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

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In "Boys and Girls” by Alice Munro, there are two sets of contrasting themes: life and death and masculine and feminine—or boys and girls. The author goes into detail discussing the foxes that the narrator’s father raises for their pelts. The reader visualizes the image of the foxes in their pens. “Alive, the foxes” had faces that were “drawn exquisitely sharp in pure hostility, and their golden eyes.” This picture is contrasted with the imagery of their dead, skinless bodies after the father has killed them:

my father scraped away delicately, removing the little clotted webs of blood vessels, the bubbles of fat...

Despite this somewhat gruesome image, the narrator, “found it reassuringly seasonal, like the smell of oranges and pine needles.” This is a symbol of her acceptance of the killing rituals of the farm when she is very young. Moreover, the image of the horse’s entails conveys just how mundane killing was on the farm: “Last summer Laird and I had come upon a horse's entrails before they were buried. We had thought it was a big black snake, coiled up in the sun.”

However, as the girl gets older, she becomes less inured to the killing. This also goes hand-in-hand with the recurring contrasts of boy versus girl. As she gets older, the narrator realizes that she longs for feminine things, including pretty dresses and lace curtains, and she even begins to dream that some male figure “would be rescuing me.” She stands in front of the mirror and combs her hair. She wonders if she will be pretty. Images of her father and his gun flash into her mind and disturb her. She writes:

The word girl had formerly seemed to me innocent and unburdened like the word child; now it appeared that it was no such thing...

The scenes of killing in the fields, filled with males, including her father, their hired hand, and her brother Laird, are contrasted with the more “feminine” activities taking place in her mother’s domain, the kitchen.

The narrator begins to develop distaste for the field work, which is replete with killing, butchering, skinning, and other aspects related to death. Her growing distaste reaches a climax when she lets the old mare out of the gate. This in itself is a symbol of her growing acceptance of her femininity. It is also not a coincidence that it is the female horse that the girl tries to save and not the male.

Interestingly, the male-female imagery is flipped relative to the horses. The female is a high-spirited horse that could be violent, fast, and high-stepping. She bolts when they come to slaughter her. By comparison, the male horse is old and docile and accepting of his fate as he is about to be slaughtered. Yet, in terms of the narrator, the final line in the story parallels an earlier reference to her being “just a girl.” When her father learns that she left the gate open for Flora to escape, he says, “She's only a girl."

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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?”

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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.

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