Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Mason writes “Shiloh” in a realistic style into which she weaves symbolic images and references. By paralleling Norma Jean and Leroy with the North and South in the Civil War—and, further, by linking this conflict with the mutual annihilation of the West and the East imagined in Doctor Strangelove—Mason approaches allegory. The word “civil” can refer to marriage as well as to the war between the states, which is also ironic. Mason’s references to Monroe and Presley, to songs such as “Sunshine Superman,” and to films such as Doctor Strangelove, provide a commentary on the characters and incidents of the story. All of these references communicate Mason’s view of the direction taken by history since the defeat of agrarianism in the Civil War.
Mason also uses patterns of imagery to communicate her theme. Images of death are dominant. Death from industrial pollution is linked to the subdivisions spreading “like an oil slick.” Leroy relates this to the disappearance of the farmers, another kind of death. He compares the new, white-columned brick house of Stevie Hamilton’s father to a funeral parlor. At Shiloh, he thinks the cemetery of the Union dead, with its white markers, looks like a subdivision site. Norma Jean walks through this cemetery following a brick path. The word “brick” echoes its use in the description of Dr. Hamilton’s house. This suggests to the reader where Norma Jean will end up if she leaves...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The sixteen short stories that constitute Bobbie Ann Mason’s first published collection, Shiloh, and Other Stories, recount the lives of women in the fictional small town of Hopewell, Kentucky, who have a common desire for personal understanding. With the exception of “Nancy Culpepper” and “Lying Doggo,” Mason’s stories deal with different female protagonists, but each story addresses the same general theme: Every woman must find comfort in understanding herself as an individual; when she becomes the emotional appendage of a male, all of her individuality is lost.
Nancy Culpepper, the protagonist of the stories “Nancy Culpepper” and “Lying Doggo,” is a typical Mason protagonist. In the first story, much of Nancy’s time is spent trying to save her grandmother’s photographs and trying to identify a woman in an old portrait who she believes is a distant relative also named Nancy Culpepper. She is hoping to find some connection with her familial past. Although Nancy is disappointed when she discovers that the woman in question is not Nancy Culpepper, she realizes that she has been actively searching for her own identity.
In the second story in which she appears, Nancy Culpepper is confronted with standing up against her husband’s decision to put their old dog, Grover, to sleep. This stand is more than a mere attempt to save an old dog’s life; Nancy needs to be and will be heard.
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories continues the tradition in which women writers tell the stories of women who are looking for individual identities, a tradition perfected by such earlier writers as Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, and Harper Lee. Like her literary precursors, Mason chooses to tell women’s stories through female protagonists and narrators. This technique has proved to be a successful vehicle for telling women’s stories in the works of other disparate contemporary women writers such as Lee Smith, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, and Rita Mae Brown.
Feminist critics have long been concerned with the dearth of women writers who have come to the forefront of American literature and with men writers’ attempts to tell women’s stories. In Shiloh and Other Stories and in her later works, Mason takes important steps toward allaying these concerns. In each story, Mason provides a complete depiction of the momentary fragments that produce the lives that her female protagonists have been forced to live.
In none of her stories does Mason moralize or offer clear-cut answers to complex problems. Her intention is to inform rather than pontificate. Mason is able to draw her reader into her fictional world by creating believable characters who live in believable settings. The reader’s concern turns from the progression of a fictional narrative to commiseration with an individual who is experiencing intense...
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Change Comes to Kentucky
Virtually every reviewer of "Shiloh" notes that the story is set in rural western Kentucky, a location undergoing rapid cultural change. This is the Kentucky in which Mason herself grew up. As a result, she is able to create believable characters caught m the transition between the old, pastoral, rural world of farms and close-knit communities and the modern, anonymous, suburban world of shopping malls and fast-food restaurants. In "Shiloh," for example, Leroy did not notice the change in his hometown while he was on the road as a trucker. However, now that Leroy has come home to stay, "he notices how much the town has changed. Subdivisions are spreading across western Kentucky like an oil slick.''
