males.

The deliberate choice to keep the narrator nameless serves a dual purpose. It not only highlights the societal constraints imposed on women but also allows the character to embody the collective experience of women during this period. Laird's named status, reminiscent of "lord," further reinforces the gender-based hierarchy within the family, echoing societal norms that favor male children.

Female Stereotyping

Munro intriguingly employs the girl as a conduit for depicting female stereotyping. Sexist descriptions surface, as the girl observes her mother's occasional presence in the barn, engaged in chores. These lines perpetuate societal roles forced upon women, setting the stage for the pressure the protagonist faces to conform to traditional expectations.

The portrayal of the mother engaged in household chores contributes to the reinforcement of gender stereotypes. Munro crafts a narrative where the mother's activities are confined to domestic responsibilities, aligning with the prevailing societal expectations of women during the 1940s. The girl, despite her yearning for individualism, is exposed to these gendered roles, foreshadowing the challenges she will encounter in her journey towards womanhood.

Resistance and Defiance

Rooted in a carefree spirit and individualism, the young girl, although aware of societal constraints, idolizes her father. Her familial surroundings continually coax her into conforming to gender norms. The grandmother serves as a representative of societal expectations, offering advice that the protagonist defiantly rejects. The girl clings to the belief that non-conformity will preserve her freedom and individuality.

The theme of resistance against societal expectations unfolds as the girl grapples with the pressure to adhere to gender norms. The grandmother's role introduces an additional layer to the narrative, representing the generational transmission of societal expectations. Despite the grandmother embodying the traditional values imposed on women, the girl's defiance suggests the beginnings of a shift in societal perspectives.

Rite of Passage

The pivotal moment in the narrative occurs with the killing of the horse, Flora. The narrator, in a bid to grant Flora freedom, leaves the gate open, symbolizing hope for liberation. Yet, as Flora meets an inevitable fate, the narrator confronts the futility of her acts of disobedience. The gate, once a symbol of hope, now signifies the acceptance of her womanhood, compelling her to assist her mother with dinner.

The killing of Flora marks a symbolic rite of passage for the narrator, a moment of profound transformation. The open gate represents the girl's defiance against societal constraints, a fleeting hope for an alternative path. However, Flora's tragic fate becomes a metaphor for the inescapable destiny that awaits the protagonist. The acceptance of womanhood is subtly portrayed as the narrator transitions from defiance to conformity.

Laird's Rite of Passage

Simultaneously, Laird undergoes his rite of passage through the killing of Flora. Unlike the narrator, Laird interprets this act differently. The blood on his arm becomes a symbol of his newfound manhood, as he proudly shares this transformation with his mother. This dichotomy exemplifies the contrasting nature of the two siblings' journeys into adulthood.

Laird's rite of passage serves as a parallel narrative, further accentuating the societal expectations placed on gender roles. The contrast between the girl's reluctant acceptance of womanhood and Laird's proud embrace of manhood underscores the deeply ingrained gender norms prevalent in the 1940s. Munro skillfully juxtaposes these two experiences, offering a nuanced exploration of how societal expectations shape individual identities.

Munro's Feminist Viewpoint

Munro strategically focuses on minor aspects of female stereotypes, emphasizing the girl's interest in fashion, beauty, and decor as symbols of her femininity. This limited feminist perspective invites readers to form their own opinions on the matter, underscoring the fact that this change is instigated by a child who has yet to grasp the full extent of societal prejudice.

The subtle portrayal of feminism in Munro's narrative prompts readers to critically engage with the protagonist's journey. By highlighting the girl's interest in traditionally feminine pursuits, Munro challenges readers to question whether these choices signify conformity or strategic navigation within the confines of societal expectations. The deliberate ambiguity invites readers to reflect on the complexities of feminism and individual agency.

Historical and Social Context

Examining the story against the backdrop of the 1940s and the rural Canadian setting provides insights into the societal constraints prevalent during that time. Despite the global shift caused by World War II, the rural location appears unaffected. The narrator's negative bias toward her mother illuminates society's views on women, who were relegated to traditional roles.

The historical and social context becomes a crucial lens through which readers can interpret the characters' actions. Munro's choice to set the narrative in a rural Canadian Fox Farm allows for a more nuanced exploration of gender roles, distinct from the societal changes occurring in urban areas. The juxtaposition of societal expectations and the characters' lived experiences adds depth to the narrative, emphasizing the intersectionality of gender and location.


Alice Munro's "Boys and Girls" emerges as a poignant tale, unraveling the intricate struggle each child faces in discovering their identity. The narrative underscores the profound influence of family and societal settings on the protagonist's acceptance of gender-specific roles. The suppression of individualism to align with societal norms becomes an inevitable facet of the narrator's journey. Munro's strategic use of limited feminism encourages readers to reflect on the complexities of societal expectations, leaving room for individual interpretation.

As readers navigate the intricacies of Munro's narrative, they are prompted to question the nature of resistance, the inevitability of societal expectations, and the evolving identities of the characters. "Boys and Girls" transcends its temporal setting, inviting readers to draw parallels with contemporary discussions on gender roles, feminism, and individual agency. Munro's narrative, rich in symbolism and nuanced character development, resonates as a timeless exploration of the complexities woven into the fabric of societal expectations.

Updated: Jan 11, 2024
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Societal Constraints in Alice Munro's 'Boys and Girls'. (2016, Jun 28). Retrieved from

Societal Constraints in Alice Munro's 'Boys and Girls' essay
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