An Essay on Boys and Girls by Alice Munro

Prompt: Find the two occurrences of the phrase “only a girl.” Why and how does the meaning of the phrase change in each case?


In the short story Boys and Girls by Alice Munro, the phrase “only a girl” appears twice. Both times a male character is referring to the narrator and protagonist, a young girl growing up on her family’s fox farm.


The first time occurs when a feed salesman is talking to the narrator’s father, and the father makes a joke. He tells the salesman that his young daughter is his “new hired man”. The narrator becomes “red in the face with pleasure” (par. 10). She is eager to do whatever tasks her father assigns to her, and she takes pride in the work they do on the farm. Her father’s joke seems to her an acknowledgement of the seriousness of her work. She wants her father to value her just as much as he would a grown man working on the farm.


The narrator’s pleasure at her father’s words is interrupted by the salesman’s response. He says to the father, “Could of fooled me…I thought it was only a girl” (par. 11). The salesman refers to the narrator as “it”, as if she were some sort of inanimate object instead of a human being. Instead of going along with the father’s joke, the salesman immediately points out that what the father has said is untrue. The narrator is not the same as a “hired man”. She is a girl, not even a woman yet.


In the moment of the father’s joke, there is the possibility of the narrator being taken as seriously as an adult man, even though she is far from being an adult man. The salesman’s response instantly refutes that possibility. The narrator does not show us her reaction or her father’s reaction to the salesman’s words. Immediately after the salesman speaks a new paragraph begins where the story jumps forward in time. The salesman’s statement that the narrator is “only a girl” is the last word we are left with from this scene. We had the father’s joke. We had the seriousness with which the narrator heard her father’s joking words, and the way the suggestion in the father’s joke pleased her. We never know for sure whether the father actually feels there is a truth underneath his joke, whether he is proud of and values his daughter’s work. Then the salesman’s words cap the scene and replace the narrator’s pleasure. The salesman gets to have the last word, and the last word is that the narrator is “only a girl”.


The second time the phrase “only a girl” appears is in paragraph 64. This time the phrase is literally almost the last word in the entire story, and they are spoken by the father. It is almost as if the father’s words reach back through the past and finally answer the salesman. He is confirming that there definitely wasn’t any seriousness under his joke. The ludicrousness of the idea of taking his daughter seriously makes the joke even funnier.


This time the father is taking to his son, the narrator’s younger brother, Laird. Laird is the only family member named in the story. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name. We only know Laird’s name and the name of Henry Bailey, her father’s actual hired man.