Analysis of Bobbie Ann Mason's Shiloh

By: Christine Day

 

This story takes place in the modern South where the main characters are Norma Jean and Leroy Moffitt, a middle class married couple who are stuck in the ironic moment of their marriage where they have been together for so long that they don't even know each other anymore. There are several underlying messages in this story, a sort of feminist shout out to all the women out there who feel they are powerless, however I will further elaborate on that later.

The story is told from Leroy's point of view, a thirty something truck driver who is out of work due to an accident on the job where he hurt his leg. He is a free loader of sorts, feeling that since he worked so hard for so long, he now needs a much needed break and sits around the house all day, entertaining himself with making model airplanes and cabins.The injury is only to his leg, and he could find other work, however chooses not to. He was so intertwined with job as a truck driver, that since he can no longer do that, he doesn't know what else he can do, and as a result, feels helpless.

Leroy's wife, Norma Jean, has that house wife feel to her, but that notion is quickly dismissed as her character develops. She works at a cosmetics counter at a local drug store, maintains the house with cooking and cleaning, and still finds time to do things for herself. She is detached from her husband, and the reason for that could be one or a combination of many different things. They had a child early in their relationship that died when he was only four months old. Both Norma Jean and Leroy clearly have issues about it still, however never mention or talk about it. Another reason for this obvious detachment could be that her husband was never around that she learned to live with that fact by realizing that she could take of herself.

This story has several different messages. There is an obvious shift of power; the woman having all the strength, and the man being so weak. It is mentioned in the story that Leroy's name means “king” in French, and is sort of ironic, for he is the furthest thing from a king. Leroy entered his marriage with every intention of being the bread winner and the powerful male, and though it may have started out that way, it is all taken from him when he let's his injury paralyze him the way that he does. He takes on the stereotypical, housewife feminine role of being completely helpless, feeling sorry for himself, and even doing needlepoint. He has this fixation that he will one day build a log cabin for his wife, for he feels that is what she wants, but toys with the idea and takes little action to make it happen.

Norma Jean, however, is a very strong woman who has taken matters into her own hands, and in turn, has taken most of the power. She was used to her husband being away, and instead of doing what women are typically supposed to do, she has learned to do more things for herself. She doesn't fill the shoes of the typical household wife, for it is clear that she is a thinker and an action taker, and she knows that she could only really count on herself. She feels this way because she has become less dependent on her husband, and knows that if she wants to get something done, then she is going to have to do it herself. There are several references in the story where she talks about lifting weights and becoming stronger, and although the strength is physical, it is also symbolic to the strength that she is gaining over her husband, especially since when she is lifting these weights, he is often sitting around watching her.

The story progresses with Leroy still dreaming of the house he is going to build, and Norma Jean begins to gain more independence by taking classes at a local community college and learning how to play the organ, again displaying that she is independent enough to do things for herself. The third character, a rather small but important role, is that of Mabel, Norma Jean's mother. She talks of a place called Shiloh , a Civil War battleground where she went to on her honeymoon, and mentions a few times that Leroy and Norma Jean should go there. Norma Jean doesn't like the idea; however Leroy, in a moment of desperation, feels that they should go in hopes to save their marriage. Norma Jean really isn't into it, and Leroy is thinking of this as a new beginning for the two of them.

I knew there was some parallels and significance to the battle of Shiloh in the Civil War and the marriage of Leroy and Norma Jean. After doing some research, I have come to found that the battle of Shiloh was a major confederate battle in the south. The question of who really won was never discussed due to the extreme loss of life, however just when you thought that one side was in control, the other side rallied back. This has a parallel to Norma Jean and Leroy's marriage, in the aspect of the control shifts and who has the power, and how it all really is never discussed.

The story ends with Norma Jean telling Leroy that she wants to leave him, and him really not grasping it. It is obvious that Norma Jean is more self-sufficient then he is, and he is more at a loss for words. There is a hint of irony here in regards to the people that Leroy and Norma Jean have become. They both never thought they would be taking on the roles that they have. Norma Jean being the provider when she thought she would be more submissive, and Leroy being submissive when he thought he would always be the provider.

Norma Jean, after telling Leroy it's over, walks away from him, right to the edge of the river. Leroy watches her as she looks back at him and waves her arms. Is she calling out to him? Is she “exercising her chest muscles”? Why did she walk right to the river edge, only to turn around at that point. Is she going to jump? With the way that it ends, no one really knows for sure, and it is opened to the reader's interpretation of it. The romantic will think she is calling out to him, and they will embrace and all will be okay. The feminist will think she is doing chest exercises, having walked away from her marriage and is still showing signs of being powerful and strong. The depressed will think she will jump in the river, ending her life. As for my interpretation, well, I have always been kind of a feminist.