Wives at the Crossroads
A comparison of "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck and "Shiloh" by Bobbie Ann Mason
What a difference thirty-four years does NOT make in the essential conflicts between marital partners, and in the fictional depiction of these conflicts. What a difference 34 years DOES make, in the resolutions of both real-life and fictional conflicts. Indeed, what a difference several decades has made in the responses of wives to the perceived inadequacies of their husbands, occupations, and interests. These observations are well-illustrated by the short stories "The Chrysanthemums", written in 1938 by John Steinbeck, and "Shiloh", written in 1982 by Bobbie Ann Mason.
Both stories depict couples in early middle-age; one pair has been wed for 16 years, and as for the other, no specific length is given for the marriage, but the spouses are clearly years past the newlywed stage. Both couples are childless; both are isolated from their peers to some extent. Both marriages contain partners who have drifted apart and / or developed consuming interests that distract them, both, from their problems, and from having to deal with their problems, until another person, or an event, serves as a catalyst that reveals "the truth". Furthermore, the "truths" thus revealed will definitely NOT be good news, as they shall have the most devastating effects on the more vulnerable of the spouses in each household.
"The Chrysanthemums" is the story of the unraveling of the hopes of Elisa Allen for what she, seemingly all of a sudden, realizes she deeply craves: the understanding and passion of her fond-but-clueless husband Henry, or, failing that, the same, with an added touch of adventure and daring, from an itinerant traveling repairman. The Allen's marriage is, for reasons undisclosed, childless; Henry has busied himself with all the details of running his Salinas Valley ranch, quite efficiently, too: "...there was little work to be done, for the hay was cut and stored, and the orchards were plowed up to receive the rain.... The cattle... were becoming shaggy and rough-coated." (Steinbeck, p. 246.) On the symbolically fog-shrouded winter afternoon that the story takes place, he has also scored a business coup, having sold 30 steers to a meat company, for the best deal he could snag in those latter Depression days: "Got nearly my own price, too." (Steinbeck, p.247)
Elisa, meanwhile, doesn't seem to be involved with the workings of the ranch, unlike many other wives in her situation. Her domain is the "neat, white.... hard-swept house" with its "hard-polished windows" (Steinbeck, p. 247), and her specially-fenced-in flower garden. Tall geraniums surround the house, as if she has tried to conceal it somewhat, but her pride and obsession is her chrysanthemum bed. This, then, represents her side of repressing any distressing thoughts about her less-than-romantic relationship with her worthy husband, and taking the place of the children she doesn't have.
The largeness and lushness of the blooms, hard-won through ceaseless pruning, weeding, pest-removal, feeding, and watering, are at once symbols of her sexual and romantic desires, and proof that she can bring forth and maintain some kind of sturdy life. For these reasons she is pleased when her husband calls her strong and compliments her crop, but he also reproves her impracticality: "I wish you'd work out in the orchard and and raise some apples that big." (Steinbeck, p. 247) Yet, even though Elisa makes a token offer of help, Henry passes it by, placates her with his good news, an offer of dinner and a movie, and lets her go on with what she obviously does best.
Soon afterward, the unkempt tinker in his wagon, along with his rag-tag horse,
burro, and dog, happens along. The banter between himself and Elisa is much different---
she doesn't appreciate her husband's humor, but moves smoothly into the rhythm of
a running joke about the repairman's animals. Still, she tries to make him leave,
until he lights upon her plants (the flowers themselves have passed their season)
as a means of coaxing her into throwing him some repair business. He claims to know
a woman down the road with a wonderful flower garden, but longing for chrysanthemums,
and Elisa's real isolation from her neighbors is implied--- it seems impossible that
she wouldn't know of the other woman, nor noticed her grand garden.
