Literature acts as a societal mirror either by shaping the society in a particular way or reflecting the social norms of the society. Essentially, this is the importance of fictional literature as it develops characters and plots which the reader can resonate and interact with at a personal level. The use of conflicts in fictional literature helps to develop an essence of drama which plays a critical role in pleasing the reader. On the other hand, literary fiction embraces conflicts as an effective tool of giving the story a momentum of happening which is critical in building characterization and developing the themes of the story. In the novels, Boys and Girls and Everyday Use the authors use conflict to develop the story, advance themes, and reflect the relationship between characters and society. In this paper, the conflicts as exemplified in the novels Everyday Use and Boys and Girls will be analyzed critically to establish how they are reflective of the society.
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In her book, “Boys and Girls” Alice Munro tells the story of a young girl who is in conflict with her identity as a female and the societal roles assigned to females in her society. The young girl who is the protagonist of the story is portrayed as having a problem with the gender roles which characterizes her life and the society she lives in. Although Munro identifies the girl’s little brother as Laird, the girl’s name has not been identified, and this helps in portraying the protagonist as a person without a sense of power and identity (Munro, p. 139). The portrayal of the younger brother as a person with a name indicates a sense of identity in the boy and lack of identity in the girl. This depicts that this society is controlled by gender roles and stereotypes in which the boys are seen to have a sense of identity and power contrary to the girls.
However, the protagonist of the story has a close relationship with her father and is engaged in a conflict between her and the society as she tries to resist the gender roles and the stereotypes of womanhood in the society. The young girl is in resistance to the stereotypical beliefs of womanhood as powerless objects and second-class citizens (Munro, p. 146). Although her mother and grandmother are trying hard to shape her behavior and attitude to reflect the behaviors of a girl, she identifies more with male roles and tom boy behaviors. To her, she cannot be bound by the society to womanhood and to do and live according to the confines of the society with disregard to their conscience and goals (Munro, p. 146). This lack of conformity by the narrator to these societal trends is the basis of the protagonist’s conflict as she is not ready to take up the belittling position of a woman. To her, she has to fight for what she believes is her rightful position.
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By creating an unnamed protagonist, Munro depicts her as an undignified character with no prospects of power and identity but whose pursuit for personal identity is contrasting the societal expectations. This shows that although the conflict within self is evident, the main conflict is between the girl and the society. The young girl is able to identify with her father’s work which she considers ritualistically important than her mother’s household chores in the kitchen which from her perspective are peculiarly depressing, endless, and dreary. This symbolizes the girl’s childhood which is filled with fantasy and dreams and the rise in struggle and conflicts between her goals in life and the societal expectations (Munro, p. 37).
Being confronted and bombarded by her grandmother about the societal expectations from her as a girl and how she should behave shows that she is in a constant conflict with gender stereotypes. Despite pressure from her grandmother, she constantly refuses to succumb to the pressure of conformity as she tries to get a sense of identity, power, and respect as a girl (Munro, p. 59). However, the conflict comes to an end when the girl learns from her mother of what is expected of her as a girl. She thus conforms to the societal expectations and predetermined roles of a girl.
On the other hand, Alice Walker’s story “Everyday Use” revolves around a conflict of internal and external. The most evident being the conflict between the characters in the story such as Maggie, her sister, Dee, and her mother. While the conflict between Dee and Maggie is based on who will obtain the quilt, the underlying conflict is between the two daughters as they compete for their mother’s love (Christian, p. 495). Their mother’s love is symbolized by the quilt and signifies the value of the relationship between the mother and her daughters and the acceptance of the child. The conflict between the characters is both internal and external. Dee is educated, intelligent, and a source of her mother’s pride but she does not resonate with her traditional society anymore, and even though she wants to have the quilt, her intention of having it is materialistic as she wants to hang it in her house for decoration.
The parallel characterization of the two girls is also important in developing the conflict between them. This is because contrary to Dee, Maggie is simple and shy, and she has scars in the legs and arms which she sustained when she was burned in her childhood. She is also timid and lives with her mother, and her low sense of self-worth causes her nervousness whenever her sister comes visiting. This is because Dee reflects the value of what Maggie does not have. This symbolizes the source of conflict between the two girls (Christian, p. 494). Certainly, the conflict between the two sisters is motivated by competition and the fact that they are the complete opposite of each other. While Dee is portrayed as intelligent and confident, Maggie is timid and simple and the presence of her sister causes nervousness in her as she feels Dee is worth more than her. She even seems sure that Dee would get the quilt as she always gets what she wants. This causes tension in the relationship between the two sisters.
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Walker chooses to use the quilt as a symbol of tension in the relationship between the characters and as the source of conflict in the story. For instance, Dee is in conflict with her African-American heritage and notes that her intention of asking for the quilt is to use it as a decorative tool in her house (Walker, p. 25). This contradicts her mother’s and sister’s opinion of the quilt as a part of their lives, everyday existence, and as a cover. Using the quilt as an everyday thing in their lives is the intended purpose of creating a quilt and is based on the traditions of their African-American heritage which Maggie and her mother identify with.
However, Dee is in conflict with her traditional beliefs, and to her, the quilt is only purposeful as an object of display for beauty and admiration. This also causes a conflict between her and her mother which materializes when she is denied the quilt, and instead it was given to Maggie. The conflict ends when Maggie gets the quilt from her mother because she identifies that it is meant for everyday use and as a source of cover (Walker, p. 24). This builds the sense of self-worth in Maggie as her mother’s love for her is reaffirmed as she identifies with the same beliefs as her mother about their respect for their own heritage. Similarly, denying Dee the quilt serves as her mother’s disapproval of Dee’s attitude towards her heritage which is for everyday use.
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The two stories depict issues of importance in the contemporary society, and both revolve around conflict of culture and self identity. However, while the conflict in “Everyday Use” exemplifies the importance of cultural heritage and uses it as a theme to portray how the characters were engaged in conflicts over the same, “Boys and Girls” depicts the conflicts in gender stereotypes. Although cultural heritage is of much importance as a topic in the modern society, gender roles and stereotypes exemplified in the “Boys and Girls” is more relatable to the society as it shows the rules that the society puts upon different genders so as to create conformity and restrict behavior. Everyone has the power to influence their destiny, however, the pressure from the society creates an internal and external conflict which influences one’s destiny either by conforming to the societal pressure or pursuing one’s desired self-image.
- Christian, Barbara. “Everyday Use” and the Black Power Movement. Pearson. 1994, Pp. 492–494
- Munro, Alice. Boys and Girls, in The Norton Introduction to Literature: Shorter eleventh Edition, ed. Kelly J. Mays, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013, 137-147
- Munro, Sheila. Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001.
- Walker, Alice, Everyday Use: Women Writers Text and Contexts, Ed. Christian T. Barbara, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press. 1994, Press.