Divorce, feminism, and ethnic identity are some of the social constructs present in Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh. These ideas can be traced in the collection’s title story, “Shiloh.” This story of a struggling married couple shows how beliefs change over time. In particular, the story shows how long-held traditions in the South are subject to change, for both a family and for the culture more broadly.
When considering the question, one must think about context. The story is set in a small town in the south in the 1980s. Often referred to as the “Bible belt,” this is a region where family life is determined by conservative Christian views. Norma Jean reflects the growing change in beliefs and identity in the South.
According to a traditional view of marriage, men are to be providers, while women are to take care of the home. The character of Norma Jean subverts these expectations by working and going to school. In juxtaposition, Leroy does not uphold these expectations either: although he aspires to build a home, he is no longer working due to an accident. The dynamics between Norma Jean and Leroy show the shifting landscape of family life, as demonstrated when Norma instructs Leroy or disagrees with him. These marital dynamics foreground the theme of feminism.
The topic of feminism is further reflected in the meaning of the two characters’ names. Leroy means “king,” and Norma is derived from the Normans, who “were invaders,” as Norma tells Leroy. Moreover, Norma Jean’s emphasis on her physical strength—as underscored by her completion of a “six-week bodybuilding course”—runs counter to the conservative view of a woman’s appearance in the South at that time and highlights Norma’s personal agency. By contrast, Leroy’s sense of his waning power is evident when he asks, “Am I still king around here?” Indeed, one could argue that the possibility of divorce—another practice that runs counter to traditional norms—looms over such encounters.
Norma and Leroy’s visit to Shiloh is symbolic of a return to the traditional way of life for a changing South. Yet one of the featured attractions of the Shiloh battlefield is a bullet-hole-riddled log cabin that represents the frailty of holding on to dated points of view. One could imagine the beliefs of many families living in the Confederate south. Leroy dreams of building a log cabin of his own, a symbol of his desire to live according to a traditional way of life. But the damaged log cabin at Shiloh problematizes this dream, showing Leroy the impossibility of creating such a traditional life in modern times.
The themes present in Shiloh are arguably still prevalent today. There are conservative right-wing beliefs that strongly influence people, particularly in regions of the Midwest and the South. There are still organizations that see marriage, gender roles, and ethnic identity as key social constructs that are at the center of cultural life. The gender norms that Norma struggles against can still be found in many parts of the country, as can the traditional views of race and ethnicity upheld by the Daughters of the Confederacy, the organization that Norma’s mother, Mabel, has joined.