Female fate used to be predetermined for centuries. In the world of men and patriarchal traditions, women had no right to become independent from a wide range of obligations dictated by their community. Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour and Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh have almost 90 year gap between the dates of their publication, but they address the same issue of female independence and desire to live in a different way. Chopin and Mason represent their stories from different points of view. While The Story of an Hour focuses on the inner world of Mrs. Mallard, Norma Jean’s behavior in Shiloh is observed and reflected by her husband representing a totally different perspective on the issue. This essay will argue that the combination of female point of view represented by Chopin and male point of view from Shiloh allows seeing the full picture of traditional patriarchal family relationships.
Mrs. Mallard, the main character of The Story of an Hour, perceived the news about her husband’s death with tears. However, the picture changes quickly when she goes to her room and reflects on her feelings. First she experiences emptiness and indifference; step by step she recognizes her real feelings in her heart. She finds herself full of “monstrous joy” and feeling of freedom; she perceives the death of her husband as a relief from her unhappy marriage where she was supposed to sacrifice her life and interests for the sake of her husband (Chopin).
Mrs. Mallard does not see any positive sides in her marriage; she even does not know whether she loved her husband of not. Sitting in her armchair, she prepares to start her life from scratch. There are hints in description of the settings that Mrs. Mallard is not going to mourn. On the contrary, everything looks pleasant and even joyful. Ironic title of the story indicates that she does not have much time for the transformation. In an hour, her husband comes back home. Unwilling to get back to old life and shocked by this sudden coming back, Mrs. Mallard dies either because of her “hear trouble” or, as it is said by the doctor, “the joy that kills” (Chopin). Alongside with this inner transformation of the main character, Mr. Mallard is not visible in the story. As a result, the story shows only one side of the coin.
The other side of this coin is fully represented in Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason. The story is narrated from the point of view of Leroy Moffitt, a former truck driver, who spends all days and night at home after a serious road incident. Leroy lives with his wife Norma Jean who is an ordinary woman who has to work hard, take care of her husband and her mother who likes to drop in accidentally. Even though all characters in the story spend much time together, they do not know each other well. Through Leroy’s observations it is possible to see the transformation of Norma Jean.
From the very beginning of the story it becomes obvious that Leroy lives in the world of illusions; he believes that if he builds a log cabin for his wife, they will start their relationships for the very beginning. He ignores the fact that neither Norma Jean nor her mother wants to live in a cabin. This impractical idea can be compared to his marriage; there is no evidence that Leroy and Norma Jean live as a couple. Their care about each other looks more like a habit.
Leroy still loves Norma Jean, but he “forgets” to do at least something for her (Mason). He lies on the sofa while Norma Jean is cleaning, cooking, working, attending her body building courses or learning to write compositions. These hobbies show how gender roles tend to change in their family. According to Fisher and Silber, Mason often challenges stereotypical masculinity in her prose showing that old believes about male behavior become irrelevant in the modern context (154). Leroy lives somewhere in the past where Norma Jean really loved him. He notices that something is wrong with their current relationships but he cannot understand the reason of Norma Jean’s coldness.
The trip to Shiloh becomes the culmination of the story. Leroy cannot believe his ears when Norma Jean says “I want to leave you” (Mason). Instead of taking his wife serious, Leroy tries to joke and proposes to “start all over again”, but his behavior only triggers more straightforward response “I feel eighteen again. I can’t face that all over again” (Mason). At this point, Leroy’s blindness and inability to understand his wife become dramatic. Leroy and Norma Jean do not have a share vision of their life together. Leroy is self-centered because he prefers to kill his time without any use for the family. At the same time, Norma Jean does everything possible to keep their house neat, to cook for Leroy and to take care of her beauty. Leroy does not notice that he becomes a burden for his wife.
Offering this “other” perspective, Mason expands the contextual meaning of the story of The Story of an Hour. Reflections of Mrs. Mallard tend to generalize relationships with her husband. She is critical thinking that “there would be no powerful will bending hers” in her life without her husband (Chopin). These though are very impressive considering the time when the story was written; they represent the issue ironically in order to make it acceptable for censorship. Mason’s story is more sympathetic because readers how hard Norma Jean works to run her family and how ignorant her husband is. She describes the scene realistically; daily routine where Leroy kills his time becomes a drama for Norma Jean who seems not to love her husband any more. She stops playing organ to entertain her husband and decides to do something more important for her self-development.
Norma Jean and Mrs. Mallard experience their transformation in different ways. Mrs. Mallard realizes that she can be free suddenly. Her self-assertion is impulsive because it is triggered by the news about her husband’s death. First she tried to restrain herself in order “to fit into the mold of hollow social conventions” (Jamil 220). When the doors of her room are closed, she is more open in her expression of inner self. For instance, she even speaks her mind whispering “Free! Body and soul free!” (Chopin).
Norma Jean undergoes long and painful transformation from an ordinary wife to an independent woman. According to Bucher, Norma Jean is a “downhome faminist” who just wants to have more freedom in relationships with the opposite gender (50). Her self-assertion is gradual; from Leroy’s point of view it is rendered through growing distance between the spouses. Norma Jean minimizes time she spends at home and tries a wide range of new “masculine” things which are perceived by Leroy not seriously. For instance, he perceives her as a “Wonder Woman” when she is exercising (Mason).
Leroy does not understand why she need body building or wring classes. At the same time, all these activities pave the way to liberation for his wife. The final break in her consciousness happens right after her mother caught her smoking. She feels absolutely weak and wants to stop all these things. In the same situation, Norma Jean’s stereotypical behavior becomes an ode for his lost masculinity mocked by his mother-in-law. Breaking up with Leroy, she does not look at him to remain strong and keep the distance to put a full stop in their relationships.
In The Story of an Hour, Mrs. Mallard does not recollect any of her efforts to improve her position because they contradicted existing social norms of her community. As a wife, she was obliged to accept the will of her husband without any objection. In this case, Norma Jean had a better situation because she had the right to say that she is not satisfied with her marriage. Her mother and her husband expected that she would devote all her life to look after them. What is more astonishing is that there is no evidence that any of them were thankful for all the things Norma Jean did for them.
In summary, these two stories cover two sides of one coin. The Story of an Hour shows that inner transformation of the character while Shiloh deals with side perceptions of this transformation. Readers can understand Mrs. Mallard, but the point of view of her husband is missing in the story. Shiloh competes the picture showing misunderstanding and stereotypical perception of a woman who tries to gain more freedom in existing relationships. Both stories show that men tend to feel supreme in the patriarchal world of old stereotypes and irrelevant traditions. However, these old values do not correlate with changing gender roles which challenge people’s understanding of masculinity and femininity in their community. All in all, both stories represent their point of view comprehensively adding more details to each other.
Bucher, Tina. “Changing Roles and Finding Stability: Women in Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories.” Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association 8 (1991): 50.
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of An Hour”, 1894. Web. June 2, 2014. http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/hour/
Fisher, Jerilyn, and Ellen S. Silber, eds. Women in literature: reading through the lens of gender. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
Jamil, S. Selina. “Emotions in the Story of an Hour.” The Explicator 67.3 (2009): 215-220.
Mason, Bobby Ann. “Shiloh”. 1982. Web. June 2, 2014. < http://english204-dcc.blogspot.com/2011/05/shiloh.html>