fetish literature

Boys and Girls

Alice Munro

Many of you will already be familiar with Alice Munro and her work. Focusing largely on fiction’s short form, she’s been publishing stories since 1968 (Dance of the Happy Shades) and has been described as ‘the finest writer of short stories working in the English language’ – and I don’t think that’s too much of an exaggeration. She’s won more accolades than I could mention here, but the list includes the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Man Booker International Prize.


Munro writes her fiction with incredible control, demonstrating all the traits you’d expect from such an accomplished author, from vivid character building to perfectly timed pacing. But there’s more to Munro than just technical brilliance. Beneath much of her work, there’s a tender cruelty exposed – a sort of reality that we all know is there, but that we don’t want to confront.


Given all this, it was only a matter of time before we deep-dived into a Munro story for Fetish Literature, and I can’t think of a better one to analyse than ‘Boys and Girls’. Not only does this beautiful study into the inherent inequality of gender roles exemplify all the qualities outlined above, it also covers important themes that we’ve previously explored in other articles: narrative voice, tension-building, and structure.


A child’s voice

What first comes to mind when I think of this story is the narrative voice. It’s the glue that holds the entire piece together. It’s essential to the theme, plot, and even heart of the story. But beyond that, I think of the narrative voice as being so quintessentially child-like.


The unnamed narrator is introducing and guiding the reader through her world, which is rural and working-class, where blood and death are commonplace, and danger never seems to linger too far away. However, there’s also an innocence about this world. A playfulness. Even if it’s not explicitly told, the reader feels that we’re seeing the world through the eyes of a child.


When preparing to write this article, I re-read the story to see at what moment we’re told the narrator’s age, and I was surprised that it’s not until beyond the halfway point (bottom of page five for those of you reading from the PDF) that we’re given a more precise number.

The winter I was eleven years old we had two horses in the stable. We did not know what names they had had before, so we called them Mack and Flora.

However, the reader is already well-aware by this point that the narrator is a pre-adolescent. But how? What is it about ‘Boys and Girls’ that so clearly tells us that we’re seeing the world through the eyes of a child?


As explored in a previous Fetish Literature article on point-of-view in fiction, a writer can introduce many of a story’s key elements by describing how the characters react in certain situations, or the sorts of things they get up to on a day-to-day basis. This is exactly how Munro shows the reader that the narrator is a child. For instance, in just the second paragraph, the narrator describes how she and her brother, Laird, sit on the top step of the cellar and watch their father work. I’d say that, while this isn’t exclusively the behaviour of a pre-teen, it’s pretty indicative of it. A page or so later, the narrator describes how she and her brother play games and sing songs in their shared room at night. And once her younger brother falls asleep, the narrator tells herself stories where her older self performs heroic acts, such as rescuing civilians from a bombed building and saving teachers from rabid wolves.


All of this takes place within the story’s opening three pages (or two pages on the online PDF), and within this period, we gather a pretty strong idea as to who the narrator is. She has a strong imagination. She’s got a heroic streak. She’s protective (of her brother at least). Not at all squeamish (she’s not put off by the smell of blood and animal fat). And, while we’re not completely sure, we can confidently infer that she’s a child.


In other stories with a child narrator, the age might be given to the reader immediately (In To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, we’re told of Scout’s and her brother’s ages on the first page). Or another approach might be to write in vernacular, as done in The Catcher in the Rye to highlight that the narrator, Holden Caulfield, is a teenager. While Munro opts for neither of these approaches, I hope you’ll agree that her method of character building is a subtle but clear one. It’s not direct, but it resonates with the tone of the piece, creating a powerful sense of storytelling.

Dramatic irony as a device to build tension

Often, when I’m reading a good piece of fiction, I ask myself what it is that’s keeping my interest. What is it about the story that compels me to keep turning the pages? Of course, what catches and maintains a reader’s attention is usually subjective. It could be an engaging character, the poetry of the writing or many other things. In particular, I often find that in great fiction, there’s almost always a sense of building tension present. (Here’s a more detailed article on tension in fiction if you’re interested.)


What is it, then, about ‘Boys and Girls’ that keeps us wanting to read on? For me, I’m engaged by the narrative voice. As discussed above, it’s masterfully vivid, inviting the reader into a very realistic world. Also, there’s a lurking sense of danger in the setting: the morbid backdrop of skinned foxes (‘the smell of blood and animal fat, with the strong primitive odour of the fox itself’), plus the dark and windy bedroom where the narrator and her brother sleep.


However, sitting beneath all of this is another type of tension that cuts right to the core of the story’s main theme around gender.


As soon as we learn that the main character is a girl, the story and its other characters seem to begin conspiring against her. We learn that the mother is trying to have the narrator spend more time inside performing household chores, rather than where she wants to be: outside with her father and the foxes. The grandmother scolds the narrator for slamming doors and not keeping her knees together when she sits down, saying that girls shouldn’t behave like that. And there’s a general sense that the narrator will be replaced by her younger brother just as soon as he’s older enough to help with the outdoor tasks.


For the narrator, this dynamic is confusing. She doesn’t understand why Laird is expected to automatically fulfil a role the moment he grows up a little. In response to overhearing her mother say to her father, ‘Wait till Laird gets a little bigger, then you’ll have a real help’, the narrator thinks to herself:

What did she mean about Laird? He was no help to anybody. Where was he now? Swinging himself sick on the swing, going around in circles, or trying to catch caterpillars. He never once stayed with me till I was finished.

