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“Not Entirely on His Side”: The Assumption of Sexed Subjectivity in Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls”

Jennifer MURRAY


L’énigme de la différence sexuelle constitue le nœud central de la nouvelle « Boys and Girls » d’Alice Munro, publié en 1968. Le concept de sexuation, proposé par Lacan, définit les positions ‘homme’ et ‘femme’ selon deux structures logiques discordantes ; ce concept nous permettra d’éclairer le trajectoire complexe de la jeune protagoniste (et secondairement, celui de son frère cadet) vers l’assomption d’une subjectivité sexuée. Si la structure œdipienne, y compris par les révisions que Lacan y apporte, permet de rendre compte des identifications et idéalisations initiales qui participent du processus de sexuation, le récit de Munro fait apparaître l’insuffisance de cette perspective à situer l’être parlant comme sexué. Par le biais d’un parallèle métaphorique avec le sort des chevaux de ferme, Mack et Flora, les enfants feront chacun(e) une rencontre avec la loi de l’ordre symbolique incarnée par le père, partant d’une confrontation à la nécessité de la castration symbolique. Pour chacun, il sera question d’assumer une position, côté homme ou coté femme.

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1“Boys and Girls” is an aptly named story which raises the question of sexual identity; how does a child come to assume a sexed position as a boy or a girl? A retrospective first-person narrative, this story from Munro’s earliest collection (Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968) focuses on the thoughts and feelings of a young girl living in 1940s rural Ontario (Canada) in the period leading up to her adolescence. While the girl struggles with the increasingly conflictual tension between her sense of self and the place determined for her as a female child within her family and social framework, the narrative unexpectedly offers a response from the Real – from the enigma of subjectivity figured as a space-time wherein language fails and the body in its symptomatic jouissance, speaks; a place beyond oedipal identifications and from which the truth of a sexed position of being emerges, imposing upon the subject the question of its recognition, acknowledgement and assumption.

  • 1 For more on the act, and the unconscious ‘choice’ it constitutes, see the fascinating citation from (...)
  • 2 Munro scholars (Blodgett, Goldman, Heble, Martin, Nischik, Ventura) have all produced sustained rea (...)

2To this determining moment in the subject’s libidinal destiny, Munro gives the form of an ‘act’: a defining ‘decision’ which arises from the unconscious and engages the body such that doing and being are, for a fleeting moment, in absolute accord. Assumed by the subject, the act takes on the status of a founding personal truth.1 In this sense, the story’s deceptively simple title introduces a dynamic perspective – one that exceeds the explanatory categories of (biological) sex and (social-constructivist) gender – in its approach to the most fundamental and persistent enigma of our being: that of sexual difference. The aim of my analysis will be to make visible, through a close analysis of the story, Munro’s intuitive grasp of the complexity of what Lacan names ‘sexuation’, a process that confronts the subject, as a speaking being, with the necessity of assuming a sexed position within the logical universe of ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’. 2 Both positions have their moment in this story, but it is the dilemma of the girl or rather, her sexuation, to which “Boys and Girls” gives its attention most fully.

“A world my father made”

  • 3 This is only one of the numerous instances wherein Munro’s work explores the pleasure in looking. S (...)

3Opening on the gently alliterative “My father was a fox farmer” (111), the story is situated within the orderly influence of the paternal sphere. In the early part of the story which follows a recognizable oedipal trajectory, the girl’s primary pleasure is to help her father outdoors in the activities related to the work of raising foxes for their fur. What is inscribed in the preference for the outdoors is not so much the work, as the presence of the father: it is work done “in my father’s service” (117). The first scene situates the girl in the company of her brother, observing her father’s pelting activities, watching as he skins the foxes, “delicately... removing the little clotted webs of blood and the bubbles of fat” (112). Here, the relation between the father and death – indeed, the father’s control over life and death – is not frightening, but fascinating; it solicits her desire to see.3 Another sense, that which above all others, has a strong connection to memory, is also mentioned: “Then there was the smell” (111). The pronouncement is charged with understated irony as the odour is despised by the mother. For the girl, however, it carries positive associations: “I found it reassuringly seasonal, like the smell of oranges and pine needles” (112). Through the girl’s proximity to her father, death and its revelation of the meagre corporeality of the body—“the fox ... looked surprisingly small, mean and rat-like, deprived of its arrogant weight of fur” (111) – is made tolerable, is perhaps even associated with desire. The foxes, over which the father has dominion, are part of the mystery of life and death and they work metaphorically, along with the space of the “cellar” in which the pelting takes place, to suggest the subterranean forces or the underbelly of human existence. With their “strong primitive odour” (112) and “their eyes burning, clear gold, in their pointed, malevolent faces... drawn exquisitely sharp in pure hostility” (115), the foxes may be seen to represent the untameable jouissance, the amoral libidinal force of the drive, against which the father, the paternal metaphor, stands as barrier: “Nobody but my father ever went into the pens”; – moreover, he braves this danger at the risk of his own life: “he had twice had blood-poisoning from bites” (115).

  • 4 The resolution of the Oedipus complex depends upon identification with the father, or in other wor (...)

