|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 8 (1991)|
Bobbie Ann Mason writes about people beset and befuddled by change
-- change most often brought on by modern technology and modern
civilization. Often we see her rural or blue-collar protagonists
struggling to make sense of shopping malls, housing developments,
and the latest topic on the Phil Donahue Show. But above all,
I think, we see the men and women of her stories struggling to
make sense of themselves and one another. Albert E. Wilhelm remarks
that Mason is primarily interested in explaining the crises in
individual lives that are provoked or intensified by radical changes
in social relationships" (272-273). Certainly one of her
foremost concerns in Shiloh and Other Stories is the change
in social relationships between men and women; how evolving and
rapidly shifting gender roles affect the lives of simple, everyday
people is the theme of many of the stories in this collection.
First is how some of her women try to forge new identities in
the wake of shifting gender roles and how their efforts often
include a blatant shrinking of traditionally feminine behaviors
or characteristics; sometimes they seem almost completely to be
trading roles with the men in their lives. And since change often
causes uncertainty and instability, another aspect is the way
these women find some solid ground through connections with other
Norma Jean, the main female character in the title story, is an
example of what G.O. Morphew defines as a "downhome feminist"
-- a woman who simply wants "more breathing space in [her]
relationship with [her] man" (41), some way to gain independence
and selfhood apart from marriage or heterosexual love relationships.
Norma Jean works at the Rexall drug store and has returned to
school, but Mason's portrayal of Norma Jean's quest for independence
also includes some very direct rebellion against typically feminine
roles. She is introduced in the first paragraph of the story when
we are bluntly told: "Leroy Moffitt's wife, Norma Jean, is
working on her pectorals. She lifts three-pound dumbells to warm
up, then progresses to a twenty-pound barbell. Standing with her
legs apart, she reminds Leroy of Wonder Woman" (1). While
more and more women are participating in weightlifting and bodybuilding,
it still remains largely a male-dominated activity and carries
with it images of extreme strength and power. Mason continues
to use the image significantly throughout the story. Norma Jean's
interest in bodybuilding was kindled after Leroy hurt his leg
in the truck-driving accident and needed some physical therapy
that involved weightlifting. Now, "building herself up"
(1) has become a regular part of Norma Jean's life. When Leroy,
who has just found out that his name means "the king,"
asks his wife if he's "still king around here," we are
told, "Norma Jean flexes her biceps and feels them for hardness,"
while evasively replying, "I'm not fooling around with anybody,
if that's what you mean" (13). Interestingly, the story both
begins and ends with this image of muscles and strength. After
Norma Jean has told Leroy at Shiloh that she wants to leave him,
she walks away from him to the bluff overlooking the Tennessee
River. Mason writes: "Now she turns toward Leroy and waves
her arms. Is she beckoning to him? She seems to be doing an exercise
for her chest muscles" (16). This very marked emphasis on
strength -- a kind of strength typically associated with masculinity
-- is one way Mason allows us to see the change in gender roles
and its relation to woman's independence.
Norma Jean seems to be shedding traditional feminine roles in
other small, but significant ways. It is she who leaves her dirty
cereal bowl on the table when she leaves for work, and when the
couple finally makes the trip to Shiloh, Norma Jean drives, with
Leroy sitting beside her. Anyone who has driven down the road
passing carfuls of couples, with the men in the front and women
in the back, knows that it is still considered appropriate for
the man to drive -- to assume the position of control. In this
story, it is clearly Norma Jean who is taking control, and her
shedding of feminine behaviors is made even more striking by Leroy's
loss of traditionally masculine ones. The two are virtually trading
places. It is Leroy who is at home all the time; he is now the
one who wakes up to the cool place in the bed and the dirty dishes.
Moreover, we are told that he has begun making things from craft
kits -- popsicle stick-building, string art, macramé, and
needlepoint, the last of which causes Mabel, Norma Jean's mother,
to have a hissy-fit. She sputters, "Great day in the morning!
-- That's what a woman would do" (6). Even Leroy's rig, the
symbol of his breadwinning abilities, is now described in domestic
terms. We are told that "it sits in the backyard, like a
gigantic bird that has flown home to roost" (1). Later it
is described as "a huge piece of furniture gathering dust
in the backyard" (10). And it is Leroy who frantically tries
to save the marriage, even giving in to Norma Jean's assumption
of new roles. He pleads with her to help him build their log cabin:
"You and me together could lift those logs. It's just like
lifting weights" (7).
