Study Guide

Shiloh Plot Analysis

By Bobbie Ann Mason

Plot Analysis

Exposition (Initial Situation)

My Old Kentucky Home

Leroy is home for good after a trucking accident, but his wife, Norma Jean, doesn't seem exactly overjoyed by his homecoming. She becomes interested in bodybuilding after seeing her husband use weights for his physical therapy. Leroy gets the not-so-bright idea of building his wife a log cabin, something out of joint with the times and local building codes. Oh, and speaking of joints, Leroy likes to lie around getting high and listening to his wife play songs from The Sixties Songbook, including "Sunshine Superman" for her "Mellow Yellow" fellow (to reference another Donovan hit). 

Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

Dead Lifts vs. Dead Weight

The Moffats live very different lives. Norma Jean works, works out, and does housework. Leroy's activities are a little less productive. He drives around aimlessly, buys and smokes marijuana, needlepoints a Star Trek pillowcase, and fantasizes about building Norma Jean a log house. Time is passing, tension is mounting, and it looks like there's trouble ahead for the less-than-happy couple.

Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

And the Mother of the Year Award Goes to…

Norma Jean's mother, Mabel, has a bad habit of dropping by unannounced. One day she catches Norma Jean smoking marijuana, and Leroy comes home to find her crying. The next day, Mabel's back, this time talking about a dog that killed a baby, claiming that the mother was neglectful. After Mabel leaves, Norma Jean tells Leroy she believes her mother told the story to make her feel guilty about their son, Randy, dying in infancy. Later on at the end of the story, Norma Jean cites the smoking incident as the moment of crisis that led to her decision to leave the marriage. Remember Shmoopers, just say no to drugs.

Falling Action

Fine, We'll Go to Shiloh Already

Throughout the story, Mabel's been encouraging (read: nagging) Norma Jean and Leroy to take a trip to Shiloh, the Civil War battlefield. Mabel and her husband had gone there on their honeymoon and she hopes it will be a second honeymoon for Norma Jean and Leroy, because what makes for a better honeymoon than reliving the tragedies of the American Civil War? It turns out to be anything but… At a picnic near the cemetery of the Union dead, Norma Jean matter-of-factly tells Leroy that their own union is dead; she wants to leave him. You might think that Norma Jean's announcement would be the climax of the story, but it seems pretty anti-climactic, even to Leroy. He's seen it coming all along, and because the story is told from his perspective, readers have seen it coming too. No big surprise, right?

Resolution (Denouement)

Goodbye Norma Jean

The story ends with Leroy stoned and realizing that his idea to build Norma Jean a log cabin is as riddled with holes as the bullet-ridden log cabin at Shiloh—but just as quickly, he moves into his comfort zone of denial, thinking he just needs to come up with a better idea and everything will still be fine. He tries to catch up with Norma Jean, who has walked off to the bluffs overlooking the Tennessee River. He sees her in the distance waving her arms, but he can't tell what she's doing, and neither can we. Is she beckoning to him, or is the story ending as it began, with her exercising her pectorals? The ending is deliberately left open, but however you choose to interpret, one thing is clear. As Elton John sang about Marilyn Monroe (whose real name was Norma Jean Mortenson):

"Goodbye Norma Jean
Though I never knew you at all…"

Leroy never really knew his wife, and now the time has come to say goodbye.