As Elisa talks about her 'mums to this seemingly appreciative (and increasingly attractive) stranger, she goes through every stage of flirtation, removing the man's (Henry's?) hat which shielded her from the sun, shaking out her "dark, pretty hair" (Steinbeck, p. 250), through a semblence of arousal so obvious, her "breast swelled passionately" (Steinbeck, p. 250), overwhelming the heavy man's coat (also Henry's?) that has protected her dress from the dirt. She rattles on suggestively about pointed stars at night "driven into your body... Hot and sharp and--- lovely." (Steinbeck, p. 251)
Finally, she nearly grabs the hapless man's leg with her strong "planting hands" (Steinbeck, p.250), but she backs off in shame, and finds something ELSE for him to fix ! Like many repairmen who service homes containing lone housewives, no doubt he's seen this behavior before, and musters every argument to discourage Elisa, de-glamorizing his wandering life, warning her about "animals creeping under the wagon all night." (Steinbeck, p. 251) He seems relieved when she finally treats him as a "professional" and proceeds to show her what HE does best--- knocking the kinks out of old pans. Still, she presses him, at the end, to take the red pot full of chrysanthemum starts, though both seem to have forgotten about the "woman down the road a piece" (Steinbeck, p. 249) for whom they were originally intended.
Though Elisa has committed adultery in her heart, she is capable of redirecting her attention into the "proper" channels. She is still enthused enough--- "That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there" (Steinbeck, 252)--- to hope for the best with her husband. So she throws off her dirty clothes and thoroughly scrubs herself (cleansing off, not just dirt, but her conscience) and puts on her best, "pure" clothes, and waits "primly and stiffly" (Steinbeck, p. 252) for her husband to get ready, probably in much the same attitude of anticipation as on their first date.
She glimpses a thin line of frosted yellow willow trees, which contrasts sharply with the overwhelming grey fog, recalling her uplifting thoughts and hopes after the tinker first departed. When Henry comes to her, slicked up and eager, and yet, nervous, as his wife, still, he disappoints her with his well-meaning but unpoetic compliments, based on the larger, practical, and "dirtier" part of his life that Elisa doesn't share. "You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon." (Steinbeck, p. 252)
Ouch! Though Elisa scolds her husband for his grotesque, carnivorous (and bluntly true) metaphor, there's still hope left for the evening--- until she glimpses her carefully-nurtured chrysanthemum starts dumped along the side of the road. The stranger with whom she thought she had such strong sympathy and lust had let her down, rejecting her advances and now, her "children", yet keeping a trophy, the symbolically-red flower pot, a notch on his belt without ever having removed the belt, so to speak. Elisa then forces herself to "perk up", asking Henry if he would take her to see a boxing match, which he reluctantly agrees to, though he, himself, enjoys them.
However, when even Elisa realizes that her "friendly" interest in fighters having their noses broken, and their gloves "heavy and soggy with blood" (Steinbeck, p. 253), is an expression of her futile rage at the repairman, and at the reality of remaining married to a good-natured, but blundering, inarticulate, unromantic rancher, she backs down. Instead, she looks forward to having wine--- a lot of wine, one can be sure--- and--- forgetting, for the moment, her flowers which will return in the spring--- weeps "like an old woman" (Steinbeck, p. 253) at the prospect of her inexhorable, bleak, foggy future.
Staying in a nonabusive, but unfulfilling marriage was pretty much the norm back in 1938, when Steinbeck (who was midway through his first, childless, but fairly happy marriage at that point, and would eventually marry two other women) wrote "The Chrysanthemums." Bobbie Ann Mason, a native of Kentucky (married to her first and only husband, and childless), dissected a marital crisis with many of the same elements, in 1982, when laws, expectations, and influences on relationships had become far different than what the Allens, with their relarively simple lives, faced on their Salinas ranch.
This story, "Shiloh" is much less poetic in tone and style than the Steinbeck story; the symbolism, while extant, is subtle; this is an up-to-the-minute present-tense narrative covering several months that change forever the marriage of Leroy and Norma Jean Beasley Moffit. In this story, the roles of the couple are almost reversed: it is Leroy who is full of longings and obsessions he can't quite bring himself to express, while Norma Jean grows into becoming the active partner, little by little, developing interests and skills that may take her out of the rut of their lower-middle-class existence, and leaving her husband behind.