4This is the world that intrigues, fascinates and attracts the child in the ages between eight and eleven in her late-oedipal period of identification with the father as site of the ego Ideal,4 an identification not with his desiring position as a man, but rather, an “identification with [...] the words, norms and directives of [a] given cultural collective” (Sharpe). In the Lacanian reworking of the Oedipal structure as developed by Freud, both boys and girls turn from their primary attachment to the mother (who, through her desire for the father signals that she is not complete, that she is lacking something to which the father may give an answer) to a secondary attachment to the father, now seen to be the embodiment of that “agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image, ... the ideal I try to follow and actualize” (Žižek, How to Read 80). In “Boys and Girls”, the father is clearly a (minor, somewhat ironically constructed) god-like figure in the child’s eyes: “Alive, the foxes inhabited a world my father made for them” (114). Here, the signifier “alive” lifts the banality of the statement off the ground and infuses the image with life, associating the existence of the foxes with the creational act of the father, even as it introduces the possibility or the threat that the foxes could, under other, unnamed conditions, cease to be alive. Permitted into this world, the girl gives details of all the jobs accomplished in the service of her father’s work (carrying water, raking the cut grass), and affirms that she “worked willingly under his eyes, and with a feeling of pride” (115-16); she thereby expresses and enjoys her identification with this Ideal Other who is clearly situated in the semiology of the masculine, as her bedtime fantasies suggest:

[They] took place in a world that was recognizably mine, yet one that presented opportunities for courage, boldness and self-sacrifice, as mine never did. I rescued people from a bombed building... I shot two rabid wolves who were menacing the schoolyard... I rode a fine horse spiritedly down the main street of Jubilee, acknowledging the townspeople’s gratitude for some yet-to-be-worked-out piece of heroism. (113-14)

5These fantasies offer opportunities for Imaginary recognition from the social sphere that the father symbolizes within the rural world the girl inhabits. None of the activities associated with the mother are included, suggesting that the girl has detached herself from her primary love object and its attendant identifications, or in other words, she has recognized that the mother does not have the phallus.

“Not to be trusted”

6What place can the mother occupy in this context? Within the story, she is mainly an unwanted presence, marginalised by the girl who emphasizes their differences: in contrast with her own feelings, the mother “disliked the whole pelting operation” (115); she is judged “out of place” in the father’s domain: “It was an odd thing to see my mother down at the barn” (116); and she is unwelcome in the girl’s eyes: “I felt my mother had no business down here and I wanted [my father] to feel the same way” (117). Indeed, the mother constitutes a rival for the girl’s place in her father’s attention, and a menace for her freedom of movement, bearing as she does the transmission of the social constraints of sexual roles: “She was plotting now to get me to stay in the house more, although she knew I hated it (because she knew I hated it) and keep me from working for my father. It seemed to me she would do this simply out of perversity, and to try her power” (118). The mother is therefore “not to be trusted,” an “enemy” (117) from the perspective of the child who senses the threat of being evicted from her place in her father’s attentions, all the more so as her younger brother Laird (meaning ‘Lord’, ‘landlord’) is lurking in the background, being pushed forward by the mother as heir to the father’s sphere. This threat of loss is what the girl has been studiously trying to keep at bay until then, hoping, one might say, that her place in her father’s gaze might remain intact in its present form, in the relative lack of differentiation of childhood social-sexual roles.

  • 5 Ajay Heble’s reading of the story redirected my attention to this mother-daughter exchange.

7Moreover these roles are in the process of being complicated by the girl’s awakening to the world of sexual desire. At one moment, the narrator’s resentment towards her mother subsides long enough to acknowledge her role in authorizing the girl’s sexual sense of self:5

[I]f she was feeling cheerful, [she] would tell me all sorts of things – the name of a dog she had had when she was a little girl, the names of boys she had gone out with later on when she was grown up, and what certain dresses of hers had looked like – she could not imagine now what had become of them. (115)

8A quick look at this list of anecdotes shows that they concern the displacement of the mother’s affections: from attachment to a pet, to a list of boys she dated, to her sense of herself as ‘feminine’ in her recollection of her own appearance, for which the dresses are the metonym. In sharing this sense of herself as a desiring and desirable woman with her daughter, she is implicitly including her daughter in the sphere of desirable women, or quite simply, speaking to her ‘as a woman.’ If we accept the proposition that “in order to desire, one must first see oneself as desirable” (Fiumanò), the importance of this gift of the mother, for whom feminine desire is not ‘nothing’, can be recognized.

  • 6 This doubling of the father is repeated through the figure of Henry, the father’s ‘true’ hired man, (...)
  • 7 The sentiment of shame is occasioned ... when in the exterior space of social existence, of public (...)

9In contrast with the mother’s talkative moments, the father is a quiet man: “My father did not talk to me unless it was about the work we were doing” (115); it is therefore unexpected when he offers her oblique praise in front of the “feed salesman,” saying: “Like to have you meet my new hired man.” In response, the girl “turn[s] away and rake[s] furiously, red in the face with pleasure” (116). This blush of embarrassment and pleasure is her bodily response to the public recognition that she is seen, and that a great part of her pleasure consists in that fact of being seen; the father’s gaze is the site from which she accedes to awareness that she is not transparent, she is an object of perception for the Other. Lacan associates this ‘being seen’ with the feminine position: “this all-seeing aspect is to be found in the satisfaction of a woman who knows that she is being looked at, on condition that one does not show her that one knows that she knows” (Lacan, The Four Fundamental 74-75). It is the presence of the ‘third party’ – the ‘feed salesman’, a double-figure for the father, but notably one who stands outside the family, and who therefore is not subject to the incest taboo6 – that reveals the unspoken knowledge in circulation, the truth of the girl’s jouissance which escapes her and which emerges as a blush.7 The salesman hits the nail on the head when he remarks, “Could of fooled me... I thought it was only a girl” (116), exposing the fact that, in spite of the father’s kidding remark that negates the sex of his daughter by conferring on her the status of “hired man,” the question of sexual positioning is indeed at stake. Moreover, the feed salesman proleptically employs the very words – “only a girl” – with which the father will later ratify his daughter’s sexuation. Because this doubled gaze of the father is valued by the girl who responds to it “with pleasure,” it fulfills the condition necessary to become the cause of her own desire: “It is the desire-causing look that determines for [a woman] what Freud called “object choice” (Fink 91-92).

