Role of Masculinity in Shiloh and A Streetcar Name
d DesireHave you ever felt that men always screw things up? Perhaps it is not men themselves that cause destruction; maybe it is merely the result of the presence of a masculine character. The role of masculinity is an essential aspect in both Bobbie Ann Mason’s short story entitled, Shiloh, and in Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire, although it functions very differently in each story. In Shiloh, we see the detrimental effects that the male role has even in its absence through the interactions that Leroy has with his with wife, Norma Jean. Contrasting this particular perspective, in A Streetcar Named Desire the destructive manner of the male role is unmistakably present, as it negatively affects Stanley and Stella’s relationship. In these two works, we see the masculine role epitomized by one man, and abandoned by another, which, in both situations, leads to the destruction of their marriages. Through the examination of the two stories it becomes ironically clear how terrible and yet desirable the male role is to conquer, and what different effects it has on the central characters involved.
To begin, an understanding of what the masculine role is must first be acquired. The masculine role serves many functions, and most of them are relatively clear-cut and commonsensical. The male role, for our purposes, is the presence of an authoritative individual that takes charge in precarious situations, makes money, and serves as a provider for a family. Characteristics of the masculine character would include a degree of barbarism, accompanied by great physical strength and a relentless drive to accomplish goals. The character filling the male role must be mentally aware, even if not in a witty sense, and capable of being moderately sensible. All of these characteristics are established and made apparent in different characters throughout both of the stories in discussion. The masculine role serves both works in a very unique manner and provides a glimpse into the extensive influence that it has on other characters.
Stanley Kowalski eats testosterone for breakfast. Throughout A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley is portrayed as a primitive, brutal animal of a man who wouldn’t be capable of defining the word “feminine.” In the first scene of the play, Stanley makes his entrance carrying a package of bloody meat, almost as if he were bringing it back to his cave fresh from the kill. As the story progresses, Stanley’s barbaric masculinity unveils itself to the reader. Stanley Kowalski is a man’s man; he goes to work to provide for his family, goes home to a submissive wife who always has dinner prepared, and spends his evenings hanging out with the boys. However, being the super-masculine character can sometimes have wicked effects. Between card games and drinking, Stanley still finds time to lash out at his wife. In scene three, Stella is pleading with Stanley to call it a night and send his poker friends home, but Stanley is resistant. In a drunken fit, Stanley finds it necessary to strike his pregnant wife in order to get his point across. The outburst is shockingly forgiven almost immediately. Stella explains the episode to her displeased sister Blanche the next day, telling her that it’s not a big deal, and that she shouldn’t fuss over it. She says, “In the first place, when men are drinking and playing poker anything can happen. It’s always a powder-keg. He didn’t know what he was doing” Stanley Kowalski takes the role of masculinity to another level altogether. He serves as the super-dominant barbarian provider who says what he means when he wants to. In spite all of Stanley’s flaws, Stella not only loves him, but also appreciates and defends his character.
The role of masculinity in A Streetcar Named Desire is necessary for survival for the characters involved. Stella simply loves Stanley. She likes the fact that he is a brute, strapping hunk of testosterone-driven manliness, and deep down, she even likes it when he takes things too far. In scene four, Stella is enlightening Blanche about why it is okay when Stanley does things like hit her. She explains that even on their wedding night, Stanley ran around the house smashing the light bulbs with her slipper. Her sister cannot believe what she is hearing, but finally accepts the fact that Stella is honestly pleased with the situation. Stanley’s character is adored and respected by Stella throughout the play. Stanley is seen as a very simple man, who doesn’t give off an aura of high-class stature, and Stella thrives off of this. She likes the fact that he is down to earth, honest about his emotions, not concerned with other peoples’ prerogatives and opinions, and she appreciates his pure aggressive male nature, however damaging it may be. The situation in Shiloh is quite different.
In the first page of Shiloh, the entire dilemma regarding the masculine role is nicely foreshadowed for the reader. The story opens with Norma Jean, the wife of Leroy Moffitt, lifting weights to strengthen her pectoral muscles. This masculine behavior began when Leroy injured his leg in a trucking accident, four months from the start of the narrative. The book tells the story of the eventual trasition of the masculine role from Leroy the truckdriver to his wife Norma Jean. Leroy is devoid of all the stereotypical masculine roles after his accident because now he doesn’t work. Staying at home and building craft kits have been Leroy’s recent accomplishments, and his wife is not sure how she should be handling the situation. Once her husband was forced to lift weights to combat the effects of the accident, Norma began lifting weights herself, almost as if she had to take on the role of the man from the start. It becomes very apparent that serious changes have been made to their relationship: Norma doesn’t stay home and cook anymore, she eats a cereal called Body Buddies, she goes jogging in the morning, and keeps her eyes closed during sex. Norma Jean has almost completely taken over the masculine role by the end of the story, and finds herself displeased that it was she and not her husband.