Leroy is a long-haul truck driver, now permanently sidelined by injuries received when his truck jack-knifed. He had been working that trade since the death of his and Norma Jean's infant son, who had been born soon after their hasty "shotgun" wedding. The child had died of "crib death" (Mason, p. 670) while sleeping in the back of his parents' car, as the still-teenaged couple was watching a drive-in-movie. Their inability, caused in part by immaturity, to fully share their grief, and the constant reminders by Norma Jean's mother Mabel, of their "neglect", (Mason, p. 673) led to Leroy's dedication to the job that kept him away from home so often, and to Norma Jean's immersion in her position at the Rexall drugstore cosmetic counter. Though Leroy feels "they are lucky they are still married" (Mason, p. 670) after weathering this loss (an insight he gleaned from watching Phil Donahue on TV), the couple, though still young, has, for reasons unmentioned (as in the case of the Allens), never had another child.
Like Elisa Allen, the now-incapacitated Leroy Moffitt has a hobby that has led to a cherished goal. He and Norma Jean have lived in rented houses all their married life. He took up building models and other crafts (including needlepoint, which "womanly" pursuit both his wife and mother-in-law deride) and one of the models, a cabin made from Popsicle sticks, fills him with longing to build a REAL log cabin, supposedly for his wife. However, his mother-in-law snorts at this--- "I was raised in one. It was no picnic, let me tell you." (Mason, p. 676) Leroy protests that a modern cabin would have modern conveniences, but Norma Jean sensibly tells him "They won't let you build a log cabin in any of the new subdivisions." (Mason, p. 670)
Norma Jean, like Henry Allen commenting on his wife's flower hobby, eventually becomes tired of her husband's impracticality. She also becomes tired of having him around the house all the time (and also, of being the main breadwinner, though Leroy does get disability checks), urging him to take various jobs when his leg feels better. Leroy knows he can no longer drive his rig; it goes from being "like a gigantic bird flown home to roost" (Mason, p. 669) to being "like a huge piece of furniture gathering dust" in their backyard (Mason, p. 675). He knows that he must eventually do SOMETHING, but not only is he scared of making long hauls in any truck, seems unwilling to leave his home for the most part, except for aimless drives around town.
Norma Jean has, herself, been changing. Though the couple doesn't have much of a social life, she has, necessarily, interacted more with various people as part of her job at the Rexall, while Leroy has long since given up reiterating his life story (including what happened to his son) to a series of anonymous, bored hitch-hikers. When her husband undergoes physical therapy, Norma Jean starts working out with his weights, and before long, joins a body-building class. Soon, Leroy is comparing her to Wonder Woman, and Norma Jean, like Elisa Allen, revels in her new-found physical strength. Her husband even tries coaxing her to help him build that log cabin. "It's just like lifting weights." (Mason, p. 673)
Leroy, like Henry Allen, DOES care about his wife in his own clumsy fashion, and, in the continuing effort to maintain their relationship, indulges her preferences as much as possible. Knowing that his wife played the piano in high school before their marriage, he buys her an electric organ with many-colored buttons that provide different instrumental sound effects. Norma Jean soon becomes obsessed with her new toy, which gives Leroy the opportunity to lie back, listen, and observe how pretty she still is.
Even so, their love life is less than satisfactory--- she insists on the lights being out and keeps her eyes closed. Then, in the morning, she is out of bed long before Leroy awakes, leaving a "cooling spot" in the bed. This is very disconcerting to the man who wants to start their married lives over. He wants desperately to hash out issues with his wife, but, fearful and inarticulate, lets himself get distracted and sidetracked.
