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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

When Leroy asks Norma Jean if her behavior is a result of the women’s movement, she tells him not to be silly. Ironically, Norma Jean has been affected more than she knows by feminist ideas and images of women in the media. Leroy compares her to the television character Wonder Woman. Influenced by advertising, she eats “Body Buddies” cereal. Although Norma Jean does not begin lifting weights until after she observes Leroy’s physical therapy, she has seen articles about bodybuilding in magazines sold at the drugstore where she works. She identifies with the film star Marilyn Monroe, whose real name was also Norma Jean. Like many women influenced by feminism, she is taking night courses and planning to leave her husband.

Leroy has also been influenced by the media. One of his pastimes is needlepoint, a practice popularized for men by media coverage when football player Rosey Grier begins doing it. Influenced by television, Leroy makes a Star Trek pillow cover, and he tries to remember if it was on Phil Donahue’s show where he heard that losing a child generally destroys a marriage. Leroy is becoming aware that he should not believe everything that he sees on television or reads. When Randy died suddenly, Leroy was told that it just happens sometimes. Leroy observes that now scientists believe crib death is caused by a virus. Nobody knows anything, he thinks.

Norma Jean’s identification with Marilyn Monroe has ominous implications. Monroe, whose early life was like Norma Jean’s, died at the age of thirty-six from an overdose of sleeping pills, possibly a suicide. She exemplified the classic show-business tragedy. Before they go to Shiloh, Norma Jean tells Leroy that his name means “the king.” This identifies Leroy with Elvis Presley, who was also from a small southern town. Elvis rose to fame and fortune, only to die at age forty-two of health problems complicated by his reliance on drugs. Leroy sometimes used speed on the road, smokes marijuana, and asks Stevie Hamilton what other drugs he has. With those references, Bobbie Ann Mason suggests the potential destructiveness of twentieth century mass culture. Norma Jean also tells Leroy that her name comes from the Normans, who were invaders. This connects to the story’s title and relates Norma Jean to the North, Leroy to the South, in the Civil War.

At Shiloh, Confederate forces ambushed Union troops on April 6, 1862, pushing back the lines of the invading army. The next day Union forces retook the lost ground, pushing the Confederate troops back to Corinth, Tennessee. Neither army won this battle, in which approximately ten thousand men were killed on each side. Leroy ambushed Norma Jean when he came home after his accident. When Mason describes Norma Jean marching through the kitchen doing goose steps, she implies that she has become a soldier in the army of mass culture. Her counterattack on Leroy occurs when she says she wants to leave him. The end of the marriage represents the death of the family in twentieth century society, and of the future, represented by Randy. The baby died in the backseat of their car, while Leroy and Norma Jean watched Doctor Strangelove (1963) at the drive-in—a film about the end of civilization.

Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

The American Dream
For most people, the American Dream is the belief that if one works hard and long enough, one will achieve financial and emotional security. With his accident, however, Leroy is confronted with the truth: he lives in a rented home, he has no child, and his wife has lost interest in him. He attempts to resurrect his idea of the American Dream by making plans to build a log cabin. However, even this dream evaporates as his wife tells him that she wants to leave him. Norma Jean also buys into the American Dream but lives an empty life. She works at a drug store and is confronted with cosmetics and beauty magazines promising to change her life. She lifts weights and writes compositions. She cooks exotic food and plays the organ....

(The entire section is 1,455 words.)