Alice Munro’s short story, “Boys and Girls,” has a very interesting detail written into it. The narrator’s brother is named Laird, which was carefully chosen by the author. Laird is a synonym for lord, which plays an important role in a story where a young girl has society’s unwritten rules forced upon her. At the time of the story, society did not consider men and women equal.
The name symbolized how the male child was superior in the parent’s eyes and in general. Along with that, the name also symbolizes the difference between the sexes when this story took place. The time when this story took place was a time when men and women were not equal. Mothers had traditional roles, which usually left them in the house, while men also had their roles, outside of the house.
The male was the dominant figure in the house, while the woman had to be subservient. It was an off thing to see my mother down at 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. She looked out of place, with her bare lumpy legs, not touched by the sun, her apron still on and damp across the stomach from the supper dishes.
The narrator had problems coming to terms with the role in life that she was expected to lead. She wanted to work outside with her father doing the work that she deemed important.
The mother tried to get the narrator to work inside doing work deemed appropriate for a lady, however it was not something she enjoyed. “I hated the hot dark kitchen in the summer” (p. 530). The narrator was not considered of any consequential help to her father, simply because she was female. “Could of fooled me,” said the salesman. “I thought it was only a girl” (p. 529). Even though the narrator could do more work than her younger brother, she was still under appreciated. “Wait till Laird gets a little bigger, then you’ll have a real help” (p. 530).
Laird, on the other hand, was able to go out and do the things that he enjoyed. When Flora, the family’s horse, runs away Laird is invited to join the father and his assistant to re-capture the horse, while the narrator must stay at home. When the narrator is reminiscing of the past, she recalls a time when she lured Laird up to the top of the barn. The whole purpose of this idea was to get Laird in trouble.
However, when her parents come and remove Laird from danger, they are actually mad at her, instead of Laird. This shows how the parents were more concerned with their son and that he could do no wrong. This reflects society’s notion at the time, how men were always right.
My father came, my mother came, my father went up the ladder talking very quietly and brought Laird down under his arm, at which my mother leaned against the ladder and began to cry. They said to me, “Why weren’t you watching him?” (p. 534) The grandmother is the best example of how women were thought of at the time. She is from a time when there were even stricter rules of conduct for girls. The narrator’s parents are more lackadaisical than the grandmother and a lot less out-spoken.
She voices what was taught to her when she was a child. At the time of the story, girls were expected to be dainty and quaint, while a man was expected to be the rough and tumble one. “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.” I continued to slam the doors and sit as awkwardly as possible, thinking that by such measures I kept myself free. (p. 532)
The narrator, however, did not keep herself free. Eventually, she began to change and to become a stereotypical female. She began to conform to society’s idea’s about women.
Near the end of the story, Laird starts to realize his sex-determined superiority. He explains to his father and mother how Flora escaped from the yard and also starts listening to his father almost exclusively. “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. “And don’t come to my table like that.” My father made him go and wash the blood off. (p. 536) Laird washes the blood off only after his father tells him to do so.
This shows the dominance of males in the society of the time. Laird may field his mother’s complaints, but only does something about it once his father tells him to do so. This shows how his father is the authority figure, that his mother secondary to his father. Even the daughter thinks lowly of the mother in comparison to the father. “It showed how little my mother knew about the way things really were” (p. 531).
“Boys and Girls” takes place at a time where there is no such thing as equality between the sexes. Men in this society are the dominant, authoritarian heads of the house-hold whose work is done outside the home. Women are expected to look after the men and their work is done in the home.
The narrator in “Boys and Girls” slowly becomes accustomed to her role in society. The narrator and her brother symbolize the roles of males and females in that society. The narrator is forced into doing jobs that she doesn’t enjoy doing, namely that associated with women’s work at the time.
Laird is allowed to do what he pleases. Laird is the lord, as a male, he is deemed as the more important of the two, simply because of his sex, while the narrator cast into her womanly role, being of secondary importance.
1) Munro, Alice, “Boys and Girls,” Introduction to Literature, eds. Gillian Thomas et al, third ed. (Toronto: Hardcourt Brace, 1995), p. 528 All subsequent references will be from this edition and will be cited in the text.