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."