Father-Daughter Relationship and Identity in Munro’s Boys and Girls (draft)
in Munro’s Boys and Girls
Mehdi Hassanian esfahani (GS22456)
Australian and Canadian Literature (BBL5304)
Lecturer: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Malachi Edwin Vethamani
UPM, April 2009.
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Boys and Girls is a short story by Alice Munro. Published in 1968, it narrates the story of a
girl, from first person point of view. The narrator, who is unnamed, remembers her childhood
and narrates almost all she felt and what she saw. She explains a piece of her life, which is
significant to the reader as it includes a turning point: moving on from state of being a ‘girl’
to a ‘woman’, and from childhood to maturity. In this way, there are incidents and feelings
which seem strange to the protagonist of Boys and Girls, issues she are not consciously aware
of or willing to be a part of. But fortunately, she narrates us all, and sometimes in details.
These details can help the reader to decode and trace the psychological (and psychosexual)
development of narrator. Napierkowski suggests that being socially typed, the narrator must
adjust herself with certain characteristics, and it makes the change problematic, as she feels
statue of a women is inferior in society; what a woman does is trivial and her lifestyle is
boring. Boys and Girls “records the humiliated and anguished psychology of a child who is
being conditioned by society to become a definition - a girl” (Rasporich, 37-8).
Protagonist’s portray of her childhood, depicts her relationship with her family; the
father, the mother and her little brother and their expectations from her. Using the style of a
storyteller, Munro’s narrator, who is an adult now, explores her memories to give a complete
account of what had happened and what was felt then. As a result, we have the account of
difficulties she faced within her relationships, and the expectations which acted like a
boundary and come from the small society around her.
Boys and Girls is flexible in terms of different theories and principles to analyze and
examine the story. Jungian reading can strongly be supported by the means of shadow, and
the self of narrator, and feminist reading of the text can accomplish its aim to distinguish
patriarchal society and social forces upon a teenage girl of new generation who questions pre-
designed rules, traditions and customs. But here, I will examine father-daughter relationship
presented in the text, which lends itself to Freud’s psychoanalysis and extends its domain to
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mother-daughter relationship as well as the connection of narrator’s younger brother to the
mother, which justifies the last event of this short story. To analyze the psychological
development of narrator, this study uses Freud’s suggested phases of child’s development,
and particularly the third stage which causes Oedipus complex and Electra complex. The
stage which is much phallic centered. The whole theory is about having or lacking phallus,
and child’s attempt to use or gain this physical sexual organ.
In recent years, there were some new interpretations of Oedipus complex, in which
some understated the role of ‘penis envy’ and some emphasized this lack which sets a girl’s
mind and determines her later behavior. In this study, I will disregard the influence of
feminism and variety of interpretations on penis envy, as I am not much going to explain the
theory, but I will mentions Miller-Day’s version of penis envy which looks at penis in a more
symbolic way. Her concerns are about role of femininity in patriarchal society, and suggests
that a girl’s envy is not of the physical organ of her father, but of his statue and his
remarkably privileged role, whether in family or in society.
Reading Boys and Girls with respect to Freud’s and Miller-Day’s principles, this
study observes narrator’s self-development. Looking carefully at her life, according to what
she narrates consciously or unconsciously / intentionally or unintentionally, it will help to
understand the condition and the significance of the trauma she experiences, in a way to her
As stated in basic principles of psychosexual development, mostly explained by Sigmund
Freud, breast of mother is the first erotic object which a child encounters. It nourishes and
satisfies him. Roberts quotes from Freud that “love has its origin in attachment to the satisfied
need for nourishment”, therefore child begins to love the breast, and extends his attachment
to the mother.
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Suggested model of psychosexual development includes 5 stages, in which oral phase
is the first step when child’s gratification (obtained by sucking the breast and eating) connects
him to the mother. After anal phase, he experiences phallic phase when “the sexuality of
early childhood reaches its height and approaches its dissolution” (Freud) and brings about
the Oedipus complex.
