Study Guide

Shiloh Military/Civil War

By Bobbie Ann Mason

Military/Civil War

It's probably not a big surprise that a story named after a Civil War battlefield is as riddled with military references as the log cabin at Shiloh is riddled with bullets. The military symbolism is mostly associated with Norma Jean's character. She isn't just preparing for flight; she's preparing for battle:

  • Norma Jean is "building herself up" (1.6) by bodybuilding, much like a soldier going through basic training: She lifts three-pound dumb bells . . . then progresses to a twenty-pound barbell (1.1).
  • Like a soldier, "she is counting" as "she is marching through the kitchen," doing "goose steps" (2.37) while "wearing two-pound ankle weights" (2.29.
  • Norma Jean's orderly schedule—"She puts on her house slippers almost precisely at nine o'clock every evening" (3.1)—adds to her militant aspect.
  • She informs Leroy that "Norma comes from the Normans. They were invaders" (6.11), (learn more about the history of the Norman invasion here).

There are more specific military references to the Civil War. In a literal sense, this is the American war between the North and South that was fought between 1861-65 (learn more about the history of the American Civil War here). This is the war where brothers fought brothers, but as a metaphor for marriage (another kind of union), a civil war is one in which husbands are pitted against wives.

In the case of Norma Jean and Leroy, their unhappiness isn't expressed all that dramatically. There's no shouting, no shoving…nothing that looks like a war's going on, at least on the surface. Norma Jean is polite to Leroy. She's civil, even when she's telling him she plans to leave their marriage. But make no mistake: there's a war going on here—and Leroy doesn't stand a chance of winning it.

When Norma Jean tells him "You can't stop me" (7.15), "Leroy knows Norma Jean will have her own way" (7.17). We've watched Norma Jean grow physically and mentally stronger as the story progresses, and while Leroy was staring at blueprints of a log cabin, she was quietly drawing up a battle plan. How fitting, then, that she announces her plans to leave him at "the cemetery for the Union dead" (7.11), as their union appear to now be dead.