Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason
In Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason we have the theme of change, courage, independence, loss, conflict, insecurity, determination and uncertainty. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that Mason may be exploring the theme of change. Norma Jean wants to end her marriage to Leroy. It is not as though she wishes to immediately begin a new relationship with somebody else. Instead there is a sense that Norma Jean is being independent. Something that may have been brought on not only by her discomfort with having Leroy home but my furthering her education. It is as though she is looking after both her mind and her body and things have changed not only mentally for Norma Jean but physically too. It seems obvious that the next step for Norma is to change her circumstances. That being her marriage to Leroy. Who appears to be paralysed throughout the story. Something that Mason emphasizes by way of Leroy’s accident and his leg. Leroy can’t keep up with Norma Jean. He is also at a loss as how to express himself when it comes to his marriage and seems to accept the fact that Norma Jean wants to leave him. Though he may not necessarily consider the steps that Norma Jean is taking to be courageous or driven by a desire to be independent.
There is also a sense that throughout the story Leroy is feeling the loss of his only child. Despite the passage of time he can still remember with clarity what had happened. It most likely doesn’t help Leroy and Norma Jean’s relationship that they have never discussed the child’s death. Rather Norma Jean appears to have been happier with life moving along as it did. With Leroy being away for long spells. Regardless of this it is also noticeable that Leroy since he has been house bound has become determined to build a log cabin for both himself and Norma Jean. It may be a case that Leroy feels as though a change physically will change the dynamic of his relationship to Norma Jean and that they might grow to become closer to one another. However from the beginning of the story the reader realises that the aspirations that Leroy has do not match Norma Jean’s aspirations. She does not wish to live in a log cabin. Possibly because it may remind her that her mother lived in a log cabin.
There is also a sense of conflict between Mabel and Norma Jean. Mabel not only doesn’t agree with Norma Jean smoking but Norma Jean feels as though her mother is getting back at her by mentioning the baby that was killed by the dog. This could be important as it is the only occasion in the story in whereby the reader realises just how fresh the wound is when it comes to Norma Jean losing her own child. Which may suggest to some readers that there are areas in Norma Jean’s life that she is as emotionally paralysed as Leroy physically is. It is also interesting that Mason uses the war memorial at Shiloh and the cemetery as a setting later on in the story. Just as a cemetery is a place for the dead. Something has also died in Leroy. Though he accepts that his marriage is over. He doesn’t necessarily have to like it. The reason that the reader realises that Leroy accepts his marriage is over is because he acts feebly when talking to Norma Jean about their marriage and its prospects. He makes no real effort to save the marriage. It is as though he is defeated.
What is also interesting about the end of the story is how Leroy mistakenly misinterprets Norma Jean’s exercising with her arms to be a gesture from Norma Jean for him to come closer. To be near her. By ending the story with both characters being physically distant from one another Mason may be symbolically highlighting the realities of the situation. In reality the marriage is over. There will be no reconciliation between Leroy and Norma Jean. It might also be important that there are children running past Leroy when he attempts to follow Norma Jean. As Mason could be using the children to symbolise what Leroy might have once had. Even if it was only for four months. The short period of time is irrelevant as Leroy has never been able to move on from the child’s death and now he finds himself in a position in whereby Norma Jean wants to start afresh without him in her life. In reality there are no real winners in the story. Leroy is to be alone and Norma Jean though showing courage and independence. Is unsure of what the future will hold for her.