Themes and Meanings

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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.


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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...

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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. She makes lists of things Leroy can do. In spite of her dreams and hard work, however, she too finds the American Dream elusive.

Change and Transformation
In "Shiloh," Leroy and Norma Jean are victims of rapid social change. Subdivisions and shopping malls are quickly changing their formerly rural Kentucky environment. Leroy "cruises the new subdivisions, feeling like a criminal rehearsing for a robbery.... All the houses look grand and complicated. They depress him." Leroy resists change, looking backward to an earlier time. He wants to build a log cabin—a traditional dwelling. Furthermore, he wants to start his marriage over again. "You and me could start all over again," he tells Norma Jean. ''Right back at the beginning.'' Norma Jean, however, has no desire to go back to the beginning. She attempts to transform herself in the face of change. Her weightlifting, adult education classes, and exotic cooking are symptomatic of her desire for transformation. She dismisses Leroy's notion of a log cabin; the subdivisions are more to her liking. Leroy embraces tradition, but Norma Jean rejects it. "You ain't seen nothing yet," Norma Jean says to her mother. When she tells Leroy she wants to leave him, she rejects not only Leroy but also the tradition of marriage.

Identity and the Search for Self
Closely related to social change and transformation is the search for new identities by the characters of "Shiloh." Until his accident, Leroy had identified himself with his big rig, which now sits useless in his yard. Now Leroy sits in his house and makes needlepoint pillows. He searches for some way to reestablish himself as the head of the household and finally settles on the idea of building a log cabin. Norma Jean's search for self emerges in her attempts at self-improvement. When she married at eighteen, she had imagined herself as a housewife and mother. With the death of her child and the disability of her husband, however, she finds that she needs a new identity. Norma Jean's movement from one self-improvement project to another suggests that she is not certain about the self she is trying to uncover. During her life, her identity has been denned by her relationship first to her mother and then to Leroy. Although she is uncertain of the identity she wants to assume, she knows that she can no longer allow her mother and Leroy to define her. In response to Leroy's assertion that they could start all over again, she replies, "She won't leave me alone—you won't leave me alone." She adds: "I feel eighteen again. I can't face that all over again."

Gender Roles
At least part of the identity crisis that Leroy and Norma Jean face can be attributed to their reversal of traditional gender roles. When Leroy shows Mabel his needlepoint pillow cover, she responds, ''That's what a woman would do.'' Now that Leroy can no longer work, Norma Jean holds down the role of primary breadwinner for the family. Her interest m building her pectoral muscles is also a traditional male preoccupation. Norma Jean points out to Leroy mat his name means "the king." However, when Leroy asks, "Am I still the king around here?'' Norma Jean responds by flexing her biceps and feeling them for hardness. The term "flexing one's muscles" is often used metaphorically to describe someone who is trying to exert his or her power in a situation. In this case, Norma Jean is getting ready to assert her independence. In the final reversal of the story, it is Norma Jean who drives the car when she and Leroy go to Shiloh. Leroy, the long-distance truck driver, sits in the passenger seat as his wife drives him to the site of the Confederate defeat.

The theme of death weaves its way through the text of "Shiloh." In the background is the death of the infant Randy, the only fruit of the union between Leroy and Norma Jean. Their way of life in rural Kentucky is also dying, buried beneath subdivisions and shopping malls. The critical scene in the story—the breakup (or death) of Leroy and Norma Jean's marriage—takes place in the Union cemetery at the Shiloh battlefield As Norma Jean walks away from Leroy after telling him that she wants to leave him, Leroy "tries to focus on the fact that thirty-five hundred soldiers died on the grounds around him." Each of the themes discussed above arrives at a kind of death: the death of traditional culture, the death of the American Dream, the death of old selves, identities, and roles, and, finally, the death of the Moffitts' marriage.