“No such thing”

10How far does this object-choice, which follows the classic Oedipal pattern, go towards determining the girl’s sexual identity? According to Colette Soler, it is not decisive: “sexed identity is not effected through object-choice” (180). This is corroborated by Pickmann who affirms:

In the operation of substitution [from mother to father as object-choice], a girl does not discover the production of the new signified that she expects, the one that will tell her what Woman is. Worse than that, the apparent universality of the phallic signifier can only reflect back to her the radical absence of a feminine trait of identification.

The eruption of sexual difference into the ideal, phallic world of childhood, leaves the subject who ‘knows’ that she is a girl lacking an identity, and this, at the same moment that she is confronted by the lack in the (m)Other. It is as if the advent of sexual difference in the world deprives the girl of an existence thus far founded on sexual identity [i.e. identity with the mother] and on the guarantee of the existence of an Other ideal, phallic and worthy of love. (171, my translation)

11In this perspective, not only is the object-choice not the defining element in sexual identity, but the resolution of the Oedipus conflict also leaves the girl bereft of what sense of identity she previously possessed; from an initial position of identification with the mother, seen as all-powerful, she can only identify with a mother now seen as lacking, and lacking in particular in any defining trait that situates her positively as ‘Woman.’ The girl is not provided with any self-evident indication of what, as a woman, she is to be.

12The mother’s role in “Boys and Girls” is essentially seen from the place she occupies as relay or mediator of the norms and codes of society, gendered social roles in particular. Doubled briefly through the figure of the grandmother who is evoked and then dismissed – “My grandmother came to stay with us for a few weeks” (119) – the reinforced maternal line sets about defining the space and codes of “girls” who “don’t slam doors” and “keep their knees together,” help their mothers in the kitchen and don’t ask questions (119). The child’s reaction is to dismiss or resist these injunctions, suggesting as they do nothing other than restriction —“I continued to slam the doors and sit as awkwardly as possible, thinking that by such measures, I kept myself free” (119). Nevertheless, she becomes progressively more aware that for others, defining a girl was largely a question of behavioural codes and of social value:

  • 8 Rasporich has pointed out the De Beauvoir undertones of the position of the young girl, in search o (...)

The word girl had formerly seemed to me innocent and unburdened, like the word child, now it appeared that it was no such thing. A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was, it was what I had to become. It was a definition, always touched with emphasis, with reproach and disappointment. (119)8

13However, if adherence to particular forms of behaviour is what defines a girl’s social existence, then the girl in question would clearly prefer not to be that.

“The law of sexual difference”

14At this point, mid-way way through “Boys and Girls,” the questions of the gendering forces of the family (based in the final instance on anatomical differences between the sexes), and romantic object-choice or identifications have been brought to the fore, yet the question of feminine identity has not been resolved for the girl. If she has arrived at a provisional sense that a girl was something one “had to become,” that still begs the question: how does one become a girl? The Lacanian answer is: “by choice” (On Feminine 71).

15To engage with this proposition, we need firstly to shift our focus away from anatomical and cultural definitions: that is not where the choice is situated. It is a choice, rather, of assuming the Symbolic castration that makes of us sexed beings and situates us within the logical universe that support’s a man’s or a woman’s subjectivity. Lacan’s table of sexuation (On Feminine 78) shows the logical universe of ‘Man’ on the left side and ‘Woman’ on the right:

16Following Joan Copjec’s gloss on the tables (Read My Desire 214) the formulas read as follows:

There is at least one x that is not submitted to the phallic function

There is not one x that is not submitted to the phallic function

All x’s are (every x is) submitted to the phallic function

Not all (not every) x is submitted to the phallic function

17The phallic function is not the function of access to omnipotent power, but rather, its renunciation. It is synonymous with the function of castration that limits the ways in which jouissance may be obtained. This phallic function (Φx) appears on both sides of the table, but not in the same manner; the masculine and the feminine sides are two different stances in relation to this function, which, following Copjec “is the law of sexual difference ... a law of unconscious necessity, which is to say, it is a law that founds culture and is not a cultural law” (Imagine, 222). To visualize this difference, I have borrowed and combined diagrams based on set theory from Fink (Subject 109, 112) and Morel (89). We note first of all that the logic of the masculine side forms a closed set since it is constituted by a limit based on a grounding exception.

  • 9 One of the implications of this difference is outlined by Copjec in her statement that each sex wil (...)

18In other words, there is at least one that stands outside the rule (the mythical father of the primal horde) by virtue of which all others are submitted to it. The feminine side recognizes no grounding exception – “there is not one x” - and the set cannot be closed: those subjects situated there receive no defining signifier, there is no ‘exceptional One’ to emulate: for a woman, the set (to which she belongs, without ‘exception’) is experienced as something of an open question lacking in consistency.9

19Lacan affirms: “In adulthood, it is the destiny of speaking beings to divide themselves up into men and women” (D’un discours, my translation), from which it follows that “Every speaking being situates itself on one side or the other” of the table (On Feminine 79). We are therefore placed before a forced choice, a paradoxical one which, as Colette Soler points out,

in common experience, would attest, instead, to the rigors of constraint; subjects either recognize themselves so fully in their sexed aspirations that they suppose that the latter come from nature, or on the contrary, they feel so much that these positions have been forced on them that they live them out only as a symptom and in a state of pain. .... In reality, the one who is designated as the subject, far from being the agent of this choice, bears its brunt.” (178-79, my emphasis)

20Nevertheless, it is equally important to keep in view that “in authorizing themselves as sexed beings... subjects are constrained by the fault of the speaking unconscious” (Soler 179) to assume this unasked for but inescapable choice between the phallic All and the Not-All phallic.