In this stage, boy starts to discover the newly found satisfaction by manipulating his
penis and simultaneously having fantasies “of carrying out some sort of activity with it in
relation to his mother” (Roberts). This is to be discussed regarding Laird, the narrator’s
brother, who seeks the mother’s attention in the last part of this study. But for now, according
the psychoanalysis of Freud, a girl, facing her lack and feeling the inferiority, begins to
abandon her once loved mother, under the pressure of penis envy (the desired thing which
mother lacks as well) and by blaming her of not making her a boy; she, according to Roberts,
“cannot forgive her mother for having sent her into the world so insufficiently equipped”.
Consequently, she puts another love-object, which is the father, in place of her; the
one who has penis, and socially possesses power. Traditionally ‘father’ is a ruler in
patriarchal society, and child understands it from very young ages. She sees that father is not
always around, and comes occasionally, buts is served completely and his words would be
followed exactly; therefore she feels the power, or its lack in her mother. In this case, she
imagines the father as a lover and begins to hate her mother, first because she refused to give
her a phallus, and secondly because she is trying to steal her lover. Miller-Day explains that
the girl who has passed pre-Oedipal phase -when she experiences love of her mother- resents
her feminine identity and her mother because of their lack of penis “either literally or as
symbolic of a lack of power in a patriarchal society” (6). According to her, girl tries to seek
and identify herself with power. Once mother was source of power (when she had the
authority to feed or keep away her breast from child), but now after child has met and seen
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other members of family and relatives, she understand that power belongs to men. This is the
patriarchal society which child observes, and father is one of the rulers as he / she believes.
As a result, girl will seek her father’s love and her new relationship with father may start with
desire of having his penis “at her disposal”, but it soon changes –like her earlier love of
mother’s breast which was progressed to “her mother as a whole person”- to wish of having a
baby from him. It can be a gift to him; or a process which elevates her position by paying
back her lack of penis / power.
In Boys and Girls, narrator begins with her father and the details of his career in a
boasting manner: the foxes he raised were silver ones, with prime fur and he could do
anything with them; kill them, skin them and sell their pelts. (Father is the source of power.)
She repeatedly and implicitly refers to him as a master, a teacher whom she works “willingly
under his eyes and with a feeling of pride” (1006). It is the stage she identifies herself with
Her tone is distinctive when she describes other members of family. She talks about
him with affection and respect: “work done … in my father’s service was ritualistically
important” (1007). She makes a mystery of him, though the issues she points out may seem
ordinary to others: “my father did not talk to me unless it was about the job we were doing. In
this, he was quite different” (1006). And she considers herself inferior when she narrates that
“whatever thoughts and stories my father had were private, and I was shy of him and would
never ask him questions” (1006). Nevertheless she would attempt is to win her place beside
But it is just in her mind and through her point of view. The allusion to Robinson
Crusoe, a novel by Daniel Defoe, indicates that father feels superior as the master. There is a
simile between Crusoe who saves Friday, a black Indian who later plays the role of a slave
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for him, and this father-daughter relationship. This clue foreshadows the climax, where father
refuses to accept his daughter as a beloved and considers her ‘a little girl’.
But for now, to become close to him, she enters into men’s world and tries to imitate
them. She identifies herself as one of them. She sings ‘Danny Boy’ before sleep, “the most
moving masculine ballad of them all” (Rasporich, 106), and wishes to ride a horse down the
main street of Jubilee. When she makes stories, she is the heroine and the plot presents
“opportunities for courage, boldness and self-scarifies” which she never misses. She simply
considers herself one of the adults, and wants to be always near the father. Hating his mother,
she leaves her previous feminine identity, and absorbs different aspect of her father’s life.
She likes to be considered one of her father’s belongings, or / and with a unique
connection to him. She also enjoys announcing it publically. By this, she feels proud and
becomes “red in the face with pleasure” when he introduces her to a feed salesman by saying
that, “like to have you meet my new hired hand” (1006). Remembering it after some years,
she still describes their togetherness as it was the main point of the story: “beside carrying
water I helped my father when he cut the long grass. … He cut with scythe and I raked into
piles” (1006). And talking about the watering, she emphasized that “I had the real watering
can, my father’s” (1005).
