You know how some people take themselves so seriously that it's hard not to laugh at them? Mabel Beasley adds a light touch to this otherwise heavy story just by showing up—something she does quite often. Like Endora in the classic TV series Bewitched, she has a way of just popping in unannounced on the lives of her daughter and son-in-law, is highly critical of both of them, and is something of a witch.
Mabel speaks ungrammatically, saying things like, "She don't know what to make of you" (5.12) and mistakenly referring to a dachsund as a "datsun" (4.3). This indicates she's not especially bright or well-educated. Much of the humor in the story comes from her use of the regional expressions of her time, such as "Great day in the morning" (2.17) and "I like to died" (5.11).
Like her use of language, Mabel's appearance and attitudes reflect the traditional rural and small town Southern culture that existed before the big corporations, shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and subdivisions of the so-called "New South" transformed the Southern landscape.
She's also the catalyst of the story, the character who provokes action in others. Or maybe that's just a fancy way of saying she's a nag. It's Mabel who keeps urging Norma Jean and Leroy to go to Shiloh, and the incident when she catches Norma Jean smoking creates a turning point for her character.
One of the biggest ways Mabel represents Southern tradition is the way she goes on (and on…and on) about Shiloh, the Civil War battlefield. Although it was the scene of bloodiest American battle to date and represented defeat for the Confederate side, to her "it was the prettiest place, so full of history" (5.30). She keeps encouraging Norma Jean and Leroy to visit Shiloh before she dies, so they can "tell [her] all about it" (5.30). Um…okay, Mabel, if you insist.
Mabel went to Shiloh on her honeymoon (don't ask us why), and she thinks it can serve as a second honeymoon for Norma Jean and Leroy (again, don't ask us why), but above all, her interest in Shiloh shows her Southern-fried pride. She's a proud member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a women's organization dedicated to honoring the memory of those who served in the military and died in service to the Confederate States of America (click here).
Yet, for all her allegiance to history, she makes it clear to Leroy that she doesn't want to go back in time herself:
Mabel takes the roof off of [Leroy's] Lincoln Log cabin. 'You couldn't get me in a log cabin,' she says. 'I was raised in one. It's no picnic, let me tell you' (5.15).
Ironically, it will be a picnic—the one Norma Jean and Leroy have at Shiloh—that will blow the roof off of Leroy's loony log cabin dreams.
Mabel is as old-fashioned as the dust ruffles she sews in the custom upholstery shop where she works. Although the 1970s was a time when feminism was challenging the way women's roles were being defined at home and in the workplace, she still believes in conventional gender roles. "That's what a woman would do," she says when she learns Leroy is doing needlepoint. "Great day in the morning" (2.17).
While Leroy is mostly baffled by the ways that Norma Jean is changing, Mabel is more critical of how she's strayed from the religious values and traditional norms of a respectable Southern woman. Let's count the ways:
Norma Jean's 7 (Count 'em 7!) Deadly Sins, as according to Mabel:
1. premarital sex
2. unwed pregnancy
3. losing her child
6. poor housekeeping
If you're anything like us, you might be wondering, what is education doing on that list? Well, Mabel believes that Norma Jean's educational pursuits are bad for her and her marriage:
Her brain's all balled up over them books (5.19).
Don't believe it for a minute, Shmoopers!
When Mabel says, "I don't know what's got into that girl" (5.11), it's clear that she still sees Norma Jean as a wayward girl, rather than an adult woman who has the right to choose her own way in life. There may be similarities in their appearance—both have curly hair and "Leroy can see traces of Norma Jean's features in her mother's face" (5.20)—but Norma Jean has her own identity and her own dreams.