Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Bobbie Ann Mason’s short story “Shiloh” tells the story of a marriage with serious problems. The couple in question, Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt, are working-class people living in the modern South, and thus they bring into their marriage all sorts of unspoken expectations of who they should be, which often contrast violently with who they are—even more so with who they are becoming. Leroy’s name means “the king” in French, and he clearly initiated their relationship expecting to be the strong, macho guy, the breadwinner, the one who wore the pants. Similarly, Norma Jean was named after the doomed movie star Marilyn Monroe (whose real name was Norma Jean Baker), and she undoubtedly entered into their relationship expecting to be a sweet, lovely, pliant girlfriend, wife and mother.
But fate intervened. Leroy, a truck driver, injured his leg in a job-related accident, and can no longer drive his truck: “It sits in the backyard, like a gigantic bird that has flown home to roost.” Aside from his leg injury, he is not disabled in any other way, and ought to be able to find some other means of making a living. However, as is the case with many people, his occupation is so inextricably tied to his sense of identity that he can’t figure out anything else to do. A truck driver feels like a macho, good-old-boy sort of job, and if he can’t be a truck driver any more, he feels that he can’t be himself any more either.
In a sort of unconscious reaction to Leroy’s twist of fate, Norma Jean takes over being the big, macho guy. She begins lifting the weights that Leroy is supposed to use for his physical therapy, and becomes obsessed with making herself hard: “I’d give anything if I could just get these muscles to where they’re real hard,” she says. But at the moment, she is working on her pectorals, which are the chest muscles underlying her breasts. A woman’s chest isn’t supposed to be hard; a man’s is. Norma Jean, we see from the outset, is trying to become the man in the family.
Leroy, on the other hand, is trying to become the woman. Considering himself completely disabled, he has taken up needlepoint, which he quite accurately points out is a form of recreational activity practiced by professional football players (Roosevelt Grier, for example, was quite well-known for his needlepoint). It is no accident that he should choose this example, because football players are traditionally considered the most macho of men—just like truck drivers. But Norma Jean’s mother Mabel doesn’t buy this. “[Needlepoint] is what a woman would do,” she tells him. “…I don’t believe you for one minute. You don’t know what to do with yourself—that’s the whole trouble.”
Mabel thinks the couple would benefit from traveling to the Confederate battleground at Shiloh, Tennessee. She went there once, on her honeymoon, which connects it in the reader’s mind with marriage; despite the fact that Mabel’s been talking about it for the last thirty-five years, Norma Jean and Leroy haven’t ever been there. Norma Jean, for her part, rudely shuts her mother up whenever Mabel suggests going; on the other hand, Leroy at one point says not only would he like to go, but he’d like to take Mabel with them. Mabel replies, “I’m not going to butt in on anybody’s second honeymoon,” despite the fact that up to that moment no one has suggested that it would be a second honeymoon for Norma Jean and Leroy at all.
What is the significance of Shiloh, and how does it relate to the problems in Norma Jean and Leroy’s marriage? Shiloh was the site of a major Confederate battle of the Civil War. During this battle, Rebel forces attacked the forces of the Federal government—the forces supporting the status quo—and nearly defeated them. At the last moment, the tables turned and the forces of the Federal government rallied. But the question of who won at Shiloh is almost a moot point, because so many lives were lost, and the Federal forces were too tired to even chase the rebels when they retreated.
The same can really be said here. The rebel force would have to be Norma Jean, who is trying to assert herself when the foundation she expects Leroy to provide for her collapses beneath them. For most of the story Leroy seems vanquished. But Norma Jean moves on with her life and learns new skills—something her husband doesn’t seem capable of doing. She learns to play the organ; she goes to night school to learn English composition after gaining confidence from her body-building class. Leroy, on the other hand, “makes things from craft kits. He started by building a miniature log cabin from notched Popsicle sticks. . . . Then he tried string art (sailing ships on black velvet), a macrame owl kit, a snap-together B-17 Flying Fortress, and a lamp made out of a model truck, with a light fixture screwed on the top of a cab.”
Clearly Leroy’s activities are more fit for a geriatric craft class than the capabilities of a man in the prime of his life. Norma Jean comes up with lists of things Leroy could do, like “You could get a job as a guard at Union Carbide, where they’d let you set on a stool. You could get on at the lumberyard. You could do a little carpenter work, if you want to build so bad.” But he doesn’t do any of those things, any more than he builds Norma Jean the house he keeps talking about. Symbolically, Leroy can’t build his wife a house, because the foundation of their marriage is gone.
But then Leroy insists on going on the trip to Shiloh, which seems as if it will be a turning point for them. Certainly he doesn’t understand the symbolic connection with the events of the Civil War; he merely feels that maybe Mabel’s right—by going away, he and Norma Jean could rekindle that loving feeling. That he, himself, perceived it this way is shown by his line, “You and me could start all over again. Right back at the beginning.” Norma Jean realizes that Leroy wants this moment to herald a second beginning, but she alone recognizes that it’s simultaneously a dead end. She no longer knows who Leroy is.
Additionally, however, Mason’s enigmatic ending to the story indicates that Norma Jean no longer knows who she is either. She didn’t ask to be this new woman, and like her namesake Marilyn Monroe, she isn’t completely comfortable with the woman she has become. On the one hand she feels powerful, which is intoxicating but still something she never intended; on the other, the fact that her mother’s disparagement of her smoking can still wound her so deeply shows that Norma Jean is still a little girl looking for approval, and she can’t stand herself being in that position either. Leroy’s abdication of his “proper” place in the family has left her with no place to be.
Norma Jean tells Leroy she wants to leave him, and we assume she means she wants a divorce; yet in the very last paragraph of the story, she stands up and walks rapidly toward the river, turning at the last moment and waving her arms in a way Leroy can’t interpret. “Is she beckoning to him? She seems to be doing an exercise for her chest muscles.” The implication, as the story ends, is that Norma Jean is about to leap over the embankment into the river to kill herself. If so, it provides an ending eerily reminiscent of the outcome of the historical battle of Shiloh—there were heavy casualties on both sides, but nobody really won.
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