Defining Character: The Battle of Shiloh and Historical Significance in “Shiloh”

In her short story “Shiloh”, Bobbie Ann Mason creates Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt, a married couple in rural Kentucky who have come to a point in their marriage where some real questions need to be addressed.  After suddenly finding himself disabled and back home after years on the road as a truck driver, Leroy seems within the first few paragraphs of the story to be somewhat lost.  He is “not sure what to do next” and his home “does not even feel like a home.”  Similarly, Norma Jean’s life is also much different after her husband’s return.  While Leroy is content to sit and build models of B-17s and miniature log cabins out of popsicle sticks, Norma Jean takes a more active approach to life.  She involves herself with body-building, classes at a local community college, and music.  Their relationship, arguably never strong to begin with, must now face the challenges of new circumstances.  This is the context upon which the “battle” of their marriage is framed around.  Mason’s choice of the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh as the title for her story therefore serves not only as an element of setting, but also defines the complex relationship between her two main characters.

The Battle of Shiloh was a pivotal early battle in the American Civil War, fought in the spring of 1862 in southwestern Tennessee.  Its historical significance lies in fact that it was one of the most costly battles of the War, with both sides suffering heavy casualties.  But while Union forces escaped with victory, an argument can be made that no real victory was obtained by either side during those three days in April.  With the number of fatalities totaling near 3,500 soldiers, there was no real winner.  Currently, the battlefield site is a national park and cemetery and serves as a memorial to those who fought and died there.  It stands as a piece of history to remind us of the battle, the struggle that took place, and the seemingly meaningless sense of loss it represented.

This important site then becomes Bobbie Ann Mason’s central framework as she creates the story of Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt.  In their relationship, we see classic examples of role-reversal from the symbolism between Leroy spending time doing needle-point [feminine] and Norma Jean lifting weights [masculine].  We see it again in the fact that she goes to work every day while he stays at home smoking marijuana and doing crafts.  The imagery that Mason creates in terms of implied gender roles here is unmistakable, and both sides have questions about the future of their relationship.  Leroy can’t tell what his wife feels for him, while she is “often startled” to see him at home, as well as being “disappointed” by the fact that he is.  The implication here is that she wants Leroy to be the typical male provider, which is something that he seemingly lacks the ability to be.  Whether it is his ignorance or an inability to adapt, he “can’t always remember…things anymore.”  Leroy also has a desire to build his wife a log cabin, but the text suggests that Norma Jean not only doesn’t believe him, but alternatively doesn’t even want the cabin.  “Like heck you are,” she says, and steers the conversation elsewhere.  She also suggests things Leroy might do for work, but he answers with a non-committal [un-masculine] “Don’t worry.  I’ll do something.”

Obviously, their marriage is failing.  This is evident.  As his wife embarks on new projects and works hard to better herself, Leroy is stuck in neutral.  Norma Jean “does” things while Leroy simply “is”.  The realization that they have very little in common settles in more as a reality now that Leroy is permanently back home, and we see him more than once being “intimidated” by some of the changes that are happening around him.  It is with this knowledge that their marriage is on the rocks that they decide (begrudgingly on Norma Jean’s part) to visit Shiloh, where the real symbolism and theme of the story comes full circle.

Remember, Shiloh is both a battlefield and a cemetery.  It is a place where harsh fighting took place and where the dead are remembered.  That Mason would choose this site as her ultimate setting speaks to many different viewpoints.  One view is that it represents the impending death of their marriage.  Shiloh symbolizes the battle and ultimate destruction of their relationship.  When Norma Jean announces her intentions to leave her husband, it is no mere coincidence that they are sitting among thousands of dead soldiers.  It is no small coincidence that these soldiers died fighting in a tremendous struggle, similar to the one we see happening within the Moffitt family.  Additionally, one could agree that Mason could have chosen any bloody battlefield in any bloody war to symbolize this failing marriage.  What makes it so ironic and worth careful study is the fact that she chose the American Civil War.  This is without question representative of the way the Moffitts’ failing marriage mirrors our country’s failure and division of the 1860s.  In both cases, instability and miscommunication led to a battle in which there was no clear winner.  This is perhaps the best analysis of Mason’s use of Shiloh as her setting, but there are certainly more.