  • 10 This proposition does not negate the Oedipal question developed above: rather, it is its point of k (...)

21It is this notion of the assumption of a sexed position that I shall explore through my reading of the second half of “Boys and Girls.”10

“A new wariness”

22The question of sexed identity is written onto the mental landscape of the pre-adolescent girl through displacement onto the figures of two horses: Mack and Flora, M & F, ‘Male and Female’. Significantly, the horses enter the story by way of the sudden filling in of a gap in memory: “I have forgotten to say what the foxes were fed” (118). In the animal imagery of the story, the foxes, we have seen, function as representatives of the drives; moreover, these fox-drives belong to the father and they need to be fed; they will be fed horse-meat. Both the male and female horses are destined to undergo the same radical fate – death; their deaths offer the children, who are witnesses to these scenes, alternative modes of facing their own Symbolic castration: Mack’s way or Flora’s.

23The first killing scene concerns Mack, the male horse. Here, a second instance of forgetting characterizes the girl’s perception of events: “‘Are you going to shoot him today?’ I said. Mack and Flora had been in the stable so long I had almost forgotten they were going to be shot” (120). In order to “see,” “and know” what this killing/castration is, she disobeys her father’s instructions to “Go on up and play around the house” and instead, takes her brother Laird, goes into the barn, sits on a beam in the loft and peers through a knothole (121). The scene is thus framed and distanced by the wall that both divides the children from the killing field, and gives them access to it in a restricted, focused way. They see two things: Mack’s docility in the acceptance of his death, and the father’s unflinching resolve in causing it: “My father raised the gun and Mack looked up as if he had noticed something and my father shot him” (122). Laird is the one who reacts to the scene. Firstly, he registers surprise in his throat and body, emitting “a long, groaning breath of surprise when the shot was fired” and then, seeing the agonizing horse’s legs flail for a moment, he clutches at the possibility that the horse has survived this death blow: “He’s not dead” he says, as if there might be a way to submit to Symbolic castration, and yet, remain free of its consequences. A moment later, as the horse’s “muscles quivered and sank” (123), death is confirmed. Laird reacts to and registers this moment of confrontation with the law of the father: “His expression was not frightened or upset, but remote, concentrating” (123). Flora’s turn comes “two weeks later” and it is the girl who is subjectively interpellated by the female horse’s death. This occurs in three different stages: a before, an atemporal present moment, and an after.

“The only thing I could do”


24Prior to the scene itself, the young heroine expresses the feeling that ever since the killing of Mack, something has changed for her: “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” (124). It is not the fact of killing that has altered her feeling as she states: “I did not have any great feeling of horror or 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” (123-24). So what accounts for this change in her view of her father? In the paragraph that immediately precedes this statement of wariness, the girl gives expression to several things: her intention not to watch the killing of Flora; the fact of looking at herself in a mirror; and the memory of her father shooting Mack:

This time I didn't think of watching it. That was something to see just one time. I had not thought about it very often since, but sometimes, when I was busy, working at school, or standing in front of the mirror combing my hair and wondering if I would be pretty when I grew up, the whole scene would flash into my mind; I would see the easy, practiced way my father raised the gun, and hear Henry laughing when Mack kicked his legs in the air. (123)

  • 11 The pictures in these calendars contrast with those in the kitchen of the house which show scenes o (...)
  • 12 Ragland underscores this point: “Lacan’s Real father denotes a paradox: the production of jouissanc (...)

25In this structural repetition of the ‘mirror phase’ moment, the Imaginary unity of the child’s self-image is disrupted in two ways: firstly by internal anxiety as the girl questions the adequation between her own image and the ideals of femininity that she presupposes; and secondly by the intrusion of the Symbolic father who appears in a “flash,” as the gaze, the location of the ego-Ideal, in this mirror-image scene. But this paternal gaze is suddenly complicated: he is in his role as the exception who guarantees, by embodying it, the limit of the Symbolic law; he is the faithful upholder of its neutral necessity, but is accompanied (and therefore the girl is also gazed at) by Henry, the hired hand, who functions as the underside of that benevolent neutrality, as the Real father of unrestrained jouissance. Throughout the story, Henry has appeared as the figure of this lewd enjoyer – bodily and bawdily oriented, he coughs, laughs, keeps calendars of pin-up girls11 in his nook of the barn, and gets a kick out of death: firstly in the opening scene of the story, when he “takes a swipe” at the girl with a sack full of the “naked slippery bodies” of pelted foxes, exclaiming “Christmas present!” (112); then, in the above mirror scene, a replaying of what the children saw, he’s heard “laughing” at the dying horse. From the conjoined presence of the two men came, and comes again, the shot that kills the horse: this mark of Symbolic castration, which includes the knowledge of mortality, draws a line, materialized in sound, sight and effect, before the onlooking children. The guardedness the girl feels towards her father is not a manifestation of moral reproach, but the unconscious recognition of sexual difference as such. Hence, she feels “a little ashamed” (124), exposed in her knowledge of sexual difference, and perhaps ashamed also at what she knows about the masculine fiction supported by the law of castration: the law is upheld, but it is not neutral, it also enjoys itself.12 The “wariness” she feels is an index of this newly acquired knowledge.


