In Bobbie Ann Mason's "Shiloh," why is Leroy and Norma Jean's marriage suffering?

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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"Shiloh" is a short story by Bobbie Ann Mason, appearing in both The New Yorker magazine in 1980 and in her 1982 collection Shiloh and Other stories.

Leroy has injured his leg and cannot drive his truck for work. Norma Jean, used to his absence, finds that she does not want to live with him home all the time, and more so with her mother showing up to criticize and comment on every little thing. Worse, neither of them seems to care or even notice that she is suffering. Norma Jean wants Leroy to seek work and be productive, and also wants him to appreciate all the work she is doing to keep them financially secure; she is working hard and trying to improve herself:

Something is happening. Norma Jean is going to night school... "First you have a topic sentence," she explains to Leroy. "Then you divide it up. Your secondary topic has to be connected to your primary topic."

Even Leroy's epiphany at the end is couched in his own terms, and he loses focus:

Leroy knows he is leaving out a lot. He is leaving out the insides of history. History was always just names and dates to him. It occurs to him that building a house out of logs is similarly empty -- too simple. And the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him. Now he sees that building a log house was the dumbest idea he could have had.
(Quotes: Mason, "Shiloh," Google Books)

Leroy cannot understand what Norma Jean is missing in her life; he only sees his own problems and what he thinks are her desires (a house). His inability to connect with her emotionally is the underlying problem in their marriage, as is her need to keep her feelings suppressed until they burst out at the end, instead of sitting down and talking things through.

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