Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women is a vivid and thorough depiction of a girl’s coming-of-age in a remote Canadian town. Written first as a series of seven short stories and later revised around an autobiographical structure, this realistic and uncompromising novel reveals the complex choices faced by a young teenager. Through the eyes of the ever-observant Del, the novel focuses on the frailties of relationships, the mixed messages offered to girls, and the ravages of decay and death. Del refuses to blink as she observes those “who all their lives could stay still, with no need to do or say anything remarkable.”

Each story illustrates Del’s progression from child to woman. The early stories focus on the fringe characters living on a remote country road known for its poverty, harshness, and lack of class. Subsequent stories show Del’s world expanding as she and her mother move to town. Watching the women and girls around her, Del notes the narrow gender roles that they have come to accept. In this intimate small town, where everyone knows everyone’s business, she is privy to the dark side. As she freely admits, she is no “stranger to killing.” She sees it on the fox farm and later in the suicides of townspeople. Fortunately, Del’s mother is a powerful example, a woman driven by her passion for knowledge and her struggle to make ends meet. Like her mother, Del is a seeker of knowledge. Ignoring her mother’s rejection of...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Lives of Girls and Women is a connected group of stories following Del from the age of about eleven to just after high school graduation. Each chapter is a self-contained story that provides an insight into Del’s life: family, religion, sexuality, friendship, the imagination, and romance. The novel traces Del’s experiences, shows her ambitions, and highlights her coming of age in a time when roles for girls and women are in a state of transition.

Del is highly imaginative and likes to question traditional knowledge, as is indicated by her exploration of different faiths and her love of reading. Like other women in the novel (her mother, Naomi, Miss Farris), Del tries on different roles in her quest for fulfillment. She lives much of her life in her imagination. She is fascinated by the story of Uncle Benny and Madeleine, and by how the episode showed that alongside the ordinary world of school and family, Uncle Benny’s world was “a troubling distorted reflection, the same but never at all the same.” Her Uncle Craig’s funeral prompts her to wonder about life and death, and to realize that she is (sometimes unwillingly) linked forever to her family. After the funeral, her aunts ceremoniously present her with Uncle Craig’s unfinished lifelong project: a history of Wawanash County in minute detail. They hope that she will be able to imitate Uncle Craig’s style and complete the book. Del wants to go her own way, however, and is guiltily relieved when, years later, the manuscript is accidentally destroyed. Del’s next experience, a meeting with an uncle from the United States, reveals the different versions two people have of the same event. While Del’s mother saw her childhood as deprived by her own mother’s...

(The entire section is 716 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Lives of Girls and Women differs in form from Munro’s collections of unrelated short stories, it has a similar theme: the journey to adulthood of a young, intelligent, unsophisticated woman. One central issue in the novel is the repression and anger fostered by a small town’s inability to tolerate someone who is “different,” as Del, her mother, Jerry Storey, Miss Farris, and Mr. Boyce all are. Women in particular suffer from the narrowness of conservative expectations: Del’s mother has energetic but unfocused aspirations; Naomi is forced to marry because she is pregnant; Fern’s musical ability is seen as “showing off.” Munro details how other women, such as Del’s aunts, school friends, and grandmother, enforce these narrow standards—to their own detriment as well as Del’s. Munro questions throughout the novel the prevalent idea that romance, sex, and domesticity are sufficient “escape routes” for young women seeking dramatic change from the roles their mothers were forced to play. With humor and sadness, she examines the way in which Del is influenced by society’s vision of what a woman should be—and how Del eventually chooses to reject this standard in favor of “real life.”

Lives of Girls and Women was somewhat unusual when it was published because at that time realistic accounts of female coming-of-age were rare; it is significant that the novel is most often compared to American author J. D....

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The question of the form of Lives of Girls and Women remains an ongoing critical concern. On the one hand, its structure exhibits a...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although Munro's fiction continually refuses, as at least one critic has suggested, "to yield graciously to critical inquiry," it provokes...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As she had done in such earlier stories as "Boys and Girls" and "The Office" (Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968), Munro continues in...

(The entire section is 345 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Lives of Girls and Women is often considered the most important Canadian translation of the male tradition of the...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) — a cycle of ten linked stories — Munro engages a structure similar to that of Lives of...

(The entire section is 68 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

There have been a number of dramatic adaptations of Lives of Girls and Women, or sections thereof, for radio and television. A...

(The entire section is 99 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Carrington, Ildiko de Papp. Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989. Examines the development of Munro’s work: her major themes, metaphors, and uses of points of view. Argues that Munro’s work focuses on the use and abdication of power. Excellent primary and secondary bibliographies.

Howells, Coral Ann. Private and Fictional Words: Canadian Women Novelists of the 1970’s and 1980’s. London: Methuen, 1987. The chapter on Munro focuses on Lives of Girls and Women and The Beggar Maid and the role of female fantasy and the way in which...

(The entire section is 301 words.)