The narrator is right to be confused. What is it about Laird that gives him the right to surpass her as the father’s go-to helper in the family? Why does the hired man Henry Bailey assume that Laird is going to become stronger than her? Why does everyone but her seem to accept that she’s destined to help her mother inside the house, when she’d prefer to be outside?


Many readers will know the answers to these questions. In this family, Laird is preferred to his sister for many tasks simply because he’s a boy. This level of sexism won’t come as a surprise to many of us. However, this story is told through the perspective of the narrator, a young girl, who at this point in the story is naive to this particular societal injustice.


The tension in the story lies in the reader knowing more about sexism than the narrator does. What shocks her is sadly an all-too familiar tale for us. And the more she fights against it – she protests that while Laird is indeed getting bigger, so is she; she responds to her grandmother’s comments by continuing to ‘slam the doors and sit as awkwardly as possible, thinking that by such measures I kept myself free’ – the more we the reader feel that she’s being confined to a predefined fate beyond her control.


This device is known as dramatic irony, and it occurs in a piece of fiction when the audience knows something that the characters don’t. A classic example of dramatic irony is during the final act of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo comes across Juliet’s body in the tomb, believing her to be dead. Heartbroken, Romeo drinks poison to take his own life, not knowing that Juliet is actually in a potion-induced sleep to feign death. When she wakes up and sees Romeo’s dead body next to her, she also takes her own life. The audience is aware of this plan all along, which makes it even more tragic.


In ‘Boys and Girls’, most readers will know better than the narrator that the world is an inherently unfair and sexist place. We know that the narrator won’t simply win out against her brother because of skill, talent, and strength; rather, she’s doomed to lose simply because she was born a girl. However, the narrator doesn’t know this. Not at first, anyway. And her struggling against a system weighted against her creates a trope that is as engaging as it is tragic.

The denouement: bringing a character arc to its end

Many stories – whether they be short stories, novels, films, or plays – follow an arc-like narrative structure, sometimes also referred to as a wave. The action peaks until it reaches a climax, before settling back in on itself in a dramatic resolution, AKA the denouement.


A story’s denouement can take on many forms, but it’s often about tying up loose ends. This could be conflicts that have been growing throughout the story, clarifying plot points or bringing a character’s arc to its end. In ‘Boys and Girls’, the denouement largely deals with the latter.


While the arc-structure of storytelling is usually quite loose and serves more as a useful guide rather than a rule, its form does come across strongly in Munro’s ‘Boys and Girls’. The climax of the story is the moment when the narrator lets Flora the horse loose in the fields, rather than trapping her as her father asks her to. And the denouement is what follows: the aftermath where the narrator realises that everyone was right all along and that maybe she is limited by her gender.


This is the end of her character arc, and it’s a rather tragic one at that. Throughout the story, the narrator has been pushing back against a fate that is unfair and incomprehensible to her. But by the end of the story, she’s all but accepted it.


This transformation is shown beautifully by Munro. The denouement highlights many traits that have already been demonstrated by the narrator, but this time, they’ve been reversed.


The narrator tells us that she’s trying to make her room ‘more fancy’ – ‘spreading the bed with old lace curtains, and fixing myself a dressing table with some leftovers of cretonne for a skirt.’ A distance grows between her and her brother, Laird, both physically and emotionally. She creates a ‘barricade’ between their beds and they stop singing together at night. The narrator still dreams and tells herself stories, but the nature of them has changed significantly. Rather than imagine herself as the rescuing hero, she’s taken on the role of damsel in distress.

I still stayed awake after Laird was asleep and told myself stories, but 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.

These changes come across suddenly. And they’re provided as evidence of the narrator’s transformation in a single paragraph. However, they don’t come as a shock to the reader. As discussed in the previous section, most of us aren’t as surprised as the narrator that her family is trying to force her to be something she doesn’t want to be. It seems that something about the story’s climax – disobeying her father and letting the horse Flora escape – has triggered in her this change.


A denouement doesn’t necessarily mean tying up all of a story’s loose ends. Sometimes a question mark hangs over the ending and lingers in the readers’ minds. Here, Munro leaves a morsel of hope for the narrator.

‘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.


I didn’t protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true.

Tragic as these final lines are, the word ‘maybe’ hangs there defiantly.

What if...?

As we always do when analysing a piece of fiction, let’s consider alternate choices the author could have made when writing this story and the impact they would have had.

What if the story were written in third-person?

As we’ve seen, the first-person narrative voice of ‘Boys and Girls’ is one of the story’s defining features. But what if it were written in omnipotent third-person? What if the narrator’s voice were neutral, and the reader had perspective on the mother’s, father’s, and younger brother’s inner thoughts, as well as those of the daughter? How do you think this would change the story’s shape and structure?

What if the narrator didn’t let Flora escape?

The narrator defying her father and letting the horse Flora loose is the story’s climactic moment, the pivot on which the narrator’s whole character shifts. It’s unlike her to not do as her father says, and it causes her to make some big changes in her personality. But what if she hadn’t disobeyed her father? What if she’d stopped Flora from escaping, as the father had asked? Would this have changed the denouement? If so, how else might Munro have ended this story?

What if the story were the beginning of a novel?

Many short stories are part of a wider universe in the author’s imagination. The characters live on in other pieces of fiction, as do the settings, themes, and ideas. Sometimes, an author will expand upon the short story, turning it into a novella or novel. What if Munro were to do that with ‘Boys and Girls’? What if the story as we know it were the opening gambit of a far longer piece? How might the life of the narrator continue on? What might her story be over the course of an entire novel?