Father represents the whole world and the truth. It is amazing that in Boys and Girls,
when Munro’s narrator is busy describing her mother’s argument and the inability of her
brother to replace her for the father, and before beginning to talk about foxes and what they
were fed, she suddenly claims that “I have forgotten to say what the foxes were fed. My
father’s bloody apron reminded me” (1007). It seems as if the narrator is remembering
different memories, but reporting us selectively. In this situation, although father was not
present in the story and his apron was not clearly bloody, as they were just giving water to
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foxes, she tells of the apron. What was the memory she had, we don’t know, but we know
that her mind is consciously and / or unconsciously preoccupied with her father, even now
that she is mature and has passed phallic stage of her psychosexual development.
Electra complex (term suggested by Jung, referring to feminine version of Oedipus
complex) states that hostility toward mother ends eventually (in fear of losing mother’s love)
when girl enters next phase, but during phallic phase (to put it into Freud’s words) it starts
because of penis envy. From now on, every step in child’s psychological development
distances her from her mother, because basically she is the potential rival.
And, not surprisingly, there is a rival for our narrator, too. Her relationship with her
father is affected by and affects her relationship with her mother. She escapes from the
mother who tries to keep her away from the father. But still she cannot abandon her. Miller-
Day explains that “a tension exists in the mother-daughter relationship wherein girls need to
differentiate from their mothers and transfer their libidinous feelings to the opposite gender in
order to develop as heterosexual human beings” and she continues: “yet, girls also have to
identify with their mothers to accept the adult female role” (7). Here, the narrator feels the
same. This paradoxical feeling is unaccountable, and still she argues that “[my mother] loved
me … but she was also my enemy. She was always plotting. She was plotting now to get me
to stay in house more, although she knew I hated it (because she knew I hated it) and keep me
from working with my father” (1007).
She describes work in the house “endless, dreary and peculiarly depressing” (1007)
partially because she has to work with her mother. When her mother protests to her working
outside, she denounces her and runs toward the father. He is a shield to protect her and bring
her peace. Feeling her love threatened and in danger, she expects her lover, i.e. father, to take
her side and ignore her mother as well, and she says: “I felt my mother had no business down
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here and I wanted him [my father] to feel the same way” (1107), mostly because there is no
need to have her around: life is complete with this girl and her father, and “at any rate, [she]
did not expect [her] father to pay any attention to what [her mother] said” (1007).
Another reason of this hatred is her mother’s insist on her brother, Laird, to get a little
bigger and become a ‘real help’ for the father. It is obvious that she would not bear the
brother, and her mother who encourages such a thing. This makes her wish evil for him,
although she says that Laird is a boy who cannot do anything. When they were little, she told
him that bats and skeletons live on the other side of stairwell and whenever a man escapes
from the country jail, twenty miles away, he would let himself in the window and hide behind
the linoleum. By frightening Laird, she saves her lover, the father, as the ultimate power and
the only one worth loving; and she saves her position next to him. When her mother repeats
Laird’s position as the one who should work outside with father, and replace the girl’s
position forever, her jealousy conspires an evil plan to put him on the top beam and present
him as a fool child who needs to be watched, cared and may cause trouble if left alone.
As discussed before, psychological justification of girl’s attachment to her father is to
have his phallus (power) around, but soon this desire changes to having a baby from him / for
him. It this case, girl bestows the chance of having a baby to father, and is willing to have a
baby to make up for her lack. In Boys and Girls, foxes and horses are children of father
whom narrator endures to care and watch over. There are plenty of foxes, whom despite
naming them, “it did not make pets out of them” (1006). However she always did her job
completely and brought them water as her father has asked her to do, while they have
inhabited in the world the father has made for them.
But among the horses two remained in the family for a relatively long time; Flora, a
sorrel mare horse, and Mack, an old black workhorse. Description of Flora fits the narrator,
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too if we just modify it for a human being: it is an energetic frisky mare that escapes the
limits and follows what it wants.
Then a day, which is the psychological climax of story, father decides to kill one of
them, as he always did. Horses were to feed foxes, and foxes were to feed the family.
Narrator happens to watch the incident, and the image in which he has raised the gun and
shoots the horse while it is looking up sticks to her mind. She never forgets the way Mack
swayed, lurched sideway and fell, and the father who “walked over and looked at him in a
businesslike way” (1010), even though she went to Jubilee that evening and saw a show and
laughed a great deal.
