Study Guide

M.C. Higgins, the Great Men and Masculinity

By Virginia Hamilton

Men and Masculinity

M.C. always felt bigger and strong around Ben, like he wasn't just anybody passing by. He was M.C. and he made a show of examining the vine he would use, which hung down the side of the tree trunk. (1.64)

Hmm… so is this why M.C. is really friends with Ben? Because Ben makes him feel "bigger and strong," a.k.a. more masculine? More… M.C.?

M.C. liked Ben and felt sorry for his being small and alone when he didn't want to be either. He admired Ben because Ben was a witchy. And he knew that Ben thought a lot of him, since he was like no other boy and would play with Ben. Tall and powerful, M.C. didn't mind being by himself, could do anything well. (1.65)

So being alone is easy for M.C. because he's also "tall and powerful," but "being small" like Ben makes being "alone" not okay? What kind of relationship is M.C. getting at between aloneness and physical strength? Why would being taller and powerful make it easier to be "alone"?

M.C. grinned again. Mary Willis was as strong as a horse. He knew because, thinking she had no strength, he had caught her once on the path. Coming up noiselessly behind her the way he knew how to stalk, he had grabbed her arms and tried to pin them. He had whispered that he thought she was just so nice.

"M.C., you let me go!"

He had tried to steal a kiss right from her cheek. Leaning around her pretty hair, he'd almost made it. Mary Willis broke his grasp and hit him with her fist. (1.153-155)

If this memory M.C. recalls seems a little like an almost-rape scene, then you're probably on the right track. We'll just point out that, aside from the definite wrongness of M.C.'s actions, M.C.'s acting like a guy who only knows how to relate to girls through force. He sees himself as physically powerful; that's what he prides himself on. So no wonder he finds so much pleasure in exerting that power on someone who's supposed to be weaker than he is—a girl.

The girl on the path ahead of him now wasn't one of them. He could see her dark skin showing beneath a light blue shirt. M.C. stalked nearer, close enough for her to hear him. Right on her heels, he gave her a low whistle, knowing he was wrong to scare her. He had a loud, screaming whistle through his teeth, just as if he was older and whistled at girls every day. (1.164)

Who needs a construction site full of whistling men when you have the woods and guys like M.C.? Anyway, clearly M.C. thinks whistling at girls is perfectly acceptable behavior for a guy, especially an older guy. He's in for a rude awakening…

On the other side of the house was a grape arbor, the expanse of yard and M.C.'s prize like no other. It was always his shining beacon.

Pretty thing, you.

He had won it, practicing on the Ohio River, testing his strength against strong currents every day for weeks.

He had known when he was ready. (1.179-182)

M.C.'s referring to his forty-foot pole that he won from his father after he swam across the Ohio River. This is the part where you start thinking "phallic symbol." Let's just leave it at that. Or, if you want to know more, hop on over to the "Symbolism" section.

What does she mean, roaming around all by her lonesome? He had to smile. He made a muscle in his arm and felt it jump up hard.

Should I go out there, scare her again? (2.28-29)

M.C.'s kind of like a cartoon of a guy here, like Popeye or something, popping arm muscles to show how manly he is. But why does he feel the need to "scare" Lurhetta? Ugh.

"Hope that girl gets lost." He studied the hills, but could see no one, not even a glint. "Then I'll have to find her and lead her by the hand." Smugly he turned his face to the sky and swung his gleaming pole into the stifling air. (2.296)

At least this time, M.C. isn't hoping to "scare" or attack her. He just wants to "lead her by the hand"—be her knight in shining armor and all that.

M.C. raised his hands in front of his chin and held them about a foot apart with palms facing each other. He knew his daddy would want to play the game, although they hadn't played it in many months. Years ago it had been the hardest kind of game for M.C. to take. Jones had tried to slap M.C.'s face hard, as he would attempt to do now. Only then M.C. never had been fast enough to chop his father's hands away. He always ended up crying.

M.C.: "Stop it. Stop it, Daddy."

His daddy: "Going to make you so tough, anyone try to worry you will break his bones." (2.61-63)

So we know where M.C gets his machismo from. What's hard to take is how M.C. grows up thinking that to be manly means to be able to win at his father's "game." Although… does Jones have a point? Is he just teaching M.C. what to expect as a man?

Jones was a powerfully built man. He wasn't tall, but he had a broad chest and lean but wide, muscular shoulders. He was narrow through the hips just as M.C. was, and his legs were long with muscles grown lengthwise. His toes were splayed with the bridge flattened wide, as were M.C.'s, the way a swimmer's feet will look. Jones was a swimmer. But somehow, his fine, physical equipment had never quite come together. As a man, he wasn't as good a swimmer as M.C. was right now. (3.116)

Sounds like someone's a little competitive with his daddy. So, if we are to read this right, Jones is definitely a powerful man, but he's not nearly as manly as M.C. is—at least, not when it comes to swimming. M.C. is basically like a 2.0 version of Jones. At least, that's what M.C. seems to think. But then again, maybe this is one way for M.C. to feel better about himself, especially right after his father has pinned him to the ground.

"Oh, what have I done!"

Her whining voice was above him. She was close to his face. Then her fingers, cool, like soft points of delicate pressure, were outlining the bump that had swelled on his forehead.

Carefully, M.C. began to move his left arm. She must have thought he was coming awake, for she gave a sharp cry of relief. Without touching her, he was able to slip his arm all the way across her back at the waist. Swiftly, he grabbed her above the left elbow, pinning her arm to her side. She fell hard on his chest. His fingers had her arm in a vise, and something else—a handle.

At once he felt the imprint of a heavy, unsheathed blade between them. (5.133-136)

This is another one of those uncomfortable scenes. Lurhetta clearly isn't a threat to M.C. at this point, and yet M.C. flips her onto him. He's got another thing coming when it comes to Lurhetta, though, which is good because his ideas about women are pretty terrible at this point.

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