26The proposition I have put forward is that the two horses symbolize the masculine and feminine sexed positions, each of which involves a particular stance in relation to the law of the Symbolic order. Unlike the obedient male horse Mack, who submits to the law by accepting to be led by the halter to his death, Flora fights to escape her fate:

she had broken away from [Henry]. She was running free in the barnyard, from one end to the other. It was exciting to see her running, whinnying, going up on her hind legs, prancing and threatening like a horse in a Western movie. (124)

27The girl is enjoying her position as chance spectator to this exciting scene, when suddenly, she is called upon to become a participant: her father gives the command “Go shut the gate!” (124). Her initial impulse, full of Imaginary at-oneness of body and purpose, is to comply with her father’s order. So she runs towards the gate to close it:

I could run very fast. I ran across the garden, past the tree where our swing was hung, and jumped across a ditch into the lane. There was the open gate. She had not got out, I could not see her up on the road; she must have run to the other end of the field. The gate was heavy. I lifted it out of the gravel and carried it across the roadway. I had it half way across when she came in sight, galloping straight towards me. (124-25)

28At this moment, where ‘jumping across a ditch’ prefigures the metaphorical transition of the child to the position of sexed being, she gives her response to her father’s command: “Instead of shutting the gate, I opened it as wide as I could” (125). It is a statement proffered without excuses or justifications; it presents the accomplishment of the action as something entirely unmotivated, to be understood in its own self-evidence, as if this gesture of opening came from a place she had no awareness of, born, as it were, of its own necessity. In that sense, the opening of the gate has the structure, not of an action, but of an act, understood in the following way:

[Any] act worthy of the name isn't deduced; it isn't a deliberation, [it is] neither a calculation nor a compromise. Even if a careful consideration of the pros and cons precedes it, one recognizes an act as that which exceeds its reasons. That's why the act is foundational, primordial, creative. Every act worthy of the name creates a new truth, which isn't by virtue of that fact eternal, but which has a chance to be unforgettable for the subject supported by this act. Thus the act creates a truth eternized in the subject, who changes because of it. [...] To be in the act, it is necessary not to think. (Miller)

29Indeed, the text confirms that the girl’s gesture is not thought out in advance: “I did not make any decision to do this, it was just what I did”; it is not motivated and comes as a surprise to the girl herself — “I could not understand why I had done it.” Moreover, the very quantity of self-reflexive commentary on the action signals the unprecedented nature of it. It is an event that imposes the subjective necessity of itself both during and after the fact — “I did not regret it [—] when she came running at me and I held the gate open, that was the only thing I could do” (125). Holding the gate open, she is the open set of the feminine side; she stands there as the locus of the failure of the Symbolic order, of the father’s law, and of language to encompass her.

30Munro lifts this act out of the flow of time by framing it. Placed between the agitation of her own attempts to shut the gate, and her brother’s “scrambling out of the ditch” to help her, the moment is suspended in time: preceded by “just time to get the chain on” and followed by a thrice repeated “too late,” it is held in between, untouched by markers of temporality. Outside of cause and consequence, in intuitive response to Flora “galloping straight towards [her],” and mirroring Flora’s refusal to comply, the girl makes a choice: “instead” of one thing, she does another. Time then reasserts itself around this moment of exception, this pulsation of the unconscious, itself outside of time and logic.


  • 13 My argument here differs somewhat from that of Nischik and other critics who see in this refusal, “ (...)
  • 14 Like the capitalized Woman pursued by Man, Flora, once she leaves the enclosure, no longer exists, (...)

31In narrative terms, the effect of this irruption of the Real must find its Symbolic inscription: to this founding, creative act, the girl retroactively attributes meaning, giving the signification of her new subjective truth by declaring herself to be “on Flora’s side” (125). The use of the word “side” clearly has its oppositional force in the context of Flora fleeing the father’s gun, but the girl knows that she only postpones Flora’s fate in opening the gate. Death will come. Hence, the ‘side’ she is on is less to do with active, goal-oriented transgression than with an unconscious positioning related to being: in that sense, it is an act that she “undergoes” rather than “accomplish[es]” (Žižek, Enjoy 51) even if the result has a transgressive aspect to it.13 Transgression implies both the recognition of a limit and a refusal to respect it; the father’s call to shut the gate, is the call of the One to recognize (in the sense of ‘to treat as valid’) the limits or the law of the masculine set. The girl’s non-validation of the limit locates her on the side of those subjects who, while being produced within the Symbolic order, maintain an internal distance to the law of the signifier: this internal distance is represented by the splitting of the figure of the girl, where Flora (the girl-as-unconscious drive) runs beyond the gate,14 while the girl (as daughter) does not step outside the enclosed area. In this contradictory way, she experiences, and immediately assumes, her mode of Symbolic castration: the feminine mode. That she unconsciously knows that this choice will henceforth determine her place in the Symbolic order is correlated to the fact that her father, as its representative, must recognize the significance of her act if she is not to be cast out of the community. She anticipates, with a certain tone of loss, that he will do so: “And when my father found out about it, he would know that I was not entirely on his side” (125), or in other words, that through her act, she had assumed her sexed position as a woman, as a being within the phallic-Symbolic order, but not entirely.

Ratifying the choice

  • 15 Flora, having escaped, becomes ‘the feminine object outside the masculine limit’; in this sense, sh (...)

