A Childhood Dilemma: The Effects of Parental Sacrifice or Its Absence on the Narrators of “Boys and Girls” and “The Boat”

The road from childhood to adulthood takes many turns, the choices one makes early on shape one’s adult life. Due to traditional expectations, at some point during childhood, the realization of these choices can cause a significant dilemma; to follow one’s dreams or to fulfill their family obligations. The female narrator in “Boys and Girls” written by Alice Munro and the male narrator in “The Boat” written by Alistair MacLeod both face this dilemma. Both narrators want to pursue their dreams yet, they accept the gender roles forced upon them and they struggle internally. However, the sacrifice of a family member, or the lack thereof, provides different outcomes for each narrator.

Both narrators want to pursue their dream, but they end up accepting their family obligations which are gender roles and family tradition. The narrator from “Boys and Girls” despises the female gender roles her family imposes on her, yet she ends up accepting them. Since the narrator is the only girl in the family, her mother imposes some stereotypical, traditional, “endless, dreary, and peculiarly depressing” indoor obligations on her, although “as soon as [she is] done [she runs] out of the house” to help her father with his “ritualistically important” work done outside (Munro 4). The narrator loathes domestic chores which reflects that she despises her female-oriented gender roles. These chores make her feel depressed and bored. She sees them as a “dreary” obligation and when she is done, she leaves very enthusiastically by running out. She would rather work with her father; she finds his work more valuable and fulfilling. Over time, while she “[combs her] hair and [wonders] if [she] would be pretty” she simultaneously starts to“[feel] a little ashamed” of her “father and his work” (Munro 9). As she starts to grow up, she begins to care about her appearance, conforming to the gender roles her family assigned to girls. Along with this, her father’s work which she once admired, becomes a source of shame to her. These changes in her demonstrate that even though at first she despises the female gender roles forced upon her, she ultimately accepts them. This theme of compliance towards despised obligations continues with the narrator of “The Boat” who also ends up accepting male gender roles imposed on him by his family. While Munro links drudgery with female gender roles, MacLeod links it with education and escape; the narrator’s dreams. This male narrator knows that as the only son of his family, “David Copperfield and The Tempest and all of those friends [he] had dearly come to love must really go forever” since this dream of his does not abide by the family obligations forced upon him (MacLeod 8). He loves books and book characters are his “friends”. He wants to read his father’s books and to pursue his education, but he knows that he has to continue the family fishing business. When his father gets sick and can no longer go fishing, the boy feels pressured to do what his mom expects from him; he sacrifices his high school career to provide for his family by working on the boat. He deliberately accepts the male gender roles placed upon him and forgoes his desires. In like manner, both narrators have dreams that do not conform to the gender roles imposed on them; however, they both accept these obligations later on due to family obligations.

These family obligations result in an internal struggle in both narrators. The narrator from “Boys and Girls” is continuously confused within herself. By opening the gate for the horse to escape, Munro’s protagonist “[does] not make any decision to do this; it [is] just what [she does]” inevitably (Munro 10). The narrator describes helping Flora the horse escape as not a decision but an independent action that she has no control over. Opening a gate is, in fact, a decision. While not taking action is a possibility, the narrator takes the step to help Flora further escape by opening the gate. She knows she has to close the gate to help her father but she cannot get her body to do what she should do. There is a contrast between what she wants to do and what she actually does. This contrast originates from her deep internal confusion. By labeling her decision to open the gate as an inevitable action, the narrator proves that she cannot control her actions; thus she showcases complex confusion within herself. This complex confusion is powered from her internal struggle. Internal struggles confuse the narrator of “The Boat” as well. Post sight of his sorrowful drunk father’s concert among the tourists, the boy is “ashamed yet proud, young yet old and saved yet forever lost”, thus he cannot “control [his] legs which [tremble] nor [his] eyes which [weep]” in his deep confusion (MacLeod 6). The narrator uses many oxymorons to describe how confused he is. These are conflicting adjectives, for a person cannot be young and old at the same time. In these contrasting adjective pairs, a person can either be one or the other; not both simultaneously. These oxymorons are proof that the narrator is confused internally. His trembling leg and crying are also undoubtful external signs of his internal confusion. These internal struggles confuse him. The family obligations of both narrators result in an internal struggle.

These two stories differ in the existence or absence of support and sacrifice of a family member, which leads to different outcomes for each narrator. In “Boys and Girls”, the narrator does not have family support which makes her give up her ideals. Her grandmother tells her that “girls keep their knees together when they sit down”, and her mother wishes to “use her more in the house” as help (Munro 5-6). According to her family, girls have to behave domestically and do housework. Her family members constantly critique her on how she has to sit or behave. When her father learns that she allowed Flora to escape, he excuses her on the grounds that she is “only a girl” and is unfit to take responsibility as a boy would (Munro 12). This verbal pressure they put on her makes the narrator follow her obligations. Not a single person in her family supports her aspirations, they all see her as nothing more than her gender which makes her give them up and give in to her gender roles. MacLeod’s narrator’s supportive father, by contrast, tries to protect his son from gender expectations This pushes the narrator to pursue his dream. When the narrator cannot fight back against his mother’s expectations and accepts his obligation, his father insists that he “will go back tomorrow” and thinks “it is best that [the boy] [goes] back” to high school (MacLeod 8). The intellectual father is able to foresee the value of good education. He orders him to go back to school the next day. He does not want his kid to provide for the family, he would rather have him pursue his education. He supports him, which makes the narrator pursue his dream of education and become a university professor. The support and sacrifice of his father allow the narrator to transcend his circumstances as Munro’s female narrator, who lacks this family support, cannot.

Although both narrators want to pursue their dreams, they struggle internally and both grow up to accept the gender roles and obligations forced upon them. In contrast, the sacrifice or absence of sacrifice of a family member provides different outcomes for each narrator. By opening the gate for Flora, Munro’s protagonist betrays the male code of pragmatism and responsibility which makes her family confirm her as a girl. Similarly, MacLeod’s narrator accepts his masculine obligations and provides for his family against his own wishes. Although both of these are choices, they are heavily dependent on family dynamics. As a family member can ultimately lift one up to achieve their highest potential, or bring one down to accept their predetermined outcomes; parents must encourage their children to do what is best for themselves, not necessarily what is expedient for the family.

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