Study Guide

Shiloh Themes

By Bobbie Ann Mason

  • Gender Roles

    Bobbie Ann Mason plays the good old gender role switcheroo with Leroy and Norma Jean, which adds an element of conflict to their relationship. Norma Jean tells Leroy that his "name means the king" (6.1), but she's the one who acts like a conventional male leader. She's the breadwinner, lifts weights, and pursues higher education—all considered more typically masculine in the time and place of the story. Leroy plays the more traditional feminine role of the bored housewife, focused on home and matters of the heart. This gender role reversal in "Shiloh" leaves both characters frustrated in what they expect from each other and themselves.

    Questions About Gender Roles

    1. How does Leroy react to Norma Jean wearing the pants in their relationship?
    2. How does Mabel try to "encourage" Norma Jean to be more of a traditional housewife?
    3. Why do you think Norma Jean says, "Don't be funny" (7.25) in response to Leroy's question, "Is this one of those women's lib things?" (7.24)?

    Chew on This

    Seeing Norma Jean taking on a more masculine role, yet still being responsible for traditional feminine chores like housecleaning and cooking, reflects how un-liberating women's liberation can be.

    Bobbie Ann Mason reverses gender roles in Norma Jean in Leroy to show the challenges of being yourself vs. fitting in with what family, friends and society expect.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    It's clear that for Leroy, smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol are daily habits that contribute to his inability to face reality and cope with it in constructive ways. For Leroy, substance abuse is a way of engineering his reality. When he was driving a rig, he took speed, but now that he's back home, he buys marijuana from a kid in the neighborhood because "he needs to be mellow" (2.8). In "Shiloh," Drugs and alcohol help Leroy relax, but they also add to his mental confusion and physical laziness, qualities that remove him further from his mentally sharp and physically active wife.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. When Norma Jean and Leroy share a beer, does it help them get closer?
    2. Are there any points in the story where drugs and/or alcohol play a positive role? If so, provide examples and explain.
    3. What does the drug deal between Leroy and Stevie Hamilton reveal about each of the characters?

    Chew on This

    Leroy's drug and alcohol use are contributing factors to the destruction of his marriage.

    Norma Jean doesn't comment on Leroy's drug and alcohol use; does that mean that she doesn't mind it?

  • Dissatisfaction

    The three main characters in "Shiloh" have one thing in common: They can't get no satisfaction.

    Although on the surface Leroy and Norma Jean go through the motions of life as a married couple and don't openly fight, their marriage is far from happy and healthy—they're each pretty dissatisfied with the way things have turned out. Norma Jean isn't satisfied having Leroy at home all the time and wishes he would take an interest in starting a new job. She's also unhappy with how Leroy and her mother won't leave her alone and allow her to be the independent adult she is now, rather than the fragile and immature teenager she once was. She wants to break free.

    Leroy's dissatisfaction comes from feeling disconnected from his wife and his community, along with his inability to figure out what to do with his life apart from building his wife a home he senses she doesn't want.

    Mabel, everyone's favorite crabby old mother-in-law, is dissatisfied with lots of different things. For starters, she's still angry with Leroy for the humiliation he caused her by getting Norma Jean pregnant as a teenager, and she disapproves of Norma Jean's housekeeping and her attempts to improve herself. She's even upset with God for mocking her with the death of her grandson. She also seems bored—she comes over to Norma Jean's house all the time simply because she has nothing better to do.

    All in all, this trio sounds like quite the unhappy family—they're like three pieces from different puzzles that are stuck together, even though they will never be able to fit.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Mabel knows that Norma Jean is dissatisfied with her marriage; why does she think a trip to Shiloh will help?
    2. Do drugs and or alcohol play a role in any of the character's dissatisfaction? Why or why not, and what evidence supports your answer?
    3. Are any characters satisfied at the end of the story? Are there moments of satisfaction before the ending? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Everything is give and take: Norma Jean's attempts to find satisfaction increase the dissatisfaction of both her mother and husband.

    It's a one-man show: Leroy's dissatisfaction is ultimately with himself more than with any of the other characters or situations in his life.

  • Transformation

    Norma Jean is the only character in "Shiloh" who transforms throughout the story. Her transformation begins with her body. She became interested in bodybuilding when she saw Leroy using weights for his physical therapy, which inspired her to sign up for a bodybuilding class. In addition to getting physically stronger, Norma Jean also shows an interest in developing her mind. She takes a composition class at the local community college and stays up late working on class assignments.

    Over the course of the story, Norma Jean turns herself into a stronger, smarter, and more independent woman—a far cry from the child her mother raised and the teenager Leroy married. Her frustration stems from the fact that that they continue to see her as the child and teenager she was long ago and can't recognize or accept the woman she has become.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Why is Norma Jean so upset when her mother catches her smoking, and how does this relate to her transformation?
    2. Do you see a relationship between the transformation taking place in Norma Jean and the surrounding community? Explain.
    3. The story begins and ends with Norma Jean doing exercises for her chest muscles. How does this relate to her transformation?

    Chew on This

    If this story were being told from the perspective of Norma Jean, what transformations might she be observing in Leroy?

    Norma Jean only cares about her own transformation, and she hasn't really encouraged Leroy's growth and development.