32The return of the ‘men’ after the capture and killing of Flora allows for the textual representation of the newly affirmed position of each child. First of all, there is Laird, who, even earlier, on seeing the gate wide open, echoed his father’s command “yelling, ‘Shut it, shut it!’ even after it was too late” (125) and who, seeing the men setting off after the runaway horse called out “Let me go too, let me go too!" (125).15 Finally, upon returning from the expedition, “Laird lifted his arm to show off a streak of blood. ‘We shot old Flora,’ he said, ‘and cut her up in fifty pieces’” (127). Thus, with great economy of style, Munro puts forth Laird’s newly acquired place amongst men, identified as the agent of castration in killing Flora through the insignia of the blood on his arm which picks up on the earlier image of the father seen “[coming] from the meathouse; [with] his stiff bloody apron on” (116); furthermore, he is also identified with the excess of the law as he unselfconsciously enjoys and exhibits his new power, raising his phallic arm covered in female blood. This bloody image also links sexuation to the inescapability of death and sexual reproduction, or in other words, to our mortality. Endowed with visible signs of his new Symbolic status, Laird becomes a zealous supporter of the limits of the law: eager to show which side he is on, he tells on his sister: “Anyway it was her fault Flora got away” (127).

33In contrast with her brother, there is nothing visible for the girl to display, no sign of ‘being a girl’ which can find its inscription in the Symbolic environment. Everything then hangs on the father’s reaction, as locus of the ego-Ideal. His first reaction is “disgust” and accusatory questioning “What did you do that for?” (127). But the girl has no words to communicate her experience, grounded as it is in the failure of the signifier. Her silence is extended to the entire group as “For some time nobody said anything,” (127) marking the collective intuition that something unnamed is awaiting its signifier, or in other words, that the lack in the Other is under threat of being exposed. The mother is silent. It is the father who then gives the event its communal meaning or Symbolic inscription, paradoxically ratifying the girl’s choice: “‘Never mind,’ my father said. He spoke with resignation, even good humour, the words that absolved and dismissed me for good. ‘She’s only a girl,’ he said’” (127). Defined as a girl, she is “absolved” from guilt – and therefore not sent away from the communal table – because she is not called upon to incarnate the limit in the same way that Laird is; by the same token, she is “dismissed”, excluded from the sphere of the phallic ‘all,’ the closed set of the universal masculine.

34Understandably, most critical commentary on this passage highlights the deflation of the girl through the adverb “only”: according to Nischik, the girl “seems to have lost the gender battle” (216): in this reading the father voices the social discourse which relegates the feminine to a place of inferiority or perhaps even of insignificance. This question cannot be eluded. “A sixteen-year-old female reader” of “Boys and Girls” wrote this letter to Munro:

I keep hoping the girl will win out; the ending is a cutting, crushing blow for me. I do not want to be a girl. I still believe that is the rottenest thing that can happen to someone. I inwardly protest it. It is a conflict I am not able to resolve; perhaps you have an answer. (McCaig 157)

  • 16 See Soler, 101-02, on this point.

35The despondent complaint of this reader speaks of a frustration at this absence of any stable point of identification in the feminine position, whereby a woman may feel stranded, adrift, or devalorized in her self-perception.16

36And yet, this is not where the force of the story lies. The lack in having of the feminine side need not obscure the positive assumption of a sexed position which, by virtue of its being not wholly subjected to the phallic function, opens onto the possibility of a surplus in being, a being ‘in the gap’. Unlike the 16 year old reader, the protagonist does not “inwardly protest”: on the contrary, she affirms: “I didn’t protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true” (127). This final line in the story is the point at which the semblance of meaning stops and ambivalence floods the discursive space: what doesn’t she protest? What is the “it” that may be “true”? “Girl”? Or “only”? What does “only” mean? What does “girl” mean? And then, what can “only a girl” possibly mean, in particular to a girl? Small wonder the sixteen-year-old reader cannot resolve the question. And yet, the hopelessness of giving any positive content to “only a girl” does not negate the force of the girl’s choice not to protest the father’s pronouncement, nor her recognition of a potential truth value – “Maybe it was true” – in it, where something is given and something is taken away; where the attribution of a lack is paradoxically a gift. In naming her a “girl,” the father Symbolically recognizes her sexual position, such that she considers it settled “for good”; she is thereby reassured that from the vantage point of the desire of the Other, she is recognized as a “girl.”

  • 17 Tickling, within Munro’s oeuvre, is a key image of paradoxical jouissance, an experience which read (...)
  • 18 For a nuanced reading of the Lacanian distinction between having or being the phallus, later rework (...)
  • 19 The affirmation of the feminine position of jouissance in the sexual encounter as being that of the (...)

37This corresponds to the unconscious truth of her subjectivity both at the level of desire and of drive: firstly, there has been a shift from the fantasy position of phallic dominance (her earlier ‘rescuer on horseback’ fantasies) to that of desired object: it is after the gate episode, but before the return of the men, in an interlude of expectancy, that the narrating voice inserts the information that “lately” the girl’s bedtime fantasies had undergone “mysterious alterations”; no longer the rescuer, she discovers that “somebody would be rescuing me. It might be a boy from our class at school, or even Mr. Campbell, our teacher, who tickled girls under the arms” (126).17 She has gone from occupying the position of having the phallus (social status and recognition) in earlier fantasies, to appearing as the object of masculine desire; indeed the fantasies no longer have an end point of ego valorisation, but get sidetracked by considerations such as “what I looked like” or, picking up on her mother’s earlier stories, “what kind of dress I had on” (126).18 In this context, there is an unconscious truth for the girl which is related to the desire of the Other, and which finds itself in agreement with the feminine position as object of desire: where “masculine and feminine distinctions are determined not by ‘psychic’ essence or behavior ... but as gender nonspecific identifications as lover (active) or beloved (passive)” (Ragland, From Aristotle 22), the girl situates herself, in the field of desire, as the feminine beloved.19