The story is not without uncertainty over these changing roles.
While Leroy seems comfortable with needlepoint and staying home,
both Mabel and Norma Jean are having some trouble with it. At
one point Norma Jean laments that "in some ways, a woman
prefers a man who wanders" (15). There is also some evidence
that she is unsure over her own breaking of traditions. Her name
itself is an indication of ambivalence. Norma Jean announces to
Leroy that her name was the real name of Marilyn Monroe, perhaps
the ultimate popular symbol of femininity. But Norma also is derived
from "the Normans. They were invaders" (13) -- a curiously
warlike, macho image. In some ways, then, Norma Jean seems caught
between two worlds, two roles, and the changes in roles also result
in problems for the marriage. At the beginning of the story, Leroy
tells us that there is one connection between him and Norma Jean.
When she explains to him her duties at the Rexall drugstore where
she works at the cosmetics counter, she recounts "the three
stages of complexion care, involving creams, toners, and moisturizers"
(2). He in turn thinks "happily of other petroleum products
-- axle grease, diesel fuel" (2). It is only when they revert
to things associated with their old, traditional roles that they
can make any kind of connection.
Norma Jean is typical of many women characters in the collection.
They are women plagued by unsatisfactory marriages, often made
more so because of the sweeping changes in the way women and men
are "supposed" to be. Certainly positive male/female
relationships seem few and far between. The women, seeking their
independence and breaking from tradition, often find themselves
cast adrift in a no-woman's land -- they aren't quite sure what
to do with their new selves, or those selves are no longer compatible
with the men in their lives. Some divorce. Some remain in unhappy,
unfulfilling marriages. All seem to experience instability. In
some of the stories, however, Mason provides connections with
other women as a means of gaining some stability in the midst
of fluctuating role changes.
In "The Rookers," Mary Lou Skaggs seems, like Norma
Jean, to be swapping roles with her husband, only in this case
it doesn't seem quite so voluntary. She finds herself hauling
lumber, delivering bookshelves, and making special trips "to
town to exchange flathead screws" (17) for her carpenter
husband, Mack, who basically has become agoraphobic. We're told
the "highway makes him nervous. Increasingly, he stays at
home, working in his shop in the basement" (17). Mary Lou
is not really straining to break out of tradition so much as she
desires to do some living for herself now that her children are
grown. She would like Mack to be a part of that, but he has no
interest. When she suggests "bowling, camping, and a trip
to Opryland" (21), he says he'd rather stay home and improve
his mind by reading Shogun. When Mary Lou's long-lost brother
calls from California and invites her and Mack out for a visit,
she cautiously broaches the subject to him and gets the expected
response -- a flimsy excuse. We're told that Mary Lou has tried
to be patient with Mack; we're also told that she doesn't know
what to think anymore, and the story ends with an argument over
Judy, their college-aged daughter who has left in the midst of
the spat. Mack seems to blame Mary Lou for Judy's exit, and Mary
Lou lashes out with a telling statement reflecting her own unhappiness
and resentment: "She's gone. Furthermore, she's grown
and she can go out in the middle of the night if she wants to.
She can go to South America if she wants to" (33).
The one thing that seems to keep Mary Lou sane and solid in the
increasing turmoil of her marriage is the women of the title --
the "Rookers." Thelma Crandall, Clausie Dowdy, and Edda
Griffin are all widows, much older than Mary Lou, who meet at
one another's homes each week to play Rook. Mack tells Mary Lou
that "it is unhealthy for her to socialize with senior citizens"
(19), but the older women seem a godsend to her. She thinks it
"does her good to have some friends," and "she
feels exhilarated when she is playing cards" with them (19).
She especially admires their willingness to "get out and
go" (20); she tells Mack that Edda "goes to Paducah
driving that little Bobcat like she owned the road" (20).
"They don't hide under a bushel. Like some people I know,"
she berates him. These Rookers seem to be fulfilling the need
for companionship she desires; her suggestions to Mack about bowling
and Opryland came before she began playing regularly with
the Rookers. They also seem truly interested in her and what she
has to say; when Mary Lou tells them of her brother Ed's phone
call from California, they are "elated" over her news,
while Mack is only worried about coming up with an excuse to get
out of going to visit.