Some of these changes are noticeable from demographic information about the area For example, m 1980, 73 percent of western Kentucky's residents had completed grammar school, but by 1990, the figure had jumped to 84 percent. This statistic is reflected in Mason's story: Leroy and Norma Jean had little formal education, but Norma Jean comes to realize the value of school and begins taking adult education classes. Similarly, in 1980 only 11 percent of Kentuckians had completed at least one year of college. By 1990, over 19 percent had. Other statistics point to shifting cultural patterns in formerly rural Kentucky. In 1985, Graves County (where Mason grew up) per capita income was $10,900, but by 1995 this figure had risen to...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Abundant opportunity for discussion of familial and social relationships exists in the various stories Mason presents in this collection. Readers might want to list the many themes they encounter, such as parenthood, sibling relationships, spousal relationships, forgiveness, the power of memory, etc., then go back and find such themes in individual stories to note how the varied plots can focus upon identical themes. Most readers will see themselves in one or more of Mason's characters, or at least an aspect of themselves. An enjoyable exercise is the discussion of which character individual group members are most strongly attracted to and why.
1. Discuss the effects of depressed economic conditions upon the various characters of Mason's short stories.
2. How does television work as a negative influence in the lives of Mason's short stories.
3. Choose one female character from a Mason story who you think best represents Mason's idea of a "heroine". Explain why.
4. Choose one male character from a Mason story who you think best represents Mason's idea of a "hero". Explain why.
5. In "Drawing Names", why is Carolyn attracted to Jim? How can you defend this aspect of Mason's plot as realistic?
6. Explain which of the stories is your favorite and why.
7. Can any positive message be drawn from the dissolution of the relationship between Leroy and Norma Jean in "Shiloh"?
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Point of View
Although a number of critics see ''Shiloh'' as a feminist saga of a woman flexing her muscles and taking flight, "Shiloh" is really Leroy's story. The story is told entirely from his point of view. Point of view, sometimes called narrative perspective, is the term used to describe the way in which the writer presents the material of a story to the reader. ''Shiloh'' is told from a third-person, limited point of view. That is, readers see only what Leroy sees and hear only what Leroy hears. In addition, because the story is told from Leroy's point of view, readers are privy to Leroy's thoughts and memories, but not to Norma Jean's or to her mother's. Because of this, readers' reactions to the others in the story are conditioned by Leroy's perspective.
The term "narrative" relates to how events unfold in a story. A narrative can be arranged chronologically, in which the events that occur first are depicted first, or according to any number of plans that the writer might want to follow. The narrative of "Shiloh" is in present tense, which gives readers the sense that the story is unfolding before their eyes. In addition, although the overall narration moves from an earlier point in time to a later point in time, there are flashbacks embedded in the story. Sometimes an event or thought in the present will trigger a memory for Leroy, and this is how readers learn about the Moffitts' past. For example, when...
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Typical of realistic writing generally, Mason's first collection of short stories is strongly oriented toward documenting the social lives of her characters. In Mason's version of life in western Kentucky, these concerns are predominantly economic and familial. On the one hand, Mason demonstrates at great length the disjunction between the limited horizons of predominantly rural Kentucky life and the world of television and consumer culture with which it collides. This generates one of Mason's often repeated themes, that of the person who desires to flee a constraining environment. On the other hand, she also asserts the powerful pull of familial connections upon these often frustrated individuals.
The emotional world of Mason's fiction is one that is governed frequently by disappointment, compromise, divorce, and diminished expectations. This, however, is principally true of those figures who grew up under the shadow of the end of provincial life and the arrival of mainstream America in western Kentucky. Typically, they have factory jobs in an increasingly threatened industrial base, or they pursue a living on the low-paying fringes of commercial life. The older generation, frequently rural and seemingly innocent of or indifferent to the contemporary world, is the source of familial affiliations, and many of Mason's female characters find themselves torn between the roles of daughter and independent woman in a transformed social world.
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Compare and Contrast
1980s: Sudden infant death syndrome has been a recognized medical disease since 1970. In 1988, there are 5,476 infant deaths from SIDS in the United States.
1990s: Estimates regarding the number of deaths caused by SIDS in the United States range from 3,000 to 7,000 per year. Experts determine that putting babies to sleep on their backs can prevent SIDS. In 1994, only 30 percent of babies are put to sleep on their backs. By 1997, the number rises to 79 percent.
