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The short story Boys and Girls by Alice Munro unveils many important themes affected a generation of young people during 1960s. In her story, Alice Munro speaks about such problems as gender inequalities and gender values. The detailed analysis of the short story and women's characters makes it possible to say that the short story reflects all those changes faced by the American society during 1950s-1960s. The social context of the short story reflects the system of gender roles and its impact on personal relations and perception of a girl (woman) by society. Through characters of women, Alice Munro portrays that gender problems have deep historical roots and closely connected with the period of segregation and dominance of men, low position of women in society and their social inequalities. Thesis "The coming of age" problem experienced by the young girl and maturation is based on personal struggle and rebellion against male values and a socially-determined position of women in society.
Alice Munro vividly portrays that the coming of age is always connected with struggle and self-identification. In the short story, the issue of gender equality is one of the most frequently and heatedly discussed in the story (Awano, 7). The roles, behaviors and communication of the girl is fixed by her family and society she is a part. Alice Munro describes:
One time a feed salesman came down into the pens to talk to him and my father said, "Like to have you meet my new hired hand." 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" (Munro). This example shows that women were perceived as weak creatures subordinated to men. Still, Alice Munro tells that the changes that are forced by women's desire to get equality can be observed in all spheres of life (Martin 132).
The girl is a real feminist who fights for personal freedom and self-determination. Alice Munro tells readers that feminism has experienced the heights of its fame several times already but it was not always so. The middle of the 20th century was the period of radical political and social changes on the whole (Martin 134). Historically, women were perceived as "second class" citizens in contrast to men. It was considered that women could not accomplish great deeds as virtuous and meaningful as those of men. The portrait of the girl's mother is a distinctive example of housewives:
"Her hair was tied up in a kerchief, wisps of it falling out. She would tie her hair up like this in the morning, saying she did not have time to do it properly, and it would stay tied up all day. It was true, too; she really did not have time" (Alice Munro).
In contrast to her mother, the girl likes horses, outdoor work and personal freedom. During her maturation period, the girl rejects traditional women's roles and values. To be sure, the wife generally remained subordinate to her husband and only in exceptional cases could she run the "domestic government" in her own name. Nevertheless, in the analogy between home and state, she shared the "governmental power" over children and household staff. Women's work was considered less valuable because of social and gender inequalities that assigned women secondary roles and subordinate positions (Awano, 7).
"The coming of age" theme is contrasted with traditional gender roles and norms. Traditionally, women's work was less valuable because women were perceived as the weaker, more passive, and more dependent creature. Men ruled the society and rejected female rationality. Also, the majority of women was less educated than men and could not read and write. These assumptions were based on religious doctrines that God intended for women to be in the government of the church or of the state. For a woman to engage in public affairs was not only a breach of order, it was almost an act of effrontery. Alice Munro tells readers that women should preach and baptize only in cases of emergency, when there were no men present to do so. As for the rest, women's subordination to their husbands' power remains unlimited: Using the character of the grandmother, Alice Munro unveils a social conflict between old and new values (McCaig 66). The girl describes:
for a few weeks and I heard other things. "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 (Alice Munro)
All women were subject to male control, a control that can be tempered only by the requirement for love and community between spouses. Women's work was considered less valuable because they could not perform complex tasks and physical work similar to men. Social space for women within the household appeared to have been indifferent to the larger issue of their civic identity. The ways in which their attitudes toward women were implicated in their more general theoretical doctrines and approaches based on religious and social values and historical traditions. In the short story, both female and male characters are portrayed as oppressors and a dominant class in contrast to the young girl. Men perpetrate an ideal that subjected and silenced women (McCaig 98). This ideology oppressed women by they used to be subdues by religion and social norms. Such behavior considered typical for this epoch. Alice Munro also depicts that women's life and destiny defined and depended upon the men, and, particularly, upon their marriage. The girl in the short story wonders why anyone would understand a difference between men and women.
Imagined heroism is the main feature which helps the girl to escape traditional women's roles. For instance, in her dreams the girl images herself as a hero: she is riding and shooting; she saves lives of other people and is admired by people. The character of the girl stays apart from other make characters: she is depicted as a woman who possessed male qualities such heroism, bravery and physical strength. Alice Munro portrays deep personal feelings, striving of personal identity and total ignorance of the world experienced by the young girl. Social priorities are supported by economic development which always played a major role considered as the main indicator of future success or failure. It is possible to say that low social roles of women lasted so long, because it was legitimatized by the society (McCaig 73).
At the end of the story, the girl understands infertility of her struggle and social resistance. Alice Munro singles out different factors and issues which motivated the girl to participate in labor force. Alice Munro underlines the girl's struggle for equality and patriotism. Virtuousness and morality were the main qualities of a woman in spite of her age and gender. Society supposed that a woman should follow strict moral rules which determined and guided her behavior and actions. Social norms clearly stipulated good and wrong behavior patterns, goodness and sins, virtue and misdeeds. Thus, women were always seen as non-humans who not understand and follow religious values and be virtuous. The point is that stereotypes of gender (masculinity and femininity) have consequences for the difference between men's and women's experience in, for example, work and exercising power (Nelson 77). The father's comment shows that the girl is too young and is unable to accept well-weighted decisions.
Alice Munro underlines that social values determines everything in women's lives. Men are portrayed as indifferent towards women. Alice Munro idealizes womanhood avoiding such things as oppression and low educational level, low social status of women and their domestic role only (Simon 4). She tries to create a woman who is equal to men in her thoughts if not actions. However, Boys and Girls is not being solely concerned with how story's main characters are being affected by their psychological insecurities, but also with what accounted for their inability to effectively address these insecurities. Despite the fact that, throughout story's entirety, the girls is being presented to us as "progressive" person, who seriously believed that new gender roles with strongly defined sense of self-respect could have helped her to straighten out her ways. Whereas, at the beginning of the story, the girl is being described as somewhat undisciplined but absolutely normal kid, still, she develops an uncanny depression.
Thus, psychological insecurities, which seem to affect just about the main character, cannot be discussed as "thing in itself", as self-appointed experts on tolerance such as the girl would like us to believe. In order for just about anyone to instantly get rid of sadness, she must simply do a few push-ups - this is the greatest secret psychologists are trying to keep away from public. Thus, readers cannot seriously consider the character of the girl as being particularly complex, in psychological sense of this word - all of her problems seem to be absolutely typical. As a middle-aged woman of limited intelligence, her mother eventually became overwhelmed with parenting both: the daughter and the son, especially given her husband's apparent inability to act as responsible father. This is why she assumed that it was in the girl's best interests to start seeing herself as a hero (Martin 66).
Such essential components of the short story as the coming of age theme are meant to emphasize the particularities of narrator's emotional state, when she was in the process of maturity. This theme relates to idealistic properties of the main character. Gender gap is caused by historical differences and inequalities affected women and established dominance of the male gender. Gender gap leads to such problems as stereotypes resulted in gender differences and low social position of women, Historical beliefs and traditions narrow gender gap and lead to such problems as low social status of women and promotional discrimination. Alice Munro underlines improvement in the image of women and their role in society. The equality of women with men was also underlined in literature by the image of women trails as a group rather than as citizens. The process of socialisation attempts to allow individuals to accept the values necessary in building their relations with others. Alice Munro states that women images stipulated certain women's work identity. For the girl, the maturation means understanding of her true self and her place inside the family and society. Therefore, it would be wrong to think of mental anxieties as having originated out of her sub-consciousness, but rather out of social norms.