Norma Jean, for the first time in her life, moves from interest to interest: cooking gourmet and exotic dishes, and, after body-building, begins to attend night school, staying up late nights to complete her assignments--- and getting good grades. Leroy feels more and more left behind, especially since his log-cabin project is going nowhere fast. Plus, troubles with mother-in-law Mabel escalate; both spouses resent her tendency to barge in without even knocking. Since coming home, Leroy has developed a habit of smoking marijuana, while his athletic wife sneaks a cigarette now and then. One day, Mabel stops over, and catches her 34-year-old daughter with her innocent, legal cigarette, and goes ballistic. This brings to a head all of Norma Jean's resentments against her omnipresent, interfering mother, and now, her omnipresent and increasingly-interfering husband, missing all the relative freedom she enjoyed while Leroy was on his trips, and when her mother came by less frequently.
Mabel has never forgiven the couple for the "disgrace" that led to their marriage, and the loss of her only grandchild. "When the baby died, she said fate was mocking her." (Mason, p. 672) She even relates a horrid news story of a child who died, when its legs were bitten of by a dog while the mother was in another room. Norma Jean's reaction proves that her own guilt over her baby's death has NEVER really been resolved. Mabel is so good at tearing down her daughter's defenses, that at one point, the formerly confident bodybuilder, like the "strong" Elisa Allen after realizing the meaning of the wasted chrysanthemum plants, has been reduced to the fetal position:
"Later, she says to Leroy, 'She just said that about the baby because she caught me smoking. She's trying to pay me back.'
" 'What are you talking about?' Leroy says, nervously shuffling [log cabin] blueprints.
" 'You know good and well', Norma Jean says. she is sitting in a kitchen chair with her feet up, and her arms wrapped around her knees. She looks small and helpless. She says, 'The very idea, bringing up a subject like that ! Saying it was neglect."
" 'She didn't mean that,' Leroy says.
" 'She might not have thought she meant it. She always says things like that. You don't know how she goes on.' "(Mason, p. 675)
Now that her daughter has suddenly become so different, Mabel even accepts confidences
from her bewildered son-in-law. "I don't know what's got into that girl.
She used to go to bed with the chickens. Now you say she's up all hours. Plus her
a-smoking. I like to died." (Mason, p. 676) Her solution to the couple's
marital woes, indeed, her own obsession, is for them to take a trip to the Civil
War battlefield at Shiloh, as she did when on her honeymoon with her late husband---
"the only real trip she ever took." (Mason, p. 673) Having been disappointed
in her daughter's marriage thus far, still, Mabel has some investment in its continuance---
if it broke up after all this time, it would be yet another "disgrace."
Leroy, at the end of his rope, even though he knows "Norma Jean is miles away" (Mason, p. 676) and that he will probably lose her, lets himself be convinced that a trip to the site of her parents' "happiest days" will stop his wife's brain from getting "all balled up over them books." (Mason, p. 676) The wife in question, however, is less than enthusiastic, especially when her domineering mother treats the proposed outing as a second honeymoon for Leroy and Norma Jean. "Who's going on a honeymoon, for Christ's sake?" (Mason, p. 677) Norma Jean irritably retorts, as she noisily puts away groceries, slamming the cabinet doors.
Norma Jean is less coy in her thoughts about adultery than Elisa Allen. When Leroy asks her in as direct a manner as possible for him, if she's cheating on him---after being told his name means "the king", he asks if he's still "the king around here" (Mason, p. 677) --- she claims not to be. Yet, when he presses her, she admits that she doesn't know if she would confess if she WAS.
Since most of the story, while related by an ominscient narrator, is mostly told from Leroy's point of view and relates his innermost thoughts, it appears that, in 15 years of long absences from home, he has NOT taken advantage of his favorable situation to dally with truck-stop trollops, nor did he worry much about his wife's fidelity. Yet, since Leroy has been home, he has become disturbed by all the classes (with their possibilities for meeting different men) that his wife's been taking (not so much, her customers at Rexall, most of whom were women.) Not an unreasonable fear, perhaps, but considering the scrutiny Norma Jean has been under since his convalescence, Mabel's constant impromptu visits, and all her homework, one wonders where she would find the TIME.
