Literary Analysis of Gender Inequality and Social Conditioning in a Patriarchal Society in Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls” Essay
Written in 1968, Alice Munro’s short story “Boys and Girls” is set on a farm where foxes are raised for the fur trade. The main characters in this story are the Mother, the Father, the eldest daughter and son. The mother and father have established stereotypical gender roles; the mother does indoor domestic work, while the father does outdoor work maintaining the fox farm. The eldest daughter, known as the ‘girl’, is the narrator of the story. “Boys and Girls” centers on the exploration of the narrator’s self-identity.
The girl values and prefers doing the outdoor work on the farm with her father as opposed to domestic indoor work. This desire contrasts with social expectations and rigid gender stereotypes that ultimately determine the outcome of her journey. In the story, the brother or ‘boy’ is one of the few characters given a name, Laird, meaning ‘Lord’, symbolizing his greater value on the farm than the girl. In the beginning of the story Laird is portrayed as friendly and remains loyal to his sister because he is still too young to take on any major responsibility around the farm.
Later in the story the reader discovers Laird is also undergoing changes related to gender role pressure and eventually becomes disloyal to his sister in order to gain the loyalty of their father. Due to stereotyped gender expectations in a patriarchal society, the girl is oppressed through internal and external social conditioning, but she is allowed to keep her emotional connectedness, while Laird is cut off from his. Due to patriarchal social conditioning, external examples of stereotypical gender roles the girl experiences on the family farm shape her views to regard female gender roles as less desirable than male roles.
The girl views her mother’s work in the house as “endless, dreary, and peculiarly depressing”(272). This quote shows that the girl does not value her mother’s domestic work. The girl resents the domestic work, and her mother for making her do it, living in a society where domestic work is not highly regarded. Early in the story the girl does not make the connection between her female gender and domestic work expected of a woman, believing she still has a choice in which work she decides to do. The girl views her father’s work of maintaining the fox farm as “ritualistically important”(272).
The girl assigns more value to her father’s outdoor work with the foxes opposed to her mother’s domestic work. The girl puts her father on a pedestal viewing him as a creative ruler due to his ingenuity and diversity of tasks with the foxes. This perspective is reinforced by the patriarchal society, in which the male gender is given more power, placing the value of the father’s work above the mothers. Internal changes in the girl’s fantasies from a powerful heroic figure to a more passive role demonstrates the powerful internal subtleties of patriarchal social conditioning regarding stereotypical gender role formation.
In her early fantasies the girl states, “I rescued people” (Munro 270). In this fantasy the girl is the hero and imagines herself to be powerful and assertive. These fantasies were taking place when the girl was still young and naive enough to believe she had no social restrictions regarding her gender. As the girl gets older she notes a change in fantasies where “somebody would be rescuing me”(Munor276-277). The girl begins to imagine herself as more passive.
The socialization regarding female gender role formation begins to take seed in the girl’s psyche thus constricting the girl’s ability to be completely free in shaping her self-identity. The girl is able to express freedom of the constraints of gender role formation in her earlier fantasies, but the restrictions of gender expectation as the girl ages take root in her later fantasies. Although the girl is more socially oppressed and restricted in her gender role towards the end of the story, she is allowed to maintain her emotional connectedness while her brother Laird is conditioned to be removed from expressing emotions.
Laird, after having helped kill Flora and telling on the girl for letting Flora go, shames the girl further by stating “She’s crying”(277). Laird shows no remorse or compassion for the death of Flora or his sister’s feelings in this statement, even though he knew Flora’s freedom was important to his sister. Laird demonstrates disconnection from his ability to be vulnerable and empathetic towards his sister. The honesty of innocence is replaced by the father’s expectations of Laird, and Lairds loyalties shift from his sister to his father.
After the girl’s father dismisses her for crying due to being “only a girl”, she states “I didn’t protest, even in my heart. Maybe it was true” (277). Gender discrimination by her father and brother is a cruel and shaming experience for the girl. Though crying is considered a weak expression of emotion, for the girl it is also an expression of her emotional honesty to the situation. The girl, succumbing to stereotypical gender constrictions that women are the weaker sex is able to maintain an emotional connectedness that is not granted to Laird. Influenced by patriarchy, the girl begins to conform to internal and external social conditioning.
Despite this, she is able to maintain an emotional connectedness to herself during her transformation, while Laird is removed from his. The girl mourns the loss of her freedom; her emotional connectedness is considered weak and feminine. In contrast, Laird is not able to express his emotions as he must present as strong and masculine. The girl’s spirited rebellion against gender stereotypes is suppressed by social conditioning of the time, and the girl eventually surrenders to these pressures. Men were more valued than women and women’s required expression of emotions contributed to their assumed inferiority.
Laird’s lack of empathy to the girl is the result of social conditioning in a patriarchal society where men are not only encouraged to suppress emotions but consider women as less than men as opposed to equal. Normative gender expectations still exist today in our society, but restrictions on gender roles are being challenged and dismantled, and traditional spheres of employment are now occupied by both men and women.
Munro, Alice. “Boys and Girls. ” Currents: stories, essays, poems, and plays. Scarborough, Ont. : Prentice Hall Canada, 2000. 269-277. Print.