38Secondly, the bodily animal incarnation of Flora gives literary representation to the Real as living substance – the en-corps of jouissance – and “lays bare the drive-fixations” which are “decisions of the body” (Verhaeghe 63). In echoing the female horse’s physical refusal of the limit through her own bodily decision to open the gate, there is a metaphorical transfer onto the girl as the site of the insistence of the drive. She has given bodily expression to her subjectivity as fixed by the drive: here, beyond all reason and language, she is the letter, or the let-her: the one who does not close the gate. Finally, the nagging question that could not be settled through reflection, gender coding or anatomical attributions finds a solution through her encounter with the constraint of Symbolic castration and the necessity of its inscription either within the logic of the phallic closed set or in the not-all open set. The nomination by the father and her ensuing assumption of the word “girl” offers her respite from the deadlock of the non-correspondence of the sexes. She does not protest it because it is the truth of her sexuation as witnessed by her act.

‘The One’ and ‘Only’

39The importance of the father’s recognition through naming should not be brushed aside or denigrated. According to Danielle Bergeron,

  • 20 This formulation may sound too centred on the really existing father who is certainly the bearer of (...)

[The] Father’s word of love, manifesting his love for his girl in the absence of sexual lust [is what] situates her as subject in the order of language and manages the libidinous writing of the body by uniting it under a distinct Ego. The limiting by the father of the Other’s jouissance insisting in the girl-child’s body inscribes the mark of lack and situates the girl in the register of the desiring subject. (13)20

  • 21 Indeed, Ragland affirms that Symbolic castration includes “a ‘no’ to being All One sex, an androgyn (...)
  • 22 His sexuation will indeed fix him within this fantasy of phallic oneness, making of it his “fixion. (...)

40And yet, the diminutive “only” of the father’s pronouncement would seem to stand in the way of any joyful assumption of this place, signalling all too clearly that the Symbolic order is antagonistic to the not-all. Perhaps the girl’s “Maybe it was true”, both tentative and absolute, includes the acknowledgment of the paradox that being recognized as a girl, or as a boy, involves a loss, the loss of a previous state of not-knowing about sexual difference.21 If Laird’s jubilant ignorance of the loss involved on the masculine side seems to be a more comfortable position, it will nonetheless determine him in an orientation that requires his participation in the fiction of phallic consistency, against the truth that the Symbolic order he will be called to support is, in spite of appearances, not-all.22

  • 23 See Freud’s “The Antithetical Meanings of Primal Words” on this point.

41Could we not see this ‘only’ pronounced by the father as the signifier of his own structural limitation, that of his place within the closed masculine set? Loyal to the myth of the One, he expulses the inassimilable feminine ‘Other’ through this “only”, but, unbeknownst to him, in the logic of the open set, this “only” is the space of “the poesis – the something coming from nothing – that Lacan links to the contingency of being and, ultimately, to the path of love” (Barnard, “Tongues” 172): its productive lack of definition opens onto positive associations with the concept of “singularity”: ‘only’ is defined, amongst other things, as “uniquely, specially, [or] pre-eminently” (OED). Indeed, ‘only’ functions as something of a primal word whose meaning includes its opposite. Etymologically signifying ‘one-like’, only has something of the One, but differs from it, remaining indefinite.23 How could or why should the girl protest this “only” which refuses universalizing totality and thereby opens onto a myriad of inventive possibilities? Munro herself certainly doesn’t protest it, but rather, claims it as her own: “I feel that women have always had a clarity of vision which men were denied. And, in a way, this is a gift, it goes along with lack of power. And I valued that very much—the value of being able to see clearly” (qtd. in Carrington, 12-13). Here, Munro specifically associates feminine lack and clarity of vision; this vision is perhaps, quite simply, the knowledge that being, as such, cannot be encompassed by the phallic One and that the not-fully, not-wholly, not-all is not something less, but rather, something else. What can we know about this something else? Nothing in terms of a positive, definitive trait, but something perhaps if we conceive of it as a modality: the not-all is the mode that denies enclosure, or in other words, defends the truth of the open gate.

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---. D’un Discours qui ne serait pas du semblant: Seminaire XVIII. 20 Jan. 1971. Web. 14 Feb. 2010.

---. On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973 : Encore, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Trans. Bruce Fink, New York: Norton, 1999. Print.

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---. “The Sexual Masquerade: A Lacanian Theory of Sexual Difference.” Lacan and the Subject of Language. Eds. Ragland-Sullivan, Ellie and Mark Bracher. New York: Routledge, 1991. 49-80. Print.

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1 For more on the act, and the unconscious ‘choice’ it constitutes, see the fascinating citation from C.S. Lewis, and Žižek’s commentary on it in the introductory paragraphs of Žižek’s “The Act and its Vicissitudes.”

2 Munro scholars (Blodgett, Goldman, Heble, Martin, Nischik, Ventura) have all produced sustained readings of “Boys and Girls” which focus on the gender divide (to which the title directs us) through various critical lenses: a feminist critique of patriarchy (Goldman), a structuralist analysis of gendered spaces (Ventura), a broadly post-structuralist approach (Blodgett), a social-constructivist perspective on gender (Nischik), as well as more or less intuitive readings (Martin and Heble). None of these readings of the story include a sustained Freudian or Lacanian reading of sexual difference.

3 This is only one of the numerous instances wherein Munro’s work explores the pleasure in looking. See Carrington in particular on this aspect: the index entry she provides for ‘voyeur’ includes over twenty-five references to characters involved in deliberate, accidental, forced or fantasized situations of voyeuristic looking.

