Construction of Gender: Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls”
Alice Munro wrote “Boys and Girls” in 1964 as a portrait of male and female gender roles at the time. The story demonstrates how people are products of their environment and upbringing and how contemporary social codes limit an individual’s freedom by constructing gender roles that tell individuals where they belong. These gender roles become traditional as they are transmitted from one generation to the next. Therefore, the story uses the narrator’s memories of her childhood to emphasize the need for women to break away from allowing social codes to construct and manufacture their identities.
The story establishes the different roles and societal views of men and women as early as the first word used, which is “father.” This shows that the girl lives in a patriarchal world where the father is the one making the money and, therefore, he comes first as men are seen as superior to women. Furthermore, the father works outdoors, which alludes to freedom since there are no constraints on what he can do, and he has a world of opportunities at his fingertips. In contrast, the foxes, which represent women, are kept in captivity to show how this society is made for men and by men: “Alive, the foxes inhabited a world my father made for them” (Munro 6). These captive foxes are exploited by the father, just like the mother whose labour is kept in the house where she has limited control and authority. The girl views the mother’s work as “endless, dreary, and peculiarly depressing” (12), a statement on how social codes have taught her to think that women make no meaningful contributions to society. However, even though the narrator is biologically a woman, as a young girl her father treats her like a man and allows her to work outside where she describes the work as “ritualistically important” (12). This shows how her society has taught her to value labour that generates money; therefore, she views her father’s labour as more important than her mother’s even though she is biologically the same gender as her mother.
The divide between the mother and daughter is a conflict used to show the difference between the new and old ways of defining gender roles. The mother is used to represent this divide rather than the father because, even though they are under patriarchal ruling, feminine gender codes are not policed by men. Instead, women are responsible for raising young girls to have proper feminine manners, and the story shows this dynamic in the narrator’s relationship with her mother. The generational gap between the mother and the girl is also significant as it reflects the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of feminism in the 1960s, during which the younger generation of women started to disagree with their mothers about what women should be and act like. After World War II, women became involved in the labour industries and had started making money independently; however, the mother is shown to be traditional as “she was plotting now to get me to stay in the house more” (16) because she wants her daughter to get married, learn how to be a proper housewife, and ultimately keep the tradition that wives are subservient to their husbands. The girl’s mother is an example of how society fears changes in gender roles and favours the old-fashioned ways.
Despite how much the girl fights the never-ending assault of her mother and grandmother’s teachings of feminine behaviours, these social codes are still too strong to deny. This is shown when the girl is “standing in front of the mirror combing her hair and wondering if she would be pretty when she grew up” (42). The result of the girl conforming to social codes is inevitable because of how strong her familial influences are. As the social codes creep into her mind and the girl grows older, she starts to identify with the victims of patriarchy and capitalism rather than seeing herself as the one with value. In a final attempt to fight against society’s gender roles, she tries to free the horse: “Instead of shutting the gate, I opened it as wide as I could” (47). This was done subconsciously, which shows how much the girl identifies with the horse and, therefore, the exploitation that animals and women face. However, the attempt is futile because the horse is still surrounded by captivity in the form of the farm. This parallels the idea that no matter how hard the girl tries to escape the pressure of feminine codes, she is surrounded by the captivity of traditions and hierarchy that older women continue to reinforce.
The narrator is an example of the crushing defeat of standing up against societal pressures and their definitions of gender identity only to be torn down by other woman. The story clearly shows how the reinforcement of social codes by those around her influences the girl’s subconscious and leads to her inevitable resignation to society’s definition of what a girl is. It is the women who continue this patriarchal tradition by thwarting each other’s attempts at breaking free, but as Munro saw, if women worked together, they can make a difference in their society.
The Duality of Victorian Society: Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was written in 1886 at the end of the Victorian era, a time notorious for the hypocritical rich appearing moral and proper on the surface while immorality raged directly underneath. To expose this hypocrisy, the novella explores the effects of the rich capitalist bourgeois denying the poverty they cause. The story shows how this immorality will ultimately lead to the destruction of Victorian society as a whole.
