Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Bobbi Ann Mason's (Open-Ended) Marriages

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Bobbi Ann Mason's (Open-Ended) Marriages

Article excerpt

WOMEN IN Bobbie Ann Mason's Shiloh and Other Stories struggle with dilemmas that reflect feminist concerns with struggles for identity and personal independence. While engaged in these personal struggles, many of the women reassess their marriages and contemplate divorce. Mason's treatment of these women's situations ranges from references to idle gossip about a couple's separation to portrayals of divorce as the central theme. In terms of considering marriage and contemplating divorce, "Shiloh," "Still Life with Watermelon," "Residents and Transients," and "The Retreat" are on the surface open-ended stories. Yet examining the recurring images and metaphors that emerge throughout the texts answers the central questions raised at the ends of the stories.

Regarding "Shiloh," critics argue that because of her new-found independence Norma Jean will divorce Leroy. Dee Bakker notes that Norma Jean improves her mind and body, "her means of gaining power-in-the-world, and in the end she decides to dissolve her marriage in order to further explore and expand her power" (83-84). G. O. Morphew says, "By himself, Leroy is no match for Norma Jean, and like the Union army of the original battle of Shiloh, she is the aggressor, the invader, and she wins her own battle when she announces she is leaving Leroy" (45). Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet note that "[d]eath and desolation permeate the Moffitts' existence"; Leroy's truck symbolizes "a mechanical tombstone marking the death of the Moffitt marriage" (224). While Blythe and Sweet observe desolation imagery, Barbara Henning considers construction imagery: "The act of building offers the reader a framework for understanding this story" (691). She adds that focus on the activity of building becomes a displacement "for Leroy's feelings about his marriage and his life, emphasizing the pain and alienation Norma Jean and he are experiencing" (693).

While the above critics make astute observations concerning Mason's use of desolation and construction imagery, other images that suggest desolation and construction imagery can be examined together in terms of (re)construction. When "Shiloh" is considered in these terms, interpretation suggests that Norma Jean and Leroy experience both life-affirming and life-denying events; thus, the juxtaposition of these opposing events indicates that Norma Jean and Leroy's marriage may not end. Instead, Norma Jean and Leroy may rebuild a marriage that was not, to use Mason's metaphor, built on a solid foundation in the first place.

Significantly, the opening line of the story reveals that Norma Jean is building her body: "Leroy Moffitt's wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals" (1). Moreover, Norma Jean is motivated to begin bodybuilding because Leroy injured his leg, representative of destruction. Since the accident, Leroy is unable to work, so he makes things from craft kits to occupy his mind. He first makes out of Popsicle sticks a cabin that reminds him of a Nativity scene. At first his creations "were diversions, something to kill time, but now he is thinking of building a full-scale log house from a kit" (2). Whereas the cabin reminds Leroy of a Nativity scene, an allusion to birth and new beginnings, he ironically engages in building to "kill time."

Norma Jean's job as a cosmetics salesperson at Rexall reflects her desire for economic independence. Leroy notes a connection between his and Norma Jean's occupations: "When she explains to Leroy the three stages of complexion care, involving creams, toners, and moisturizers, he thinks happily of other petroleum products--axle grease, diesel fuel" (2). Both types of products are reconstructive--the former replenishes flesh; the latter replenishes machinery. The reference to replenishing petroleum products is juxtaposed against the first reference to the death of Norma Jean and Leroy's child, Randy. Death and restoration symbolize seemingly conflicting desires: Norma Jean's desire for independence and Leroy's attempt to restore his marriage. …

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