1980s: Marijuana use among high schoolers is steadily declining. By 1989, 33 percent of high school seniors report having smoked marijuana, down from 50 percent in 1979. Until the late 1980s, when the federal Drug Enforcement Administration holds hearings on reclassifying marijuana as a legal, prescribable substance, marijuana is quietly used as a medical treatment for some conditions.
1990s: Many experts still believe that the dangers of marijuana are unknown. Nevertheless, cultivation of marijuana in the United States is on the rise and accounts for nearly 25 percent of the U.S. market in 1990. In 1996, the use of marijuana for medical purposes, typically for glaucoma and to relieve nausea caused by cancer treatments, becomes legal in California and Arizona after voters approve controversial propositions.
1980s: After the introduction of laws in the 1970s that make divorce easier to obtain, divorce rates rise. In 1982, the...
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Topics for Further Study
One critic has called contemporary writers like Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason "K-Mart realists." What do you think this term means? Do you feel it is accurate?
The South has inspired many talented women writers. Two of the most popular are Hannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty. Read a story by each of these authors and discuss how their perceptions of the South differ from Mason's.
Critics Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet have compared Leroy Moffitt to the Fisher King of the Holy Grail legend. Find out who the Fisher King was, and explain if you think this is a valid comparison.
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While Shiloh and Other Stories might be said to anticipate much of Mason's subsequent fiction in its thematic concerns and technical strategies, at least one story foreshadows a subsequent work. The Culpepper family is the subject of Mason's second novel Spence + Lila (1989), which is in many a ways a metaphoric extension of the events outlined in Mason's story, "Nancy Culpepper."
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What Do I Read Next?
In Country is Mason's 1985 novel about eighteen-year-old Samantha Hughes's quest to understand her father's death in the Vietnam War and to understand herself.
Mason's 1989 collection of short stories, Love Life, introduces more characters caught in changing circumstances.
Shelby Foote's Shiloh (1952) is a fictional account of the Civil War battle told from a variety of perspectives.
The American Story: Short Stories from the Rea Award (1993), edited by Michael Rea, offers a selection of stories by such authors as Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Beattie, Charles Baxter, and Grace Paley, among others, for the student wishing to further an understanding of the short story genre and of minimalist writing.
The War in Kentucky: From Shiloh to Perryville is James McDonough's 1994 exploration of the importance of Kentucky in the Civil War.
New Women and New Fiction: Short Stories since the Sixties (1986) is a collection of stories by such contemporary women writers as Cynthia Ozick, Toni Cade Bambara, Anne Tyler, Fay Weldon and Ann Beattie, among others.
Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories (1988) is widely considered a collection of minimalist masterpieces.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. "The Ambiguous Grail Quest in 'Shiloh'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 223-26.
Lyons, Gene. A review of Shiloh and Other Stories in Newsweek, November 15,1982, p. 107
Mason, Bobbie Ann and Lila Havens. "Bobbie Ann Mason-A Conversation with Lila Havens," in The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, 2nd ed., edited by Ann Charters, St. Martin's Press, 1987," pp. 1345-49.
Towers, Robert. A review of Shiloh and Other Stones in The New York Review of Books, December 16,1982, p. 38.
Tyler, Anne. A review of Shiloh and Other Stories in The New Republic, November 1,1982, p. 36.
Vigderman, Patricia. A review of Shiloh and Other Stories in The Nation, March 19,1983, p 345.
Wilhelm, Albert E. ''Private Rituals: Coping with Change in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason,'' in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 28, No 2, Winter, 1987, pp. 271-82.
"Bobbie Ann Mason," in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 4, edited by Thomas Votteler, Gale, 1990, pp 298-311. Includes reprinted criticism on Mason's short stories.
Bnnkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. "Finding One's History. Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 20-33. Concentrates on the...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. “Finding One’s History: Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature.” Southern Literary Journal 19 (Spring, 1987): 22-33.
Flora, Joseph M. “Bobbie Ann Mason.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Price, Joanna. Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Ryan, Maureen. “Stopping Places: Bobbie Ann Mason’s Short Stories.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984.
Wilhelm, Albert. Bobbie Ann Mason: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1998
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