The essence of Victorian morality was the idea of maintaining respectability and appearances, which caused people to cover up behaviour deemed unacceptable and to avoid associating with people of lower respectability. The middle and upper class believed that only the population living in the overcrowded, poverty-stricken areas were dangerous; however, Stevenson’s story supersedes these physical and societal boundaries to prove this is not true and that corruption and immorality run deeper. While it is true that London’s population explosion created labyrinthine streets and overcrowded impoverished areas, these twisted streets are used in the story to expose the darkness and danger lurking within Victorian culture. This is shown through Mr. Enfield’s description of the entire city at night where he “listens and begins to long for the sight of a policeman” (Stevenson 4). This description shows his fear of being alone and his subconscious awareness of the harmful and immoral acts others might commit. However, the streets where Hyde roams are not just the poor, crime-ridden areas, which is an intentional fact that shows that underneath the moral facade of Victorian culture is the duality of human nature, and neither the poor nor the rich are excluded from this immorality.
To show the juxtaposition of the well-mannered rich and the true immorality beneath, the story portrays Dr. Jekyll as an ideal of his class and as someone an upstanding Victorian citizen should strive to reflect. At the same time, Mr. Hyde reflects the true self-serving dark side of the rich that is grotesque and deformed, almost animalistic, and suggestive of the devil himself. Jekyll is described as a “large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty, with something of a stylish cast perhaps, but every mark of capacity and kindness” (24) to show how attractive this facade of benevolence is. Mr. Enfield speaks highly of Jekyll and his profession when he says “one of your fellows who do what they call good” (7), which marks Jekyll as an Englishman of wealth and position. However, unlike most proper Englishmen, Jekyll is aware of his dual nature and, without anyone’s knowledge, he designs a potion intended to free the immoral half of himself while allowing him to maintain his respectable reputation.
This immoral half is none other than Mr. Hyde, and he is introduced to explore the great lengths that the Victorian elite will go to in order to repress their dark desires and to maintain their moral appearance. The first encounter of Hyde is through Mr. Enfield’s story: “And then came the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground” (5). Despite witnessing the tragedy of a child’s murder, Enfield feels the need to repress and not discuss Hyde’s behaviour: “I feel very strongly about putting questions; it partakes too much of the style of the day and judgement. You start a question, and it’s like starting a stone” (8). Rather than exposing people’s secrets and the evil of society, Enfield represents a model Victorian gentleman who is detached and repressed – or as Utterson calls Enfield, “unimpressionable” (16) – preferring that Hyde’s behaviour is not discussed or disclosed. Darkness and insanity is lurking in Jekyll, and the complacency with Mr. Hyde’s actions runs parallel with the complacency of the Victorian elite with the problematic societal classes that the rich capitalists have created. Hyde’s response to the outrage over his actions shows how deep this complacency runs: “‘No gentleman but wished to avoid a scene'” (6). The Victorian elite has become calloused to repressing immorality that the death of a child is brushed off by paying people to be silent.
Despite the cover-ups and repression of the truth, the duality of the Victorian society continues to emerge, just as Hyde’s appearance becomes more frequent. When people see Hyde for who he truly is, they are immediately repulsed: “There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable” (9). The people fear his appearance and demonize it because they believe the traditional way of appearing moral is superior. Mr. Utterson goes so far as to describe Hyde in these words: “if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend” (20). Clearly, people are aware of how detestable Hyde is, yet corruption runs deep that people are willing to overlook it in order to avoid criticism of their own downfalls.
Stevenson’s message in the story of Jekyll and Hyde is that, if the duality of human nature continues to be overlooked, society will fall, and this is shown in the final scene of the novella. In Jekyll’s final letter to Utterson, it is revealed that Jekyll begins transforming into Hyde at random, and Hyde is progressively gaining control of their shared body, much like how the hidden immoralities of the rich will start to take control of society. Eventually, Jekyll himself disappears, a direct parallel to the fate of Victorian society if the immorality of the so-called moral elite is not addressed. The repression and denial of humanity’s duality led not only to Jekyll’s demise through suicide, but also to the end of Hyde. This shows how the Victorian society cannot be sustained by immoral ways, just like how Hyde could not keep living after Jekyll, who represented the good in him, disappeared.