The ending of this story is not positive. Mary Lou and Mack argue,
and as her husband mindlessly dials the time and temperature number
again and again, Mary Lou comes to the realization that her husband
is afraid of people-- especially women. She feels "so sick
and heavy with her power over him that she wants to cry"
(33). Again, we see an unresolved and unhappy relationship, made
even more so by the changing relationships between men and women,
but this time we have also seen some means of seeking alternative
Connections between women also provide sustenance in other stories
in the collection. In "Nancy Culpepper," the title character,
a "new" woman, is still struggling to find identity
wand selfhood despite her non-traditional status. She is a woman
who has sought education, "culture," and independence
by moving to the Northeast. She married a "cool" photographer
husband, and at the wedding the stereo played St. Pepper's
Lonely Hearts Club Band instead of the wedding march. Time
has passed; she is still married to her photographer and they
have a son, but despite her position as a modern woman with a
n egalitarian marriage, she still has questions and doubts. We
even get the sense she has a longing for a time when things were
simpler -- including roles. Nancy finds some solace and solidity
with a long-dead great-great aunt who shared her name. When she
returns to Kentucky to help move her grandmother to a nursing
home, Nancy goes partly to search for a photograph of this woman
who serves as her link to the past. When she finally does find
the photograph, she stares at it a long time and realizes that
the young woman in the ancient photograph would be "glad
to dance to 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' on her wedding day"
(195), giving Nancy some assurance in her world of uncertainty.
In "Offerings," a final example, the importance of women's
relationships with one another is evident from t he first paragraph
when we are told the childbirth stories of Sandra's maternal grandmother
and mother. Sandra, yet another woman struggling in a marriage
that is failing, lives on a farm by herself and is awaiting a
visit from her mother and Grandmother Stamper, her father's mother.
Sandra's husband, Jerry, is living in Louisville where he works
in a K-Mart and goes to see go-go girls in smoky bars on weekends.
Sandra has given up on her marriage and tells her mother that
Jerry "better not waltz back in here. I'm through waiting
on him" (57). She seems quite happy with her life on the
farm, and she is completely self-sufficient, taking care of chores
and duties usually thought of as requiring a man. She chops wood,
insulates the attic, and fixes the leak in the basement. In fact,
she seems one of the most content and settled of all the women
in the collection. She also seems to gain strength from her mother
and her grandmother. Their relationships are not without problems.
Sandra is keeping her separation from her grandmother, and Sandra's
mother has never told her mother-in-law about her hysterectomy
and still won't smoke in front of her. However, the solidarity
among the women is unmistakable. Sandra presses her grandmother
for stories from the past, to tell about the farm she lived
on and managed. And the story ends, standing "side by side
by the edge of the pond" (59), watching Sandra's ducks:
The night is peaceful, and Sandra thinks of the thousands of large
golden garden spiders hidden in the field. In the early morning
the dew shines on their trampolines, and she can imagine bouncing
with an excited spring from web to web, all the way up the hill
to the woods. (57)
That the story begins and ends with these images of connections
between women, and indeed ends positively, is significant. It
illustrates the power of relationships between women to sustain
in times of change.
It would be mistaken to say that such relationships solve all
the problems of all the women in Shiloh and Other Stories.
Some of the relationships between women are as flawed and problematic
as those between men and women; Norma Jean, for example, has a
very difficult relationship with her mother, one which serves
to keep her as oppressed as her marriage to Leroy. But in a collection
of stories which depicts the stormy changes between the sexes
resulting from social changes, we are given an opportunity to
see women like Mary Lou, Nancy, and Sandra gaining some stability
through bonds with other women.
In "Shiloh," Leroy thinks to himself that "Nobody
knows anything. The answers are always changing" (5). The
answers are always changing as are the questions. Bobbie
Ann Mason effectively explores both in her fiction, especially
how the changing questions and answers about gender affect the
average women and men of our society.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. Shiloh and Other Stories. New York:
Morphew, G.O. "Downhome Feminists in Shiloh and Other
Stories." Southern Literary Journal 21.2 (1989):
Wilhelm, Albert E. "Private Rituals: Coping with Change in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason." Midwest Quarterly 28 (1987): 271-282.
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