In any case, to placate her nearest and "dearest", Norma Jean and Leroy finally make a trip to Shiloh, the final battleground of their marriage. Historically, at Shiloh, the Confederate forces very nearly defeated the Federal forces, until the latter made a last-minute rally. There's a log cabin there, which suffered heavy bullet damage during the battle. Leroy uneasily insists to his wife that the log cabin of his--- meaning THEIR--- dreams would not be anything like THAT damaged structure; it would be brand-new, as he hoped their marriage would once again be.
However, while the couple finds the park very pleasant, Leroy's disappointed; somehow, he expected a former battle field to resemble--- "a golf course." (Mason, p. 677) Even so, while they picnic near a cemetery, the couple seems almost comfortable, though the conversation is more stilted than usual--- not that they ever communicated very profoundly even in their most eventful or intimate moments. At that point, Norma Jean abruptly announces that she wants to leave Leroy. He protests that he has promised to stay home, and that they could start again, but it's soon clear that his wife has already foreseen the consequences:
"In some ways, a woman prefers a man who wanders.... We have started all over again.... And this is how it turned out....Everything was fine till Mama caught me smoking. That set something off.... She won't leave me alone--- you won't leave me alone. I feel eighteen again. I can't face that again.... No, it wasn't fine...." (Mason, pp. 678-679)
Leroy, inadequately educated, unsophisticated; his opinions, untested on close companions and sometimes formed by television; wanting to be close to his spouse (whom he'd wed under inauspicious circumstances to begin with), but on his own terms; never having resolved his true feelings about their dead son and the long-term effect on the union; suddenly realizes that "the real inner workings of a marriage.... have escaped him." (Mason, p. 679)
Even so, Leroy believes, naively, that he can still save the day if he scraps the log cabin plans, and gets his act back together quickly. Hampered by his bad leg, however, he can't catch up to Norma Jean, who has fled the picnic table and is now flexing her muscles on a hill overlooking the river, waving her arms in the odd, pale light of the sky--- the image she projects is that of a bird--- a phoenix?--- about to fly away. Whether to a new life, or into the river, in despair slightly reminiscent of the doomed film actress (as she herself tells Leroy, "Norma Jean" having been, of course, the birth name of Marilyn Monroe) for whom she was named, is left open.
In these two synopses, it can be seen that Elisa Allen and Norma Jean Moffitt are fighting against the dead-end dullness of their lives. Elisa's way is the more passive--- she avoids the dirty part of her husband's life, while isolated in the neat confines of her chrysanthemum garden. There, she is in total control, perhaps even more so than in her obsessively-neat house. People who wish to speak to her while she's working there have to stand outside the fence. Real animals and their manure cannot get in to sully the nursery; one can picture Elisa purchasing only the best--- and least obnoxious--fertilizers available in 1938.
So, while this IS a substitute for children, even though she must kneel in the dirt in an old coat, it is clean dirt--- she doesn't have to deal with dirty diapers or the like, nor noise and impertinent interruptions, either. Though her flowers would, no doubt, win prizes at some local fair, she doesn't compete; she doesn't even venture down the road to confirm if there IS a neighbor with a comparable garden, and with whom she might share her plants, information, and, possibly, friendship.
Norma Jean, on the other hand, has lived a life in isolation in spite of working out in the world she knows best. Her only constant female companion is her mother, and she chafes under the older woman's domination. To a lesser extent, she has chafed at Leroy's futile efforts at husbandly domination, but after their baby's death, he wasn't home often enough to annoy her. She probably welcomed his authority, and his affections, all the more warmly, in the knowledge that he would be gone again in a week or two. In fact, she had almost spoiled him, letting him stay in bed, and cooking him "fried chicken, picnic ham, chocolate pie--- all his favorites." (Mason, p.673) She was also a more dedicated housekeeper--- now she lets laundry pile up, and leaves her cereal bowl on the table, no doubt hoping her "helpless" husband will take the hint.
