What are 6 symbols and images in the short story "Boys and Girls" by Alice Munro?

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rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Boys and Girls is a story about a girl growing up on a small farm in Canada. It is also about what it means to be a “girl,” and the ways in which gender identity can subvert family relationships. The story is full of imagery which can be thought of as symbolic of the dissociation of the girl from who she knows herself to be and what she is, nevertheless becoming – a “girl.” The farm, her parents, even her brother – all are means of enforcing “girlhood” on her and so become a kind of prison. Here are a few examples:

  1. Her attic bedroom, that she shares with her brother Laird, is not completely safe: they invent elaborate rules to protect themselves from anything that might be lurking in the shadows (they can only be on the carpet when the light is on, only in bed when the light is off, etc.). The lack of safety in their own room is representative of the lack of safety the protagonist feels in the home in general – as if her status within the family is only temporary.
  2. The foxes, and their kennel: Her family makes their living off the foxes, who have beautiful fur but are otherwise quite nasty creatures. The foxes are associated with the husband and maleness; the wife hates when the pelting is going on in the house, because of the smell.
  3. The farm itself: the farm is not a pleasant place, not least because everything that happens in it is overdetermined: everything, and everyone, has a purpose and a place, and the daughter’s place is not something she will get to choose.
  4. The canning in the kitchen: the mother would much rather the daughter help her in the kitchen with the canning, but the canning process is horrible for her, and representative of her impending loss of freedom.
  5. The shooting of Henry: she sneaks her brother into the barn to watch her father shoot Henry the horse, who will be butchered and fed to the foxes. This is meant to be a shared, coming of age experience for them; instead, it is an opportunity for Laird to betray her.
  6. The escape of Flo, the high spirited mare: she leaves the gate open so the horse can escape. She wishes she could escape too, but as for the horse, there is no real escape from her destiny as a “girl” – in the same way that her father, inevitably, returns with a truck of horse meat, so the daughter is inevitably betrayed by her brother, who tells the father that she left the gate open on purpose.

The father’s cutting, final remark – “she’s only a girl” – sums up the symbolic movement of the story, and frames the central question of the story: What does it mean to be “only a girl?”

clairewait eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The "odor of the fox itself" (imagery pertaining to smell) is something the narrator describes as "reassuringly seasonal" and a comfort to her at night.

(Sight/Touch) Images of light and dark: the "brightly lit downstairs world," contrasted with the "stale cold air upstairs."  Light = warmth and safety; dark = cold and fear.

Further images of light and dark in her room: provide the narrator and her brother with boundaries of safety.  At night, as long as the lights are on, they are "safe."

Henry Bailey's laugh (imagery pertaining to sound): the children "admired" the sound of "whistlings and gurglings...faulty machinery of his chest."  Despite his sickness, Henry Bailey also provides a source of emotional comfort and protection.

Description of the foxes pens as "a medieval town" (sight imagery): symbolizes the safety and security her father is able to provide, both for the foxes and for her.

Description of the "hot dark kitchen in summer" (mostly sight but some sound imagery): shows that the narrator feels caged in by inherently female tasks and contrasts directly with the freedom she feels when working outside, like a man.

The fact that the narrator remains unnamed throughout the story could be symbolic of her search for an identity throughout the story.