Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Persistence of Grief
Although Randy’s death occurred years before the story takes place, it continues to permeate the consciousnesses of Leroy and Norma Jean. They never speak of the death, and Leroy’s memories of the baby are fuzzy. Nevertheless, grief about the tragedy persists. Until it begins to seem self-pitying, Leroy tells every hitchhiker he picks up about Randy. Seeing grown-up kids the age Randy would be, had he lived, reminds Leroy of his son. Leroy thinks of Randy when he sees Mabel, who believes that Randy’s death was a cruel trick of fate because she opposed Norma Jean’s teenage pregnancy. When Mabel tells a nasty story about a dog killing a baby and claims that the mother was to blame for the disaster, both Leroy and Norma Jean immediately assume that she is taking a jab at them. Their sensitivity to Mabel’s insinuations suggests that Randy is always at the forefront of their minds.
Randy’s death contributes to the dissolution of Leroy and Norma Jean’s relationship. The habit of avoiding any mention of the baby becomes an oppressive force in their marriage. Leroy considers saying something about Randy to dispel the discomfort he and his wife sometimes feel around each other, but he seems unable to bring up the topic. Even after Mabel tells the story about the baby killed by the dog, they refer to the death of their son only abstractly. When Norma Jean complains about her mother’s spitefulness, Leroy pretends not to know what she is talking about. Norma Jean says he knows exactly what she means, but she will not actually say Randy’s name out loud. Rather than continue the discussion, they both fall silent, and such persistent silence drives a wedge between them. At the beginning of the story, Randy thinks about how lucky he and his wife are to be together despite the tragedy; he has heard that the death of an infant can spoil a marriage. But by the end, it is clear that he has been overconfident: the death has affected him and Norma Jean exactly as it affects most couples.
The Instability of Gender Roles
Leroy and Norma Jean swap traditional gender roles, which emasculates Leroy and leads to the breakdown of the Moffitts’ marriage. Scared and confused by the accident that left him unable to drive his rig, Leroy sits at home all day like a bored housewife, pursuing hobbies that are stereotypically feminine. He makes craft objects from kits and sews needlepoint pillows, which Mabel claims is a womanly pursuit. He thinks of his rig, which sits unused in the backyard, as an unwanted piece of furniture, an image that suggests a woman’s dissatisfaction with her shabby possessions. Even his fixation on building a log cabin indicates a traditionally feminine eagerness to settle down in a house of one’s own. Leroy feels unsettled by his inability to play the role of the powerful husband. He is shy around his wife, whom he begins to think of as strong and smart. As time goes on, the role-swap convinces Leroy that his wife will leave him.
Norma Jean is confused by her own masculine behavior but also emboldened by it. She is the sole breadwinner after Leroy’s accident. When Leroy complains that he can’t take a job that requires standing, she reminds him that she has the strength to stand behind a cosmetics counter all day long. She takes a bodybuilding class, and the story begins and ends with a description of her pectorals, muscles that are usually associated with a man’s chest. She also enrolls in night courses and works hard at improving herself. These changes, although positive, don’t always sit comfortably with Norma Jean. She wants Leroy to play the traditional role of husband and provider and gives him a list of jobs he should consider. With her mother, she behaves like a petulant girl, weeping when she is caught smoking and snapping at Mabel to shut up about Shiloh. But despite her occasional regressions, Norma Jean ultimately begins to embrace her newfound independence. The gender-role reversal continues to bewilder her—after she tells Leroy she wants to leave him, she talks confusedly about feeling eighteen and says she doesn’t know what she means—but she is strong enough to say clearly that she wants to end her marriage.
Norma Jean’s changing relationship with music runs parallel to the changes in her marriage to Leroy. Initially, the organ represents an emotional bond between the couple. Leroy buys Norma Jean the organ as a Christmas present, and at first, the songs she plays on it are romantic. One of the tunes mentioned is “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” which mirrors Leroy’s admiration for his pretty, youthful spouse. Another is “I’ll Be Back,” which makes Leroy think of his return to his wife after fifteen years of long absences on the road. But as the months progress, the new songs Norma Jean plays reflect the deterioration of the marriage. The song “Sunshine Superman” may be an ironic joke about Leroy, who lies on the couch smoking weed and looking like anything but a superman. “Who’ll Be the Next in Line?” foreshadows Norma Jean’s faltering loyalty to her husband. Eventually, Norma Jean stops playing the organ altogether and instead begins writing about the importance of music in her life. She moves away from the present that Leroy gave her and toward the academic world that intimidates him.
The Log Cabin
The log cabin that Leroy dreams of building for his wife symbolizes his marriage. The cabin is an impractical idea, and the project does not interest Norma Jean. Leroy clings to his dreams of building the cabin with the same touching and misplaced tenacity with which he clings to his wife. Nothing dissuades him, even the straightforward words of Mabel and Norma Jean, who repeatedly tell him that living in a cabin is unpleasant, that new developments wouldn’t allow such a structure, that building is too expensive, and that, in any case, Norma Jean hates the idea. Just as Leroy won’t let go of the idea of the cabin in the face of strong opposition, he won’t give up on his marriage in the face of clear evidence that his wife already has. At Shiloh, Leroy at last realizes that his marriage is as hollow as the boxy interior of a log cabin. Too late, the symbolic link between his dreams of a cabin and his failed marriage becomes clear to him.
The Dust Ruffle
The dust ruffle that Mabel gives Leroy and Norma Jean symbolizes the couple’s attempts to keep their troubles out of sight. When Mabel brings over the dust ruffle, a present she made by hand, Leroy jokes that it will enable him and Norma Jean to hide possessions underneath the bed. Like a ruffle that conceals objects, silence conceals Leroy’s and Norma Jean’s difficulties. They both sense the serious rifts that exist between them, but instead of examining them head-on, they ignore issues such as the death of their son, their deep unfamiliarity with each other after years of Leroy’s traveling, and their mismatched ambitions. At the end of the story, Leroy looks at the sky, and its bleached shade reminds him of the dust ruffle. The comparison of the sky, a huge expanse, to the dust ruffle, a small scrap of fabric, suggests that Leroy has belatedly understood the enormous destructive power of silence.