After this point, she cannot love the father anymore, as if he has killed her son. She
becomes emotionally repressed and begins to make her own world in which there is no father
as a lover, or mother as a source of love. She begins the latency phase, (next psychological
stage) goes upstairs and tries to “make [her] part of the room fancy, spreading the bed with
old lace curtain and fixing [herself] a dressing table with some leftovers of cretonne for a
skirt” (1012). She makes herself busy in order not to think about what she has seen, but
Sometimes … the scene would flash into my mind: I would see the easy, practiced
way my father raised the gun, and hear Henry [the hired man] laughing when Mack
kicked his legs in the air. I did not have any great feeling or horror and opposition,
such as a city child might have had; I was too used to seeing the death of animals as a
necessity by which we lived. Yet I felt a little ashamed, and there was a new wariness,
a sense of holding-off, in my attitude to my father and his work. (1011)
This is the moment of epiphany, even though she is unable to name it. She cannot take care of
her father’s children, when she sees the act of killing one by his father. What makes it special
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is the unconscious link between Mack and the responsibility she has accepted because of her
father, to look after and take care of him, although she is not aware of it consciously. In her
imaginary cycle, there are three elements: father, herself and children (horses, and the
responsibility of taking care of them) which are the fruit of this relationship. But now, father
has ignored his role, and killed a horse; the cycle is broken, and narrator doubts her previous
She doesn’t dream of being a hero anymore, too. Alternatively, she dreams of
circumstances in which she is to be survived by other people; other men. She is not a part of
‘them’ anymore. Like other women or children, she waits until a man, someone like her
school teacher, comes and rescues all. Losing the father or leaving him makes her feel the
lack one more time. She loses her power, her self-confidence and becomes an inferior one
Next time when she is asked to close the gate, and help them to catch Flora, she
refused to follow the order and states that “instead of shutting the gate, I opened it as wide as
I could. I did not make any decision to do this; it was just what I did” (1011). She refuses to
obey the father, and it doesn’t come from a previous decision. There is something inside her,
that she cannot recognize or name it, but makes her to be on Flora’s side and help her to
escape. Flora is the mare horse that was going to be killed by the father to feed foxes. She
wonders herself, too, by claiming that “I had never disobeyed my father before, and I could
not understand why I had done it” (1011). She runs home to tell her mother the news, but
what is it? Is she going to tell about Flora, or her feelings toward the father? This news can be
about the ex-lover who has lost his position, and is no longer a part of narrator’s belongings.
And mother, may be interested in it. At least she is not interested in foxes and horses at all.
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The ending of plot, in Boys and Girls, is not much related to the narrator. Last sentences,
when father ignores his girl and calls her ‘a girl’, and the narrator who accepts and doesn’t
object even in her mind, is just a repetition of girl’s psychological change she has gone
through. But it includes a note regarding Laird, the little son who attempts to show himself to
the mother. So far he was young for helping in the farm, but now he asks to accompany the
father. He boasts of shooting Flora, and cutting her up in fifty pieces to show his courage, but
his mother is not interested in it, so he double crosses the sister to show himself. This is the
false attempt to win his mother’s heart and becomes his lover.
The whole process of Oedipal conflict and the reaction of parents (to resolve or
repressed it) plays an important role in the psychological development and the development
of super-ego of both boys and girls. It would affect the maturity and last two phases; latency
and genital phases, which leads to a self-identity and determines the personality of that
person. Naturally, Miller-Day states that “the traditional Freudian psychoanalytic perspective
casts the mother-daughter relationship at the center of the drama of a girl's struggle to become
a female human being with a heterosexual, individual identity” (6). This short story provides
an example of the psychological phases every single child will go through, which includes
Oedipus complex and causes penis envy in girls. The plurality of title is, perhaps, to make it a
general statement for all boys and girls, including the author as well. As being asked whether
her short stories are autobiographical, she replied in an interview: “in incidents, no … in
emotion, completely” (Howells, 2).
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Daughters. USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004.
Munro, Alice. "Boys and Girls." The Harper Anthology of Fiction, Ed. Barnet, Sylvan. USA:
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Rasporich, Beverly Jean. Dance of the sexes: art and gender in the fiction of Alice Munro.
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