It Just Happens Sometimes: Subverting Gender Roles in “Shiloh”

Bobby Ann Mason’s “Shiloh,” is seen as a masterpiece of feminist short-fiction and it is through this prism that the author skews the traditional love story and readers’ understanding of gender roles.  The story is named after a Civil War battlefield that serves as the setting for the final scene in the story where Norma Jean and Leroy face the end of their marriage.  The story was published in 1982, a time in which the second-wave of feminist politics was facing its most decided opposition, other women who claimed to be feminist but strongly supported the type of gender role for women that the second-wave of feminism sought to dispel.  What makes this story remarkable is the way in which Mason gives us characters that are opposite of those expectations. 

This is most clearly expressed by Leroy when he asks his wife “[i]s this one of those women’s lib things?” (Mason 587).  Arguably, this is the only time in the text when Leroy speaks as a representative for men, attempting to blame the liberated female for his inability to fulfill her emotional needs in their marriage.  This is apropos because this is Leroy’s story.  All of the important things that happen to Norma Jean, all of the moments that propel her character’s change, happen off-page and we only learn about them through Leroy.  Those moments when we learn that Norma Jean is “startled to find Leroy at home” (Mason 579) or knows that Leroy “doesn’t know any history” (Mason 587) come through the filter of Leroy’s perspective.  There is a dissatisfaction within Norma Jean, just like the women in the feminist movement, not just about how men see them but how they see themselves.  Their marriage is represented through the metaphor of the log cabins in the story.  The cabin he wishes to build for her is symbolic of how he wishes he could repair their marriage and escape from the reality of their life and loss.  The cabin that Mabel insists they see at Shiloh is surrounded by spectators “looking for bullet holes” (Mason 586) and if the log cabin in Leroy’s mind symbolizes his idealistic view of marriage this log cabin is how Norma Jean sees it and the bullet holes are all too visible to her. 

Mason muddies the waters by subverting gender stereotypes.  When we meet them, Norma Jean is exercising her pectoral muscles.  While exercising in and of itself is not overtly masculine, well-developed pectoral muscles are typically a hallmark of masculinity.  In juxtaposition,  Leroy does very little.  His injury prevents him from driving his truck and therefore it is not inconceivable that it also limits his ability to be active.  Yet, as a truck driver, even when he was working he sat most of the time.  It is this inactivity that bolsters Norma Jean’s resistance to his building the log cabin and – by proxy – rebuilding their marriage. 

Norma Jean is also the breadwinner in the family, working at the drug store.  While she is away at work, Leroy indulges himself in creative yet fruitless pursuits.  When building scale models of log cabins, Leroy imagines “building a full-scale house from a kit [emphasis mine]” (Mason 578) showing that even when it comes to metaphorically rebuilding the foundations of his marriage, Leroy is unwilling to do it the hard way.  Perhaps if Leroy had at least been willing to build the home after gathering the raw materials himself, she would have at least respected the idea.  Norma Jean tells him “[y]ou could do a little carpenter work, if you want to build so bad” (Mason 581), but Leroy’s resistance to this and other suggestions shows that the cabin only represents their marriage to Leroy.  To Norma Jean, it represents the dissolution of their partnership.  Perhaps this is why she chose the moment after seeing Mabel’s log-cabin to give voice to her desire to end things with Leroy. 

Mabel and her relationship with Norma Jean and Leroy is also a subversion of a traditional female role.  The Mother-in-law character has long been a staunch ally of her offspring and an adversary to the spouse.  In this case, Mabel and Norma Jean have a contentious relationship.  She visits frequently, but only to point out things Norma Jean is doing wrong such as ignoring her plants or laundry.  Even though she explicitly points out that Leroy’s pursuits are wistful and feminine and Leroy thinks she’s waiting for Norma Jean to leave him, this is all filtered through Leroy’s bias.  Taking this into consideration she is far from the witchy mother-in-law stereotype and the only one who tries to help Leroy save his marriage.  When she tells the story about the baby being mauled by the dachshund, Norma Jean sees it as an allusion to Randy’s death, but she could be wrong.  What is interesting is that the author’s choice of a dachshund, also known as a “weiner dog.”  Mabel mentions Shiloh shortly after we are introduced to her, saying they should visit it before they “get tied down” (Mason 581) which indicates that she expects them to have another child.  Perhaps Mason’s use of the weiner dog is a warning that if Norma Jean continues adopting these masculine roles, it will metaphorically kill the baby that would save their marriage. 

Mason also does not allow readers to know for certain what happens to the couple.  At Shiloh, they share a laugh after looking at the log cabin and being underwhelmed.  After Norma Jean tells Leroy that she wants a divorce and that she feels as if she is being smothered by him and her mother, Leroy reflects on the history of Shiloh – from the battle to when Norma Jean’s parents visited the monument to the present.  He realizes that his knowledge of this place is mostly empty just as is his idea of building the cabin.  The change that happens to Norma Jean is significant and only cements in place the dividers between them, but this change in Leroy gives the optimist hope that it’s not too late for him to fix things with her.  He decides to “wad the blueprints into tight balls and fling them into the lake,” drowning his erroneous plans to fix his marriage and “[t]hen he’ll get moving again [emphasis mine]” (Mason 587).

As Norma Jean walks away from him she turns back and it is in that moment that Leroy chooses to hope, but does so with doubt.  He sees her as either calling him to her or exercising.  Yet, perhaps it is both.  If Leroy assumes his former role as a working man will Norma Jean go back to being a housewife and perhaps a mother?  If not, will their relationship weather Norma Jean’s new ambitions?  If Norma Jean is all that will satisfy Leroy, what will satisfy Norma Jean?  Leroy is not a hateful man and he seems to genuinely love his wife, he’s just not very good at it.  Mason leaves the ending open to interpretation because the survival of their relationship does not matter when looking at this story through feminist eyes.  Leroy, the male, is not actively oppressing Norma Jean, the female, but merely doesn’t understand her needs.  Norma Jean’s oppressor is Mabel, the older and more conservative female, who is trying to dictate to her what a woman should be: mother, housewife, conservative, and considerate.  That Leroy finally understood the folly of his cabin fantasy shows that Mason was optimistic about male attitudes towards womens’ liberation.  Mabel’s resistance to Norma Jean’s change – and the lack of resolution thereof – shows us that the author was less optimistic about the female resistance to the movement in the late-seventies, early-eighties.  Through the subversion of gender roles in this story, Mason showcases the obstacles that stood in the way of the new feminists. 


Works Cited

Gioia, Dana, and R.S. Gwynn. The Art of the Short Story. First. New York City, Boston, et. al.: Pearson Longman, 2006. Print.