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  • The Wounded King:Bobbie Ann Mason's “Shiloh” and Marginalized Male Subjectivity
  • Greg Bentley

Several of Bobbie Ann Mason's works have been approached from the perspective of myth-ritual criticism—especially the Grail motif—with mixed results.1 Perhaps the most central element of the Grail motif is the king's wound, which is clearly sexual in nature, and critics who approach Mason's work from this perspective have pointed out how she develops central characters, most notably Emmett in In Country and Leroy in "Shiloh," who seem to play analogous roles to that of the wounded king in Grail legend. However, if we approach these characters—and most particularly their wounds—from the perspective of psychoanalytic semiotics rather than myth-ritual criticism, we arrive at some very different observations about them, observations which produce some strikingly different conclusions about their identities and the texts they inhabit. In this essay, for example, I argue that Leroy's wound, although it incapacitates him physically, is not synonymous with sexual impotence. Instead, Leroy's wound functions as a psychic symptom, an externalization and a representation of his figurative castration within the family structure and his psychic emasculation within the symbolic order. That is, Leroy's wound signifies his lack, a lack that, in turn, generates his desire.

One of the fundamental principles of psychoanalytic semiotics is the [End Page 144] absence of sexual difference. Psychically, there is no sexual difference between men and women. Nevertheless, psychoanalytic semiotics acknowledges that

our present dominant fiction is above all else the representational system through which the subject is accommodated to the Name-of-the-Father. Its most central signfier of unity is the (paternal) family, and its primary signifier of privilege the phallus. 'Male' and 'Female' constitute our dominant fiction's most fundamental binary opposition.

(Silverman 34-35)

More specifically, the dominant fiction's representation of normative male identity "depends [not only] upon a kind of collective make-believe in the commensurability of penis and phallus, but this ideological 'reality' [also] solicits our faith above all else in the unity of the family, and the adequacy of the male subject" (Silverman 15-16). Clearly, Leroy Moffitt has been sexually and economically captated by the dominant fiction. As Mason illustrates, Leroy equates his subjectivity with his sexual prowess and his economic position. Because of his wound, though, he has been forced to give up his job as a long-haul trucker, and, thus, he loses his role in the family as the principal means of production. He is no longer the primary "breadwinner." Because his sense of identity depends so completely on his occupation, on his sense of production, the loss of the latter signifies a loss of the former. Feeling economically marginalized and emasculated, Leroy questions his sexuality. As the narrator informs us, he "is reasonably certain [Norma Jean] has been faithful to him, but he wishes she would celebrate his permanent homecoming more happily" (98). Similarly, when Norma Jean tells Leroy that his name means "the king," he again questions his sexual prowess and position, for he asks his wife: "Am I still king around here?" (111). Conscious of the sexual subtext of Leroy's utterance, Norma Jean reassures him by commenting: "'I'm not fooling around with anybody, if that's what you mean'" (111). Ironically, however, Mason prefaces Norma Jean's speech act with a physical act that calls it into question. Before verbally stroking Leroy's insecure self, "Norma Jean flexes her biceps and feels them for hardness" (111). On a surface level, Mason simply suggests that Norma Jean, who has enrolled in a body-building course (108) and who exercises constantly, is simply toning her body. In contrast, because of his wound, Leroy spends most of his time lying on the couch smoking dope and getting flabby. On a subtextual level, though, Mason clearly implies that while Norma Jean's sense of self is getting [End Page 145] firmer and stronger, Leroy's sense of self is becoming more and more flaccid. If he is not sexually impotent, he is psychically so, for he has been figuratively castrated.

Leroy's accident affects him emotionally and physically. As the narrator...


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pp. 144-161
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