It is difficult to quantify her mental processes, since she is only really seen through the eyes of her husband, and, to a lesser extent, through her mother's. Everything we learn about both these women, in fact, is only revealed through their spoken words and outward actions. Both wives speak haltingly, almost in monosyllables, to their husbands--- in fact, Elisa demonstrates a worse habit of this, than Norma Jean, giving the impression that either she, or Henry, is hard of hearing (perhaps this reflects a situation in Steinbeck's own childhood home; his father was Prussian, and his mother a former schoolteacher of Irish descent.) Norma Jean, at least, communicates at Leroy's level, until she gets more book-learning under her belt.
Yet, when talking to the seemingly-sympathetic stranger at her gate, Elisa almost bursts into poetry--- metaphors about "planting hands" that can do no wrong, and seductive shooting stars, pour from her lips. (Yet, they never exchange NAMES!) Norma Jean's eloquence is more subtle--- it comes through in her organ music and her exotic meals, and in her symbolic reading to Leroy, where she tells him the meaning of his name, ("the king"***) then tells the meaning of her own--- "Norma", from the Normans, who invaded England (and eventually took it over.) She has, in her evolution, become a stranger, an invader, in the formerly conventional home. And like Norma Jean Baker, who became Marilyn Monroe, she is alternately pleased, and yet uneasy, about her newly-discovered talents and allure.
Elisa boasts of her strength, both physical and mental, with little prompting, to both her husband and the tinker, while Norma Jean, more modestly, comments on how her muscles are getting hard, and how she's able to stand for hours at her counter in the drugstore--- thanks to exercizing with weights on her ankles. Yet, when hit in their weak spots--- Elisa, cruelly reminded of the futility of her romantic illusions, and Norma Jean, reminded in a cruel manner of her youthful irresponsibility--- both are shattered; both demonstrate physical, as well as mental / emotional, collapse. However, "Shiloh" moves past the moment of Norma Jean's nadir, and shows how she might, indeed rally after almost losing herself (like the Northern forces at Shiloh), while we are left to wonder what Elisa's ultimate fate was.
Divorce certainly WAS possible for Elisa, but, really, on what grounds? Henry was kind and indulgent, and, lately, had (like Leroy) expressed a desire to spend more time with his wife; his only real fault seems to have been a lack of imagination. Leaving him would have meant leaving her home, and her adored chrysathemum garden. She could hardly expect Henry to leave the property to HER, who was not interested in running the ranch, and it would have been VERY uncomfortable to have him come up every day to do so. If he had owned the ranch before the marriage, Henry could have made Elisa leave, as they had no children who would need a home.
If he bought the ranch during their marriage, California community property laws WERE in effect then, and, very probably, Henry would have had to sell the ranch and divide the proceeds, which would have injured both parties. He had, after all, put a lot more into the ranch than his wife. As "Kings of the House" go, Henry (which name, by the way, ALSO means "king"or "ruler" of an estate) was a decent and just sovereign, who obviously cherished all aspects of his life on the ranch, unlike the inadequate Leroy, seemingly paralyzed when considering his future, and whose hobbies never quite developed into avocations that could turn into serious avenues of life improvement.
Norma Jean had nothing of that nature to lose if she left Leroy (and, by extension,
her mother.) She had lived in rented homes since her marriage--- almost half her
life. She doesn't seem attached to this last house, which, moreover, is encumbered
by the truck in the backyard that Leroy has, so far, not even tried to sell. She
doesn't even notice when her own plants need care, which is a VERY major difference
from Elisa! She could take her weights, organ, and schoolbooks, and go practically
anywhere. She is still attractive, though in a different way than Elisa-- muscles
pumped up, her skin perfect (perhaps, from all the skin creams she has demonstrated
for customers), and with "frosted curls [that] resemble pencil shavings."
The only thing she doesn't have, any more, that she might no longer even WANT, at least with Leroy, is another child. This is yet another (unspoken) reason to get away from her newly-domesticated spouse, who MIGHT someday insist on another try at parenthood, in spite of behaving rather childishly himself. However, Leroy's less-than-inspiring encounters with the teenaged son of a more fortunate schoolmate--- a wealthy doctor's son, who happens to be selling him the pot he now smokes--- reminds HIM what might have become of THEIR son, who would have been around the same age.