Conversely, there is the view that with the insertion of a cemetery as a backdrop, Mason is inferring that this is a place where healing could begin.  Since she never decisively ends their marriage within the boundaries of the text, Mason leaves open the possibility that this picnic among the dead might represent rebirth, or a new beginning.  It serves therefore as a subtle reminder to the reader that hope is possible, and that perhaps this is a renewal of sorts.  Leroy is certainly open to this possibility, as we hear him tell his wife, “You and me could start all over again.  Right back at the beginning.”  Mason tells us in the final few paragraphs that Leroy has realized some of his shortcomings too, that building a log house was “the dumbest idea he could have had.”  In many ways, this is a good first step towards understanding his wife’s desires a little bit more.    

Another good representation of this symbolism involving setting revolves around the historical aspect of Shiloh.  Specifically, how Leroy’s misunderstanding of history is paralleled by his misunderstanding of his wife.  Much like the admission that he “doesn’t know any history,” so it is that he doesn’t really know his wife either.  He certainly hasn’t been able to relate to her or communicate with her since he’s been off the road.  Since his return they “sit in silence,” do things “mechanically,” and “have forgotten a lot about each other.”  As they sit together having lunch near the Shiloh cemetery, they are still “just making conversation,” even after almost two decades of marriage.  Much like Leroy’s inability to speak with any depth on the history that surrounds them, he is equally unable to speak about what lies squarely between them.  While Leroy offers conversation in the form of facts from a historical plaque, it is interesting to note that he has no similar way of speaking to his wife about their relationship.  He has no crutch to lean on [no plaque to read from] and he knows he is powerless to stop her from leaving.  We see textual evidence of this when Mason writes, “Leroy knows Norma Jean will have her own way.”  By placing this climactic moment of the story in a location so rich with history, symbolism, and meaning, Mason has created almost the perfect parallel between her characters and their surroundings.

One of the final pieces to analyze in terms of setting takes us back to the actual Battle of Shiloh in 1862.  The argument that there were no real winners is specifically paramount to Mason’s theme.  Both armies took on incredible losses, and the bloodshed was immeasurable.  Neither the Union forces nor the Confederates really “won” anything, it was simply a bloody battlefield marked by loss.  As Norma Jean walks towards the Tennessee River bluff in the story’s final scene, readers should recognize the corresponding fact that neither Moffitt has really won anything to this point, either.  The battle that makes up their marriage – with all its miscommunication and resentment being “miles away” from what could be considered healthy – produces no victor.  The image of Norma Jean waving her arms and of Leroy trying, hobbling, to go after her certainly doesn’t evoke any glorious picture of victory.  The pale sky of Shiloh doesn’t offer the reader much in the way of victorious celebration, either.  The fact remains that in exactly the same way the Battle of Shiloh occurred, ended, and is memorialized, so it is with this relationship.

Overall, Bobbie Ann Mason has taken the story of a conflicted relationship and overlaid it against the historical backdrop of a messy Civil War battle.  Her characters of Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt are symbols also of this struggle, with Leroy representing the status quo (Union) and Norma Jean representing change and rebellion (Confederates).  By choosing Shiloh as a place where the two characters come to some harsh realizations, Mason weaves both the intricacies of relationships with the historical relevance of warfare.  She gives us a symbolic look at the foundations of relationships by illustrating that communication is important and assumed roles must be accepted in order for a relationship to become strong and prosper.  For without these things, any relationship will ultimately fall into itself.  From a historical perspective, just as our Union famously fell into itself in 1860, the union that Mason shows us through the Moffitts’ marriage mirrors it completely.  And for this reason, her choice of Shiloh as a backdrop to frame her characters around is more than relevant.  It quite simply defines their relationship and makes the reading of “Shiloh” even more worthwhile.


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