Many literary works reflect real-life events in a compelling and relatable manner. A short story Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason is an exemplary piece of literature since, through the narration of the main character’s transformation, the author portrays a broken marriage and encourages female self-empowerment. Norma Jean is a character that undergoes a significant change, turning from a dependent housewife to a self-aware and ambitious woman who was able to recover from trauma and escape the mentally abusive marriage. By displaying the life story of a married couple and their struggles with maintaining a loving relationship, the author paints a more global picture of unhappiness, staleness, and restriction that many women feel. However, through the story’s events, Mason also showcases that every female can break from the vicious cycle of demeaning routine and become a better version of herself through sacrifices and self-development. This essay will examine the evidence for Norma Jean’s awakening as a dynamic character, reflect on the epiphany that the character has, and investigate the possible character outcomes.
Norma Jean, the narrator’s wife, can be considered a dynamic character due to her emotional journey of self-discovery. The story is told from the perspective of Norma Jean’s husband, Leroy, which enables readers to experience the change first-hand and see the peculiarities in her behavior, hinting at the revelation throughout the novel. The character arc of Norma Jean can be divided into the stages of trauma, transformation, and the revelation that all display the shift in her mental perception. The first point of the character development is the loss of her child. As Leroy remembers during his narrative, he married Norma Jean when they were both eighteen, and shortly after the wedding she became pregnant and gave birth to Randy.
The flashbacks that the narrator describes provide readers with a foundation for Norma Jean’s initial dependence and lack of empowerment. Leroy remembers that Norma Jean looked “catatonic there in the hospital” when they found out their child died (Mason 216). The husband thought to himself, “Who is this strange girl?” since he has forgotten who she was (Mason 216). This accident serves as a starting point in Norma Jean’s journey: a loss of a child broke their family and left the mother alone despite the partner being beside her. The reader can only assume the circumstance of their marriage after the tragedy: perhaps, Leroy could not have recovered from the trauma and purposefully went away for long-term jobs to avoid the topic. The author emphasizes that the couple never spoke about the lost child; when Leroy realized it was needed, it was too late.
At this point in life, Norma Jean appears to be a psychologically scarred and traumatized individual. She is also a lone woman who, without the support of loved ones and with her mother’s constant judgment, withdraws from emotions and lives a monotone life in an unloving relationship. One could argue that a child’s death is the starting point of the eventual decay of the marriage.
The period when Leroy returns home and hesitates to look for a job serves as a tentative outline for Norma Jean’s gradual self-realization and self-empowerment. The display of a couple’s everyday life showcases that Norma Jean is a dependent individual who lacks introspection and connection with her husband. However, through Leroy’s eyes, a reader can see the seemingly unimportant details that indicate a gradual drastic change in the wife’s worldview and the start of her transformation. For instance, she used to play the piano before the accident. As a way to treat his wife, Leroy gifts her the organ that she practices. At first, Norma Jean plays songs like Christmas tunes and classical pieces. However, as Norma Jean becomes increasingly annoyed by her husband’s presence, she evolves mentally into enjoying something unique. Mason writes, “Now she sounds like a hard-rock band, she is terrific” (218). Norma Jean says that she has a feeling that she ignored many interests worthy of attention, while Leroy responds that she “didn’t miss a thing” (Mason 215). This also showcases that her family situation indirectly repressed the woman from developing her individuality.
This drastic shift in music taste hints at a more significant, revolutionary change happening inside Norma Jean’s mind since she now feels free to express what she likes. Through small details, the author hints at the grand transformation of empowerment that Norma Jean will have at the end, leading up to her epiphany. For example, the husband continually notices the distance between him and Norma Jean, “They have known each other for so long that they have forgotten about each other” (Mason 219). Leroy tries to reestablish the connection by encouraging Norma Jean to build a log cabin for their family; however, she despises the idea and proceeds to distance herself from the husband. She starts being involved in different hobbies and feels she is doing small steps towards her independence, “Now, she is marching through the kitchen, she is doing goose steps” (Mason 217). While this quote is initially related to the sports activities she performs, it is also the allusion towards the gradual change started by studying at night school, exercising, and giving up smoking.
The character also acknowledges that her husband restricts her evolution, which serves as a significant step in her transformation. Norma Jean tries to challenge her husband and verify his understanding of their marriage. She claims that his name is translated as “king” and asks, “Are you still king around here? Would you tell me if you were?” (Mason 221). He denies Norma’s joking claims; however, the protagonist already decided that it was true.
By building a log cabin, Leroy attempts to reunite with his wife and oppose her development. The dream of a log house serves as a symbol of their marriage: Leroy acknowledges that they never had a typical marriage due to the loss of their child. Throughout the novel, he represses Norma Jean’s self-empowerment by insisting on the new house, which she readily rejects. Symbolically, Leroy proposes to renew their marriage and start anew, but Norma does not want to. At the end of the novel, the couple decides to go to Shiloh, a historic town. They pass by the log cabin that was almost destroyed during the Civil War: it has many bullets in its walls from the damage done by soldiers. These symbols showcase that there is no way the relationship will be rebuilt since it is full of metaphorical bullets of trauma, loss, and misunderstanding between the partners.
Shortly after witnessing this symbolical cabin, Norma Jean has an epiphany during the conversation with the husband. She claims, “I feel eighteen, I can’t face that all over again” (Mason 223). Norma realizes that she felt trapped by her family for years, and it did not only start when she was caught smoking but long before that. The protagonist accepts that only now she discovers herself and her passions. Thus, the turning point occurs when Leroy remains home due to his injury and sees how his wife has changed. In her turn, she realizes the gap of misunderstanding between them and strives to escape. During the epiphany, she leaves Leroy for a better future for herself. The revelation is significant since it leads the character to realizing the unconscious restrictions and, consequently, to free herself from them.
Possible Outcome for The Character
Arguably, the short story’s finale can be considered a happy ending for Norma Jean since she left the unhealthy relationship for a better future. Instead of being confined by a marriage with a person she barely knows, Norma Jean decides to make a psychologically hard decision and leave the husband. It is safe to assume that the dynamic character will become more self-content since she already started the first steps towards this goal. Norma Jean will most likely lead a happy yet lone life since she will be afraid of staring a serious relationship that will be reminiscent of her previous experience. By realizing her power as an individual, she can achieve a lot by dedicating time to sports and education, ultimately getting a new lifestyle by being hired for a fulfilling job. Unlike her husband, she will be able to recover from the breakup and reintegrate into the society as an independent and powerful person.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that Shiloh portrays an inspirational story of female empowerment that many women can relate to. The character of Norma Jean appears to be dynamic due to her multi-dimensional backstory and gradual transformation throughout the novel. The epiphany in the form of the separation with her husband serves as a pinnacle of her self-discovery since she dared to leave the past trauma behind for a better future.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. “Shiloh.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, And Writing, edited by Xavier Kennedy and Dana Gioia, 13th ed., Pearson, 2015, pp. 213-224.