It seems, then, that Norma Jean was better poised, and willing, to change her life than Elisa. A common theme in Bobbie Ann Mason's work is the story of some low- or lower-middle-class Kentucky woman, sometimes abused, sometimes just feeling a lack of purpose, who breaks out of her rut, and pursues an education or other lofty goal, often to the consternation of the spouse and / or family left behind. This conflict partly reflects her own background, having left her parents' farm for college and academic life (including a stint at U-Conn.) Her message is that this is the best available way that both women and men can progress, and break the bonds of boredom, poverty and hopelessness--- though often at a cost of destroying traditions and relationships already rendered fragile by the consumer and entertainment culture.
John Steinbeck also had an agrarian-community background, though he DID attend college, and led more of an adventurous, unsettled life, while retaining the writer's sensitivity of his childhood. And, through the course of which, he literally went from rags to riches, not to mention three wives, and occupied every color of political opinion on the spectrum before he died at age 66. It could be said that the main characters in "The Chrysanthemums"--- poetic Elisa, who loved the security of her private botanical world, and the drifting, but practical, jack-of-all-trades, represent the duality of Steinbeck's own nature and experience, as well as a dramatic presentation of male-female relations. Yet, he would go on to create female characters who found their strength, either out of necessity and survival (Mrs. Joad in Grapes of Wrath) or with unsavory motivations and outcomes (Catherine in East of Eden.)
No such immense moral or survival issues plague either Elisa or Norma Jean; just day-to-day aggravations, and the necessity to make some heady, but commonplace, decisions. Both women are bright (Norma Jean, brighter than she has been led to believe); both are talented (Norma Jean turning out to be multi-talented.) Both suffer from lack of confidence; though Elisa boasts of her probable competence in the gardening and repair arenas, when countered by her husband, and confronted with the realities of a peripatetic lifestyle by the repairman, she backs away from the concept of leaving her comfortable present; Norma Jean has been made to feel incompetent from the get-go, also a great excuse to settle for less, until the revelation of her husband's greater incompetence gives her impetus to build her physical, creative, and intellectual confidence.
Both are married to men who have proved unsatisfactory, but parting with such basically decent types will likely lead to devastation all around. Yet both women also fear the consequences of staying, even though society (in Norma Jean's case, represented by her mother) and their own souls, would deem their reasons for any break-ups trivial, frivolous, and selfish. One will apparently be staying on, bitterly resigning herself (almost TOO bitterly. considering the cause), and the other, after saying the actual words, suddenly realizes the import of her decision. The conclusion of BOTH stories is, thus, ambiguous, and the ultimate fate of BOTH women is left to the imagination of the readers; however, it is the talent of both writers that makes we the readers care enough to wonder about the outcomes.
Postcripts (added AFTER I submitted this paper !!!)
(***It has occurred to me, that Leroy's name, like Norma Jean's, might also be a pop-culture reference, to "The King," Elvis Presley, whose young wife left him for another man and a shot at a career of her own, and whose final years of drug abuse and weight problems tarnished his formerly bright stardom. And who died, 5 years before this story was written, in a most humiliating place---his bathroom, near his porcelain "throne". It is also, perhaps, fitting to note in this context, that Bobbie Ann Mason, an admitted Elvis fan, has owned and lived in one of his lesser former residences.)
(It is interesting to conjecture an alternate universe where the two women could exchange lives: The newly-active and confident Norma Jean with always-active and dedicated rancher Henry, perhaps doing his accounts and helping expand his business--- beef for body-builders, pruning his orchard, and cosmetic creams made of milk and fruit. Meanwhile single-minded Elisa cultivates her chrysanthemums and fine marijuana around the desolate hulk of the dreamy Leroy's truck, while Leroy himself discovers that he can make a living peddling his needlepointed pillows and Popsicle statuary at craft shows.)