4 The resolution of the Oedipus complex depends upon identification with the father, or in other words, on the formation of I(O) the ego-Ideal, from traits borrowed from the father... On this point, Lacan indicates that the girl-child follows the same path as the boy. She is not, for all that, transformed into a man, but she identifies with significant traits or insignia of the father, such as ‘I cough like my father does.’” (Marret-Maleval 6-7, translation mine.)

5 Ajay Heble’s reading of the story redirected my attention to this mother-daughter exchange.

6 This doubling of the father is repeated through the figure of Henry, the father’s ‘true’ hired man, as we will see further on.

7 The sentiment of shame is occasioned ... when in the exterior space of social existence, of public appearance, I suddenly appear in the flesh” (Copjec, “The Object-Gaze” 178). Although Copjec is discussing the gaze in relation to shame, the embarrassment of the girl seems to me to be of the same order, the difference being one of degree.

8 Rasporich has pointed out the De Beauvoir undertones of the position of the young girl, in search of self-definition (38).

9 One of the implications of this difference is outlined by Copjec in her statement that each sex will confront its fundamental sense of loss in a different way: whereas man may feel “that the world does not measure up to some ideal, however vaguely this ideal may be conceived,” women may experience dissatisfaction as “a feeling that the world lacks any legitimate ground” (116). Ragland formulates this in terms of degrees of servitude to the superego: “That feminine sexuality is not all under Symbolic (phallic) injunctions, means that women are less enslaved to the Other’s superego dicta.... What Freud considered male superego superiority is what Lacan calls the enslavement to a master discourse logic wherein reality and language are ‘measurable’ as clear communications made within conscious meaning” (16).

10 This proposition does not negate the Oedipal question developed above: rather, it is its point of knotty complexity: “The Oedipus complex is ... nothing less than the passage from the Imaginary order to the Symbolic order, “the conquest of the Symbolic relation as such.” The fact that the [transition] to the Symbolic passes via a complex sexual dialectic means that the subject cannot have access to the Symbolic order without confronting the problem of sexual difference.” (“Oedipus Complex”)

11 The pictures in these calendars contrast with those in the kitchen of the house which show scenes of the colonial history of Canada. These calendars have generated critical interest: see, for example, Goldman.

12 Ragland underscores this point: “Lacan’s Real father denotes a paradox: the production of jouissance, which occurs at the moment desire becomes law. The Real father at the heart of the sexual masquerade points to the impossibilities or impasses in being, knowing, and speaking the truth as pure CONTRADICTION.” (“Sexual Masquerade” 70)

13 My argument here differs somewhat from that of Nischik and other critics who see in this refusal, “rebellion against the father” (215). This formulation seems to attribute too much intention to the act. Here, there is no attempt to undermine the father’s work or his authority per se. Rather, as Žižek notes, there is a certain “madness,” a temporary “eclipse, aphanisis, of the subject” involved in the act, whereby “the subject is annihilated and subsequently reborn” (Enjoy 51). In the story, the act marks this moment of the subjective transformation of the girl.

14 Like the capitalized Woman pursued by Man, Flora, once she leaves the enclosure, no longer exists, but only ex-sists as an internalized impossibility: that of existing outside the Symbolic order.

15 Flora, having escaped, becomes ‘the feminine object outside the masculine limit’; in this sense, she can also be seen as a figuration of the object a, the partial object of the drive.

16 See Soler, 101-02, on this point.

17 Tickling, within Munro’s oeuvre, is a key image of paradoxical jouissance, an experience which readily shifts into other scenes of being “unbearably, almost exquisitely humiliated” (Munro, “Heirs” 49). In her 2009 collection alone, Too Much Happiness, tickling scenes occur at least four times in three separate stories: “Wenlock Edge” (91), “Face” (153), “Some Women” (170, 180).

18 For a nuanced reading of the Lacanian distinction between having or being the phallus, later reworked as having or appearing, see Žižek’s “Woman is One of the Names-of-the-Father.”

19 The affirmation of the feminine position of jouissance in the sexual encounter as being that of the object of masculine desire (masculine being understood as a logical position not necessarily lined up with the biological male) is included in the table of jouissances in Seminar XX (Lacan On Feminine 78).

20 This formulation may sound too centred on the really existing father who is certainly the bearer of the role in the still Oedipally structured universe of “Boys and Girls”, but what is at stake is the metaphorical function of the father, which may be embodied by others than the biological father. For Lacan, “any shelter in which may be established a viable, temperate relation of one sex to the other necessitates the intervention ... of that medium known as the paternal metaphor” (The Four Fundamental 276).

21 Indeed, Ragland affirms that Symbolic castration includes “a ‘no’ to being All One sex, an androgyn” (From Aristotle, 6).

22 His sexuation will indeed fix him within this fantasy of phallic oneness, making of it his “fixion.” See Soler, 219-20, on this neologism of Lacan’s.

23 See Freud’s “The Antithetical Meanings of Primal Words” on this point.

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Jennifer MURRAY, « “Not Entirely on His Side”: The Assumption of Sexed Subjectivity in Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls” », E-rea [En ligne], 12.1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2014, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4031

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Jennifer MURRAY

Université de Franche-Comté,

Jennifer Murray is Associate Professor of North American literature at the University of Franche-Comté. Her research interests include Lacanian psychoanalysis, the short story, and twentieth century writing by women. Recent and forthcoming publications include articles on works by Harper Lee (The Southern Literary Journal, 2010) Alice Munro (Journal of the Short Story in English, 2010; Annales Littéraires de l’UFC forthcoming) and Margaret Atwood (Literature Interpretation Theory, Winter 2015). She is currently working towards the completion of a volume of Lacanian readings of stories by Alice Munro.

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