Norma Jean did not want to be responsible for taking on the role of masculinity, but she did however feel that it was necessary for their relationship to function. The importance of the masculine role is very apparent in this story, as we witness Norma’s immediate adoption of the male role before it is completely eliminated. It is almost as if Norma would not know how to handle herself if that aspect of her life was missing. She goes from having a truckdriving husband who is not home very often to having a dependent boy who builds model log cabins, and cannot settle for that trade-off. It is important to note how the masculine role differs from that in A Streetcar Named Desire. In Shiloh, the masculine role is desirable by the female character because she doesn’t have enough of it, whereas in A Streetcar Named Desire, the masculine role is desired even when it is in excess. Simply stated, the female characters in these stories need masculinity in their lives, although the eventual effects of the presence of a male role leads to the destruction of their marriages.
The presence of the masculine role, accompanied by all of the characteristics that go along with the role, lead to the destruction of the marriage between Stanley and Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. Stella is dependent on having the masculine role fulfilled throughout the play, as we have previously discussed. She enjoys Stanley’s animal nature to the extent that she accepts being bullied by the man; she seems to like it when he aggressively demonstrates his brute force, his total control, and his manly influence. However, all good things are only good in moderation. When Stanley takes things too far, their relationship is suffers devastating consequences. In scene ten, Stanley comes home to Stella’s moderately intoxicated and distraught sister lying to him about a wire that she had received asking her to attend a ball with a wealthy man. Stanley has had a few drinks and knows that his wife will not be home for a while. After arguing for some time with Blanch, accusing her of lying essentially about her entire existence, Stanley forces her into having sex with him. At this point, the barbaric masculine role that Stanley has so beautifully encapsulated has gone entirely too far; Stanley has acted as no one should, and these actions will prove detrimental to the relationship with Stella. At the end of the play Blanche departs the lives of the Kowalskis, and Stella cries after her. Stanley kneels beside his hysterical wife, pleading with her to cheer up in attempts to console her damaged soul. Although it is not certain at the end of the play whether or not Stella believes that her husband raped her borderline insane sister, it is not in question that the masculine role in this situation destroyed their relationship entirely. This holds true for Bobbie Ann Mason’s story as well.
The situation in Shiloh, although drastically different from that of A Streetcar Named Desire, displays the same eventual outcome. Norma Jean feels a giant void in her life during the story; she develops certain dissatisfaction with her current circumstances as her husband shows a flagging hold on his masculine self, and she begins to take over the role of the man. The entire story is the gradual build up of Norma’s contempt on this matter, as she internally struggles to cope with her acquired condition of the masculine role. In the conclusion of the story, Norma Jean can no longer accept her role. The scene takes place near a graveyard in Shiloh. To epitomize the situation, on the way over Norma drives the car and Leroy, the ex-truckdriver, sits next to her, described as, “feeling like some boring hitchhiker she has picker up.” Norma has completely taken over the masculine role at this point, leaving Leroy feeling quite empty and confused. In the final minutes that they spend together, Norma tells Leroy that she is leaving him. Leroy doesn’t understand why she would want to do such a thing and makes a final plea against her wishes, reminding her that he had promised to stay at home with her from then on. Norma’s reply is, “In some ways, a woman prefers a man who wanders. That sounds crazy, I know.” In the process of transitioning from Leroy to Norma, the masculine role catalyzed the shattering of their relationship when Norma could no longer fulfill her own desire for masculinity.
Over the course of these two works, we have seen how the masculine role can negatively affect the characters engaged in many ways. The masculine role seems very hard to conquer in both stories. In Shiloh, Norma can no longer take on the responsibility of acting as the masculine role, whereas in A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley is overcome by his own barbarian nature; no one seems to be able to handle the role responsibly. It is also crucial to note the bleeding irony in both of the situations. Stella loves having such a masculine role in her life. She would not trade him for any other man, he is just what she desiresthat is until he rapes her sister and destroys everything. Norma Jean on the other hand is so consumed with the masculine role, that when she feels that it is no longer existing in her life, she decides to take it on herself. When she does, she finds herself out of place, discontent, displeased, and divorced. The female characters seem to be content only in the presence of a strong male role, regardless of who is maintaining it, even if it leads to disparaging conditions.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. Shiloh. Harper and Row, 1982.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. England: Signet Printing, 1951.