Study Guide

Shiloh Birds

By Bobbie Ann Mason

Birds

There's a flock of references to birds in the story, but what's the message behind them? Because most species of birds can fly, writers often use birds as symbols of freedom. That's not all they represent, though—since birds are also nest builders who patiently sit on their eggs and tend to their young, they can also symbolize home, protection, and nurturing. Let's see what all the birds in "Shiloh" are trying to tell us.

Early on, Leroy's truck is likened to "a gigantic bird that has flown home to roost" (1.6). This simile could describe Leroy, too, since he no longer wants to drive long distances and wants to build a nest and stay put with Norma Jean. But aside from this, the bird references mostly refer to Norma Jean and her preparations for flight.

"Shiloh" opens with Norma Jean exercising her pectoral (or chest) muscles, which are the muscles that would power her wings if she were a bird (1.1). At another point we see a reference to Wonder Woman, a comic book heroine who was big in the 70s and had bird-like powers of flight. Norma Jean "reminds Leroy of Wonder Woman" (1.1) as he watches her lifting a barbell. The story also ends with her possibly doing exercises for those muscles, suggesting she is readying for flight (from her marriage and into the wild blue yonder of her future) (7.31).

Other bird references include: 

  • Norma Jean doing "goose steps" (2.37), though this is really more of a military reference and will be discussed in the Military/Civil War section.
  • Leroy thinking about Norma Jean as he watches goldfinches at the birdfeeder: "He wonders whether they close their eyes when they fall" as Norma Jean does "when they are in bed" (3.1).
  • Mabel saying of Norma Jean, "She used to go to bed with the chickens" (5.11), contrasting her former habit of going to bed early with her staying up late to work on her compositions.
  • Norma Jean "picking cake crumbs from the cellophane wrapper, like a fussy bird" (7.7) as she prepares to make her announcement to Leroy that she's planning to fly the coop, so to speak.

In the final paragraph, it isn't clear to Leroy what she's doing as "she waves her arms" and "seems to be doing an exercise for her chest muscles" (31), but Norma Jean's frequent association with birds throughout the story suggests that she is preparing to fly—either literally, by jumping off the bluff in a suicidal act or figuratively, by spreading her wings to soar. (See "What's Up With the Ending?")